Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Brexit is still happening – however low it is on the Whitehall agenda – and it deserves our utmost attention. The government, is now focused on responding to COVID-19, which continues to exacerbate havoc to people’s livelihoods. But the toil of reconciling society during this global emergency becomes increasingly problematic when you realise that No 10 – not to mention Parliament – have less than seven months to construct a new economic relationship with Europe before ‘crashing out’.
Despite persistence that talks will go ahead, Boris Johnson has been actively seeking to reside from this commitment under the Withdrawal Agreement and he avoids any mention of Brexit during press briefings. And central to this dilemma and neatly parked out of public view – as is traditionally the case with British politics – is the crisis in Northern Ireland. In addition to unanswered questions about Brexit, the region has also struggled with the global pandemic.
As of 10 May, nearly 450 people have died from the disease across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The way that this that tragedy unfolded, does bear a resemblance to the brokering Brexit over the last few years. London and Dublin have been deeply divided on public health strategies. From school closures to testing, the recently restored Stormont is starting to show cracks because of growing sectarianism between unionists and nationalists, fuelled by contradictory messaging from leaders across the Isles.
Unionists like Arlene Foster, First Minister and Democratic Unionist Party leader, have been siding with the UK Government since the lockdown begun, telling Sophie Ridge on Sky News that her party has been actively engaging with the Prime Minister and Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis. Whereas nationalists, such as Sinn Féin, have been vocally discomforted by the negligible prevention program and are, in opposition, advocating for synchronicity across the island of Ireland.
All of this has dangerous consequences politically. Brexiters proclaimed that the referendum was an opportunity for Merrion Street and Downing Street to bridge a new compact centring on growth. However the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s disregard of Northern Ireland’s wishes – as argued by The Broad’s Megan Kenyon, with the unilateral decision to draw a border down the Irish Sea – has not materialised that.
At this moment of time, the UK should be focused on eliminating the virus by cooperating with local governments – like the devolved assembly – and allies like the Republic, to cohere actors together. Britain should not even attempt to juggle this task with a feat of Brexit’s magnitude. Do not take my word for it. A YouGov poll back in March, before the lockdown has even began, showed that 55% of the population believe that an extension is necessary.
With the lack of time available, sticking to the existing schedule will lead to a deficient outcome and, more importantly, will pose a severe risk to the safety of people in Northern Ireland. And the last thing businesses need, are for their supply chains to be jeopardised without a deal.
The EU is also not in a position to bash out a paper that sets out the entirety of a UK-EU future relationship, because they, themselves, are also in the precarious situation of coordinating with member states to mitigate the spread.
Wherever you are placed on the Brexit spectrum, it is an imperative – not an enfeeblement to supporters – that the UK does what is best and requests an extension with Brussels.
The UK Government should not treat this as a novelty or a game; the electorate will forgive another extension. Brexit will have testing implications for the economy and, more importantly, for Northern Ireland’s commitment to the Union. Johnson’s government should do Northern Ireland, and the rest of the UK, the decency of requesting an extension.