Ireland and the (Linguistic) Battle of Brexit.

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Ireland and the (Linguistic) Battle of Brexit.

The particular history and situation of Northern Ireland is instructive in terms of the Brexit discussion. Not because departure from the customs union would endanger peace, but because language matters. The “Remainers” are winning the linguistic battle. Time to push back.

Even a “permanent” ceasefire is a type of military operation, so its fair to assume that the Provisional IRA Army Council exists in some form or other. Never far from the head of that table has sat, for many years, a pig farmer from South Armagh. This gentleman owns a farm which by a political and geographical quirk sits astride the border between North and South. During the “troubles” he cleverly exploited this by running a smuggling operation which made him a very wealthy terrorist indeed. Were the electorate’s instruction to leave the customs union to be enacted (it won’t) and were tariffs to be consequently imposed between Ireland and the UK (moot) then he’d doubtless be back in the smuggling business. Would he be back in the terrorism business? A fair question. But just to be clear: it is to the sensitivities of gangsters like this that Remainers are arguing we should now be pandering as we shape our future relationship with the EU.

The particular case of Northern Ireland is informative given the current state of the Brexit process. Nowhere else in the UK is there as keen a realization that language serves not merely to mediate our relationship with the world but in many ways to determine it. Hence the recent outrage over the new Sinn Fein President’s reference to “Londonderry”, rather than the more doctrinally acceptable “Derry”. Mary Lou MacDonald’s Republican fellow travellers were, to put it mildly, unhappy with this breach of orthodoxy. And it would be wrong to analyse their discomfort in terms of any dispute over facts; it is more accurate to say that MacDonald’s linguistic innovation presents an existential challenge to the Republican mind.

The “post-truth” era did not begin with the political rise of Donald Trump and the suggestion that it did is itself a sort of “post-truth” claim. It is way older than that. Nietzche’s most enduring insight is that when we do away with God we do away with the primary condition of there being such a thing as Truth. Our cultural and political landscape becomes host to a system of never-ending power struggles in which different linguistic frameworks compete for supremacy: narrative becomes everything. Thus, Amber Rudd resigns and the commentariat chatter is all about whether her replacement will need to be a Remainer. Not once is the point made that there should be no Remainers. Or Leavers. That there should be only Democrats and Wreckers. Similarly, with the discussion over a post-Brexit customs partnership. What is being proposed here is not a partnership at all, as it would be inconsistent with the freedom that 17.4 million people thought they were voting for (and then thought they had achieved). We would not be partners in this situation any more than a detained person is a partner with the police officer who put her in handcuffs.

It seems to have slipped our notice that the side that lost the referendum has somehow managed to define the terms of the debate since. The result? Arguments that were rehearsed prior to the referendum, and which were settled by the result of that referendum, have been revivified and reintroduced into the political discussion subsequent to it. Issues that were decided have come back to life, by acts of linguistic subterfuge in which we all have colluded. The Nietzschean virus has infected the body politic and somehow it is not nonsense to believe that leaving the customs union was not on the ballot paper, but that leaving the EU while remaining de facto within it self-evidently was. Now I want to be fair to the likes of Anna Soubry and Nikki Morgan. I accept that they are not clever enough to have developed this strategy by themselves. But a sort of genius supervenes upon the murky machinations of the Deep State, and they have harnessed this genius with energy and fanaticism. An upper-class accent and impeccable manners -even when attached to a capacity for forensic explanation of the relevant issues- have proved no match for this. Brexit is most likely stillborn. That said, it might not be too late to push back. Attempts to relativize Truth usually founder because you cannot in the end relativize the transcendent. Truth has a habit of intruding; that is how a dispassionate look at what the likes of Soubry, Grieve and the BBC are up to can discern the absurdity and dishonesty that have transformed Project Fear into Project Wreck.

As for the claim that to leave the “customs union” would threaten peace in Northern Ireland, well, our gentleman pig farmer deals with this sort of thing every day. The Good Friday Agreement (which should really be called the Belfast Agreement) codifies a way forward for the island of Ireland that is logically distinct from the UK’s relationship to the EU. The PIRA will not return to war for the simple reason that its embrace of the Good Friday Agreement was driven not by a recognition of a political opportunity but of a military necessity. It was a busted flush. PIRA signed up to a political process because its organization had been compromised at all levels by the UK intelligence agencies. The “Stakeknife” affair confirms that for many years the IRA’s own “Internal Security Unit” (or “nutting squad” as it was charmingly known) was itself being run by informers. It is unlikely that the infiltration did not extend even further up the food chain. Dissident Republicans led by the likes of the late Ruari O’Bradaigh acknowledged the PIRA capitulation at the time and have pressed on with their own Heath Robinson campaign in the years since. Belfast today, despite their efforts, is safer than Harrow.

It is a disgrace that the Wreckers have played this card. But not a surprise. God -and Truth- forbid that they succeed.

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  • Sean Walsh
    Sean Walsh
    Sean Walsh is a former university teacher of philosophy. He has a doctorate in the philosophy of artificial intelligence and his current research interests are in the philosophy of mind, metaphysics and the philosophy of religion. He is also interested in philosophical issues around addiction. He lives in Wiltshire and works with addiction and recovery agencies, and with a homeless charity. He runs a lot.
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