The concept of collateral damage was a famous euphemism dating from the Vietnam War. It meant serious harm done to innocent bystanders as a result of military action. It re-emerged as a euphemism in the various wars involving Iraq and Afghanistan in the last 30 years.
Whether collateral damage is deliberate or unintentional is irrelevant. Once the button is pushed to unleash the missile many uninvolved people get badly hurt.
It is surely a metaphor that can be fairly applied to Ireland which is set to be the biggest collateral victim of the way the government in London is handling Brexit.
The total electorate in the UK at moment of Brexit was 44.5 million. 1.9 million 18-24 year old were kept off the electoral register by new rules introduced by David Cameron to make it harder for younger citizens to vote.
It was not quite classic Gerry-mandering but the intent was clear – to lessen the number of young voters who were assumed not to vote Tory.
A further up to 2 million Brits living in Europe were unable to vote. If you are French or American your vote is a right that you carry to the grave.
Under British democracy it can be taken away by Government diktat.
Be that as it may, there were some 17 million people who did believe the campaign of lies and disinformation and perhaps saw some Russian pro-Brexit social media messages and they won the day.
Nonetheless that still leaves 27 million British citizens who did not vote for Brexit.
Mrs May however has decided to make herself the champion of the 37 per cent who voted Brexit and has ignored the 43 per cent who did not.
As a result, Britain is edging down a road which seems to be the Brexit equivalent of Beachy Head.
It is assumed she will swerve or pause and mark time before the final last step over the cliff is taken.
But whatever happens it is hard to see Ireland escaping serious collateral damage.
Brexit has not happened yet. A vote did. But like a declaration of war, there is no damage until the armies start to march. So far, there are talks taking place. They are often described as negotiations.
This is a misnomer.
As Pascal Lamy pointed out in a debate with me on French radio, there are no negotiations.
The EU is what the Germans call ein Rechtsgemeinde – a community of laws.
Each and every detail of the Single Market, freedom of movement, the Customs Union, the European Air Safety Agreement, Euratom and around 750 major agreements that govern how we can all live and work, fall ill, retire and die, buy and sell, study and research, get married to a foreign citizen and have children that can live freely as EU citizens in the lands of both their parents, know that medicines, foods, the air we breathe, the seas and lakes we swim in are clean and safe as well as doing a 1001 things across frontiers that for our parents and grandparents generation would have been unthinkable – all these are enshrined in law.
You cannot negotiate law. No-one can go to the United States or Australia whether as an individual or as a business and say “ OK, I will obey that, that and that law but not this one or this one and I will follow half the provisions in that law as they suit me but if you don’t mind I find the others laws you live under not for me so I won’t obey them.”
That kind of negotiation where the two sides agree to split a difference, or find a 50-50 or maybe 60-40 deal leaving both parties feeling they have obtained something and can move on does not exist when it comes to law.
The Brits have been the hardest over the years in laying the EU law especially on the single market, smashing down national customs and arrangements that were deemed protectionist, and insisting that EU law which open up, for example. air travel to Ryanair and Easyjet had to be observed to the letter.
Now London and the curiously incurious media covering the Brexit discussions is hoping that a smile or two from David Davis over a bottle or two of red wine, a few classical allusions (or illusions) from Boris Johnson and a sphinx like approach from the Prime Minister will allow Britain to pick ‘n’ mix the EU laws it will live under and those it doesn’t want.
In this process Ireland is close to helpless.
It was in 1844 in the House of Commons that Benjamin Disraeli told MPs of a European nations where
“A dense population, in extreme distress, inhabit an island where there is an Established Church, which is not their Church, and a territorial aristocracy the richest of whom live in foreign capitals. Thus you have a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien Church; and in addition the weakest executive in the world. That is the Irish Question.”
Of course for many the Irish question goes back to Cromwell, the Battle of the Boyne or indeed back to 1169 as one of my twitter followers kindly reminded me.
It was partly solved in 1920-22 but flared up again in 1968 and in a sense it took until 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement for hopes to arise that the Irish question might finally be answered even if the peace in the six counties is bought with a religious, communal and identity divide that shames the elected DUP and Sinn Fein politicians in charge.
