Brexit showdown Monday
In Hamlet, Marcellus, an officer of the palace guard, seeing the ghost of the dead king, walking over the palace walls, observes, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’.
Shakespeare would be spoiled for choice for a location for those words today – whether in Brussels, Washington, Westminster.
Or indeed, at Stormont, where the Northern Ireland Assembly has failed to agree a plan for government and has not met this year.
The crisis came after the late Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein (SF) Deputy First Minister of the NI Assembly, resigned at the start of this year in a failed bid to force Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) First Minister, Arlene Foster, to step down from her position to be questioned openly about her party’s involvement in a failed renewal heating scheme.
Last June NI voted 56% to 44% to Remain in Europe, but the failure of the DUP and Sinn Fein to strike a deal has meant that Northern Ireland is left, impotent and without a voice, while remaining the only region of the UK to have a land border with an EU state – the Republic of Ireland.
The situation is further complicated by the £1bn slush fund deal that the DUP wrested from British Prime Minister last year, the price for the party’s support for the minority Tory government at Westminster.
Last week, Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced an extra £3bn in his budget speech – for Brexit preparations alone. That is the exact same sum that he offered to the National Health Service in England for this winter period.
A few days later it was revealed that Damien Green, de facto Deputy to Theresa May, Damian Green, offered Conservative Party funding to pay for the salary of a senior DUP employee after the confidence and supply agreement had been completed in the summer.
Mr Green’s future is already in the balance pending a Cabinet Office investigation into his conduct. He is accused of having pornography on a parliamentary computer and of making inappropriate advances to a young activist, both of which he strongly denies.
The Times said that over the summer the DUP asked for a party adviser paid from government funds. This was in addition to the £1bn deal between the Tories and the DUP to prop up the minority Conservative government.
The special adviser proposal was turned down by Sue Gray, the government’s head of propriety and ethics, who works in Mr Green’s department. However, The Times suggested that Mr Green and Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, had discussed what to do about the role once Ms Gray had turned it down. It was agreed that the Tory party would pay directly for the position.
So far, Downing Street has not commented on the discussions or on whether the prime minister was aware of Mr Green’s offer, but said that the proposal had never resulted in any payments going ahead. Mr Green’s office said it did not comment on private conversations.
To quote Shakespeare again, this time in the words of a witch in Macbeth ‘By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.’
Right on cue, enter Donald Trump. Yesterday he retweeted three inflammatory videos from a British far-right group.
The first tweet from Jayda Fransen, the 31-year-old deputy leader of Britain First, claims to show a Muslim migrant attacking a man on crutches.
This was followed by two more videos of people Ms Fransen claims to be Muslim.
Britain First was founded in 2011 by former members of the far-right British National Party (BNP). They have grabbed attention on social media with controversial posts about what they deem “the Islamification of the UK”.
Fransen is already on bail facing four charges of causing religiously aggravated harassment; last weekend she was arrested in London by Police Service of Northern Ireland detectives and flown to Belfast for questioning about remarks she made at a rally in front of Belfast City Hall in the summer. She is due to appear in court in Northern Ireland in December charged with using threatening and abusive language in connection with a speech she made at an anti-terrorism demonstration in Belfast on August 6.
Trump was swift to snub international criticism. He tweeted, ‘@Theresa_May, don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom.’
Earlier this year, Trump claimed credit for – of all things – inventing #fakenews.
‘Look’, he boasted, ‘the media is fake. The media is – really, the word, I think one of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with – is fake’.
But fake news – like death and taxes – has always been with us. Those who would spin the earth on its axis for their own advantage know how swiftly a lie goes worldwide.
Last year Tory Leave campaigners travelled around in a battle bus, painted with slogans saying that a Leave vote would mean £350 million extra per week for the NHS.
Then Boris Johnson told us all that the British Government wouldn’t pay a penny in an EU ‘divorce settlement’.
Yet just over a week ago, Theresa May announced that the UK settlement would be £20 billion.
Now it is common knowledge that the British government are prepared to offer the EU £50 billion on Monday 4 December, as a starting bid, which will inevitably rise further.
This is money for nothing.
We are going to pay a bare minimum of £50 billion for a worse trading relationship with our largest economic partner than we have now.
We are going to pay for higher prices and soaring inflation.
We are going to pay for a weaker NHS and less money for public services.
Bring on former First Minister of Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) leader, Arlene Foster.
She said this week: ‘What we don’t want to see is any perception that Northern Ireland is in any way different to the rest of the United Kingdom.’
Does she mean like being the only region of the United Kingdom which doesn’t have equal marriage?
Like being the only region of the United Kingdom where abortion is illegal?
Like having the highest rate of homelessness in the United Kingdom?
Or like being the only part of the United Kingdom which has a land border with the EU?
So why was Foster so worried about any perception of difference between NI and UK?
‘That would cause us great difficulties in relation to trade, because of course the single market that really matters to us is the market of the United Kingdom.’
But the Republic of Ireland is Northern Ireland’s main export market, not the UK, is it not?
When she was pushed for an answer, Mrs Foster said ‘no, it’s not’.
Until, in the face of persistent questioning, she admitted:
‘Well of course – external trading partner.’
In Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty lays bare the reality of fake news.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’
In January, Yanis Varoufakis warned that fears that Ireland may end up as ‘collateral damage’ in negotiations between London and Brussels are ‘well-founded’.
He repeated this warning on Bloomberg this week.
‘This is not a theoretical argument.
‘Peoples’ lives, in Northern Ireland, in Ireland generally, depend on maintaining the Good Friday Agreement, the Belfast Agreement, on maintaining the absence of a border…
‘But I must remind you that it was the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, before the Referendum in June 2016, who unequivocally promised that there would be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic…
‘You cannot simultaneously propose to keep the border and do away with it.’
In other words, Theresa May must stop speaking out of both sides of her mouth.
By Monday, the deadline set by the EU for the submission of further British proposals on the Brexit divorce bill, EU citizen’s rights and, crucially, the border, it may all be over, bar the shouting.
And the crucial question may have been settled – ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’