In Gavin Esler’s excellent book about the constitutional upheaval in the UK (“How Britain Ends”), he mentions that, wherever he was in the world, the first thing he did was buy the local paper and turn on the local radio station, as it very quickly gave him a strong handle on local opinion and the live issues affecting the community. I took that advice when travelling to Ireland last week, and listened to the excellent analysis of the current stooshie over the Northern Ireland Protocol when crossing, and then re-crossing, the Irish border – or the British border in Ireland, depending on your perspective.
Not that I really noticed that I’d actually crossed over anything, incidentally. I’ve always been fascinated by borders. I always feel a frisson of excitement when crossing from one place to another. Often when people – notably unionists – talk about borders, as they do when talking about the Scotland / England border post-independence, their language seems to evoke a scene out of a Graham Greene Cold War novel, with an armed guard standing menacingly by a barbed wire fence. But the reality is normally much more mundane, as any number of Canadian citizens making the unremarkable daily commute to America to earn a living will happily tell you. Or just about anyone living and working in the island of Ireland, come to that.
The miracle is in the mundane. Driving from Belfast to County Carlow, as I did earlier this week, you only know you’re somewhere else if you know what to look for. The motorway signs change from green to blue. The place names are in Gaelic, as well as English. The speed limits represented in kilometres per hour, not miles. Your petrol costs Euros, not Sterling. Everyone considers this quite normal. It makes a mockery of all the noise we continue to hear about how such challenges would be difficult, even insurmountable, should Scotland seek alternative constitutional arrangements. When you see how ridiculously well these things work just a few miles from us, your instinct is to burst out laughing.
So, having taken the journalist’s advice and immersed myself in the Irish media for the duration of my journey, what’s going on?
The first thing that I noticed was the sheer quality of both the journalism and the political discourse, something best exemplified in an interview given by Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald on RTE1.
What struck was three things.
Firstly, the length and breadth of the interview. It was at least forty minutes long, way longer than anything you’d hear on a daytime programme in the UK, and it covered a number of subjects in good detail. You actually feel quite flattered that a broadcaster realises that your attention span is much longer than you’re normally given credit for.
Secondly, it was refreshing to hear a journalist, while not shy to respectfully challenge his interviewee, recognise that she was completely in control of her subject matter and therefore allow her to develop her themes in the knowledge that this was the best way for the listener to understand what actually mattered – the issues – without hectoring or interrupting or indulging in false equivalence. I thought it was just magnificent.
And, thirdly, the issues themselves were brilliantly analysed.
While that day’s budget seemed to pass without too much controversy, the same could not be said about the fallout over the speech of Lord Frost over the Irish protocol.
What strikes you is the disconnect between how much time the Westminster government thinks Ireland thinks about them, and how much Ireland actually does. Most of the time, people are too busy getting on with life – which, having not Brexited and with lots of food on the shelves and plenty of lorry drivers and access to the single market – seems pretty good. Who knew?
But, tediously, Lord Frost had spoken so the Sinn Fein leader, in the tone of Father Ted explaining to the hapless Dougal that some cows are small and others are faraway, took him to task.
He’s got some nerve, she suggested. Deliberately and provocatively, he seemed to be demanding that the EU rip up the treaty HE negotiated 20 months ago, because “the UK was under pressure” at the time and the protocol “was signed in haste”. But if there was pressure and haste, that was entirely of the UK’s making.
As to Frost’s claim that “everything is different now”, the only difference is that the election has already been won by claiming this – the deal he himself negotiated but now says is rubbish – was “fantastic”, “oven-ready”, and “got Brexit done”. Perhaps they have no interest in continuing the fraud, and maybe the very existence of a working protocol is an inconvenient reminder of the clusterbouroch of Brexit that gives lie to the notion of taking back control. In that light, Dominic Cummings’s revelation that the plan was always to agree the deal to deliver Brexit and then renege on it later has more than a ring of truth to it.
It’s important I think for Scotland to watch the current situation and reflect on the folly of asking for permission to even ask itself a question about its own constitutional future from a body which cannot be trusted and indeed exists to undermine our democracy through a roll back of our democratically agreed devolution settlement through power grabs and muscular unionism.
Ireland’s calm maturity in the face of Westminster duplicity should remind us that there’s an opportunity, if we wish to take it, to be honest and better and different.
I actually think that there’s an opportunity to change the burden of proof and say to ourselves – look, if we stick with these guys, this – the stuff we’re experiencing now – is the best we can expect. It isn’t going to get any better. And stop conflating the SNP government and it’s real and imagined failings with the argument for self-determination. It’s the worst sort of intellectual pessimism. If Nicola Sturgeon and her government were the worst administration in history I’d still vote yes. Because then I could vote in an administration that I considered to be a better one, and not be ruled by another country’s one that wasn’t just inferior to my own but which was actively undermining my own country’s democracy. And I genuinely am at a loss as to why these arguments aren’t being made by a government that was elected precisely on the mandate to not just argue for a plebiscite but to actually deliver one.
And Ireland is a reminder that believing in independence means that you don’t believe in asking permission or seeking approval.
It’s up to us. Let’s get it done.