But it was peace and Ireland as a whole was able to enjoy the best decades arguably in the island’s history. Now all this is under threat from Brexit.
The most obvious threat is the end of the common customs union between the UK and its EU partners, including Ireland.There is nowhere in the world where two different customs systems exist side by side without some physical control on goods passing between them.
Turkey is in the EU Customs Union except for agricultural goods and variations on that arrangement have been proposed by some in London like the Institute of Directors last week. But lorries crossing from Turkey into the EU can wait up to 30 hours to have the customs carnets checked. If freedom of movement is thrown out of the window then visas may be needed at each border crossing for a non EU lorry driver.
In the peaceful Nordic world there are customs checks on lorries and vans crossing from Sweden in the EU Customs Union and Norway outside it.
Before I became an MP in 1994 I worked in Geneva and lived 100 metres from the French-Swiss borders. It was light touch, and I my car I was waved through as often as not but the controls are there.
So if the UK’s Irish territory is outside the EU Customs Union then controls there will be, enforced by agents of the state in uniform at a frontier crossing post.
There is no magical technological solution whether by drones, or pre-clearance, or checks carried out away from border crossings.
It will be nightmare for Irish lorries crossing through England for ferry ports on the east coat linked to Europe.
The Dutch Parliament has just produced a report saying that an extra 750 customs officers will be needed to check goods coming from the UK. That is for relatively small Netherlands.
Michel Barnier told me last year that he had told the French government they had to set up centres de dedouanement – custom controls hangars – on all the French Atlantic coastal ports and harbours which can receive a vessel of any size from the British Isles.
So London will have to get taxpayers to hire giant new bureacracy to deal with Customs checks. The UK National Audit Office reckon that custom control checks just on non-EU goods will go from 55 million a year to 255 million. Thousands of new staff will have to be hired and trained.
It may be that Mrs May will give up her commitment to leaving the EU Customs Union but so far at every moment when there has been a surge of business opinion in favour of staying in the Customs Union she has put out a statement saying No, Brexit means leaving the Customs Union and the Single Market.
Samuel Beckett did not write a play called “Waiting for Jeremy” but the Labour leader also has repeatedly insisted that his interpretation of the 23 June 2016 vote is not simply leaving the political EU, resiling from the Treaty, not sending the PM or ministers to EU Council, not election MEPs, not nominating a Commissioner but the fully monty of leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union.
People are waiting for him to change his mind and perhaps after the important 3rd May municipal elections in which Labour hopes to do well he may move.
But otherwise Labour is content to see Mrs May swinging on her hook and watch the internal turmoil of the Conservative Party.
One might have thought that Corbyn with his long and well known sympathies for Irish nationalism would have been willing to lend a hand by backing staying in the Customs Union as many Labour MPs want.
After all whatever your views on Iraq, everyone praises the 1998 Good Friday Agreement as one of the best achievement of the new Labour government.
But Corbyn like May is not willing to face down those who will say that staying in the Customs Union means repudiating the Brexit plebiscite vote.
The words Customs Union and Single Market were not on the ballot paper and it doubtful if a single British MP or political journalist in 2016 knew what a or the Customs Union was.
We have had everyone from the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland to the former head of M16 saying that leaving the Customs Union with the return of border controls poses a threat.
On Saturday Mrs May made a big speech in Munich on the UK and EU security after Brexit.
It was more about policing than security in the broader sense but it was revealing that she did not mention Ireland – except in a two word reference to the European Arrest Warrant.
At least those two words were better than her Foreign Secretary who made what was meant to be a defining speech on Brexit on 14th February and the word “Ireland” does not ever appear.
Britain’s neighbour, its most important partner, with family links between millions, does not exist for the British prime minister and British foreign secretary despite Ireland being the biggest victim of the kind of hard Brexit Mr Johnson espouses.
Yet 3,600 people were killed and thousands injured during the Troubles and 400,000 British soldiers were deployed to this tiny corner of Europe.
Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it and the collective political amnesia in the Government, Parliament and the media about how the Irish Question can turn violent is extraordinary.
