NY Dispatch Day 183: It was once said that the sun never set on the British Empire. England colonized the world for centuries, imposing their culture, legal structure, and language on others. They once held India, Australia, Canada, and parts of Africa, the Caribbean and the Falkland Islands, among others. At one point their Empire spanned 24% of the planet’s habitable land mass, and they extracted wealth from other countries, enslaved the native populations, and filled their museums with the spoils of the world like pirates.
The Empire started to crumble when Mahatma Gandhi led the effort for an independent India. Over time their land holdings have been reduced, though the Crown still holds a significant amount of their forcefully claimed property. After centuries of expansion, however, they have decided to begin withdrawing.
In 2016, by a razor-thin margin, the UK voted on a referendum to leave the European Union. They had always retained their own currency, so one could say they were never fully committed, like a boyfriend who keeps a packed suitcase even after moving in with you. It took three sequential prime ministers to negotiate the terms of their departure, always demanding to keep the best parts of being in the EU without actually having to be in the EU. For instance, allowing their citizens to remain where they were in Europe; the EU got to keep theirs in the UK so it was mutually beneficial.
To the surprise and dismay of many, Boris Johnson was able to pull the deal out of his top hat. One of the major stumbling blocks that had stymied his predecessor, Theresa May, was Northern Ireland. The island of Ireland, around the size of the state of Indiana, is predominately the Republic of Ireland, which will remain with the EU, but Northern Ireland is in the UK. In order to legally achieve an exit they agreed to a border to separate the two nations. This raised concerns that a hard border would not only restrict trade between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, but could reignite The Troubles, a bloody decades long history of civil strife between the regions.
Johnson tried to ignore the agreement he had negotiated with the EU and break the international law, which earned him global condemnation, but it might be yet another stalling tactic. Facing an almost certain hard Brexit at the end of the year, which is the worst scenario since it means an unclear trading relationship with the EU, Johnson might be trying to force the EU back to the negotiating table. He might also be using this as an excuse to back out of Brexit. Considering that it has already cost the UK financially, remaining might be a good thing. With nothing certain except a more challenging business environment, many international businesses have already pulled up stakes and moved to the mainland, including the very lucrative financial sector. With pandemic restrictions, these losses may be amplified.
The UK could move forward with Brexit and solve their problem quite easily. They could allow for the reunification of Ireland and remove the need for a hard border. This might set the island nation on a path toward healing the wounds of their past instead of roiling old tensions. The UK might as well let Scotland go free too, rather than face the indignity of an anticipated vote to leave the UK. You would think that with the imminent threat of climate change that will gravely impact the entire region they might be spending more time and energy trying to work together toward a solution rather than splintering themselves off, but they have decided instead toembrace the city-states of Europe’s ancient past and go it alone.
Today I am grateful for Ireland. A few years ago I was able to obtain dual citizenship through my grandmother, who was born in Leitrim County and emigrated to the US when she was 12 years old. I was lucky enough to travel with her as a child and not only see her birthplace and meet the Irish side of the family, but also see the beauty of her homeland. I returned as an adult to the west coast, learning to drive on the opposite side of the car and the opposite side of the road (it makes sense after a fashion). The Cliffs of Moher might be one of the most spectacular places in the world and travelling across Ireland you can understand how how the magical landscape has inspired so many tales of the wee people, fairies, and leprechauns. Discovering a forgotten castle can make you believe in magic. Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.