The BBC main radio news political journalist, Nick Robinson, interviewed the Archbishop of Armagh late last year. He asked Archbishop Martin about visiting a well-known Irish town between Dublin and Dundalk, which Nick Robinson called “DROG HEEDA”! I assume Saint Oliver Plunkett’s head turned in its casket on the altar in St Peter’s in Drogheda on hearing the sheer ignorance of the BBC man about how to pronounce the name of a lovely Irish town but the Brexit impact on Ireland is informed by degrees of journalistic and political ignorance in London not seen in years.
Perhaps the very success of the Good Friday Agreement means that English politicians and the London media have not had to think hard about the Irish question for 20 years.
The monopolisation of elections in the 6 counties by the DUP and Sinn Fein means compared to the years of a John Hume or Gerry Fitt or even a David Trimble there is very little intercourse between English MPs and their colleagues elected in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein of course refuse to play a role which means that in the entire debate on Brexit the views of the Northern Irish nationalist community have never been heard in the Commons or on the airwaves.
Lord Trimble takes the Tory whip in the Lords and appears to have thrown in his lot with the Brexit Tories as when he appears on the BBC on Brexit he sounds indistinguishable from the DUP.
One can see the Orange Card emerging from the bottom of dusty drawer to be played again as the hard-line Tory MPs whip up as much anti-Dublin feeling as they can rather than give an inch on the utility of staying in the Custom Union.
They dismiss the threat to the Good Friday Agreement as being of little consequence compared to the ideological purity of a full amputational Brexit.
For Owen Patterson, the former Northern Ireland Secretary, and a fanatical anti-European, the threat to the Good Friday Agreement is of little consequence. In a tweet last week he said: “The collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland shows the Good Friday Agreement has outlived its use.”
I am not sure even President Trump’s tweets can reach that level of dangerous insouciance and stupidity.
Mrs May relies on the 10 DUP MPs for her overall majority though she actually has 53 more Tory MPs than Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, a point over-looked when there is excitable chatter in London left-liberal salons about the May government being defeated and a new general election or new referendum reversing Brexit before March 2019.
The alliance between obscurantist ultra protestant loyalist politics and English Toryism is well known. As Lord Salisbury so charmingly put it: “I would no more give the vote to the Irish than to the hottentot”. That was a long time ago but it is interesting to note that one survey showed a majority of practising Anglicans – once known as the Conservative Party at prayer – voted for Brexit.
There are time as a pro-European when I wish it had not been called the Treaty of Rome as voting for Rome has always been a red rag to a certain kind of English provincial Tory.
I am sure the majority of Tory MPs are horrified at Owen Patterson’s remarks but this fusion of anti-Europe-DUP-Orange Tories is a ticking time bomb in the Brexit process that no-one knows how to defuse and neither Mrs May nor Mr Corbyn seem willing to try.
In January 2015 I published a book Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe. Over 250 pages I predicted what would happen if David Cameron was re-elected Prime Minister of Great Britain in May 2015 and proceeded with his Brexit plebiscite.
It wasn’t Nobel prize-winning political forecasting. My analysis was based on decades of knocking on doors asking people to vote for me or other candidate friends in the Labour Party.
I came into politics in Birmingham in the era of Enoch Powell. I knew the bottomless toxicity of immigration as a door-step issue. In British cities in the 1950s notices on boarding house window stated: “No Coloureds. No Irish. Dogs Welcome.”
In the 1990s as a South Yorkshire MP I encountered plenty of doorstep racism about “Pakis” and how immigrants from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh were arriving in hordes to take British jobs, council homes, use the NHS, send 5-year olds who couldn’t speak a word of English to reception classes and couldn’t pass the Norman Tebbit test of supporting England in a test match against Pakistan.
After 2000, the language turned against European workers. 1.7 per cent of the UK population is Polish compared to 4 per cent in Ireland. Germany had 1.5 million Polish “immigrants” and Spain 1.1 million Romanians.
Yet in 21st century England a combination of UKIP, anti-immigration Conservative MPs and a crucial segment of the press told voters and readers every day that the UK was being over-run by Europeans and Britain had to leave the EU to “take back control.”
So I was sure that just on the immigration question alone a Brexit plebiscite would win. No referendum this century with Europe on the ballot paper has won as the French, Irish, Swedes, Dutch and now the English have shown.
Add in anger over six years of Tory austerity and the chance to give the evangelists of supra-nationall money-power – the denizens of Davos – a good kicking and it was surprising there wasn’t a bigger Brexit majority.
Above all the English provinces could get their revenge on multicultural London and remind the Westminster-Whitehall establishment that after 25 years of looking after Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, England, especially England beyond the M25 still existed and had votes.
I assumed that given the narrowness of the majority – just 37 per cent of the total electorate voting for Brexit – some kind of British compromise would emerge. The Tory Party after all has existed for 300 year as the party of money-making. The business of the Conservatives is business.
The Tories could spend years up political cul-de-sacs such as voting reform, free trade, and above all the Irish question but they never lost sight of the bottom line.
I assumed and wrote throughout 2017 that while leaving the political EU Treaty set-up was unavoidable – no more MEPs, no Commissioner, no Prime Minister at EU Councils – the British political class would settle on an economic compromise by staying in the EU Customs Union and Single Market.
Now I am not so sure. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn repeat without end that the UK has to leave the EU Single Market and Customs Union.
Mrs May is the weakest prime minister in more than a century. Mr Corbyn is a 1970s leftist who has never liked Europe. He is enjoying the civil war inside the Tory Party and is not minded to leave his comfort zone of ambiguity on what Labour policy on Brexit is.
There is no election until 2022. The future macro-economic forecasts may be negative but right now Britain seems to have full employment even if on low wages. The shopping malls are full, Ryanair and Easyjet are stuffed with holiday-makers, and life goes on much as it did before 23 June 2016.
To be sure, Brexit hasn’t happened, only a vote has. But it is like a long drawn out phoney war with no real sense that Brexit will hit anyone yet.
Politics is thus supreme over economics. Tory politics is about the succession to Mrs May with MPs like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg ratcheting up their anti-EU rhetoric. If if comes to a contest the next Tory leader and hence prime minister will be chosen by 70,000 Conservative party members whose average age is 71. They are not open to pro-EU arguments.
There is massive collateral damage to Ireland as once again the Orange card is played in Tory politics. Mrs May needs the ten DUP votes so cannot agree to anything that can guarantee the Good Friday Agreement if it means upsetting hardline Ulster protestant anti-Dublin sensibilities.
Business is moaning and complaining but not campaigning. The thousands of Irish firms and scores of thousands of Irish citizens in leadership positions in England have not coalesced into an effective campaign to delay or suspend Breixt.
In the words of Yeats, “the best lack conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The pro-Europeans have no organisation, no leaders, no money. The anti-Europeans remain determined with the same powerful press backing and populist demagogy as throughout the years running up to the referendum.
So as political zeal trumps economic interest, the worst may yet happen and there will be a full amputational rupture between England and Europe. Ireland has solid support in Brussels and in the EU27 capitals but throughout history not many Tories have over-worried about the impact of their ideology upon Ireland.
The Europe question is set to dominate English politics for some time and there is no solution in sight. Ireland’s political leaders and Ireland’s business community should prepare for the worst. It may happen.
It is not properly understood yet in England just how big will be the impact of Brexit on Ireland. Prime Minister May is like Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1914 surrounded by Prussian generals promising the easiest of victories against the rest of Europe if only they are given orders to march into France and Belgium.
Ireland has a hidden weapon that could ans should be be deployed to try and avoid the worst kind of amputational Brexit..
It consists of the 50,000 Irish directors of British companies and the 1,200 Irish-owned businesses in Britain with a turn-over of £32 billion in 2015.
To reach a compromise of any sort English political and public opinion has to change. This is where Irish business leaders can play a role. Not in any direct challenge to Mrs May but in quietly organising seminars, meetings, visits, or public adverts that explain to England outside of London that full-on Brexit will be a totemic lose-lose disaster.
British business is still pulling the duvet over its head for fear of offending anyone in the Brexit dominated cabinet. But there are MPs who need help with quiet campaigns well away from the London spotlight to nudge political activists, left as much as right, into a deeper understanding of what a disaster Brexit will be for all residents of the British Isles. Can Irish business rise to the challenge?
Can Ireland save Britain from the folly of the most damaging decision taken in British history for at least a century.
Denis MacShane is a former Minister for Europe and is a Senior Advisor at Avisa Partners.