Waiting for Brexit – a drama in which nothing happens again and again

With the the UK's departure from the European Union in a state of deadlock, politicians could learn a valuable lesson from the people of Northern Ireland

Protesters against any border between Ireland and Northern Ireland because of Brexit hold placards at the Carrickcarnan border between Newry in Norther Ireland and Dundalk in the Irish Republic on March 30, 2019.  British Prime Minister Theresa May on Saturday mulled a possible fourth attempt to get her Brexit agreement through parliament, faced with the growing risk of a chaotic no-deal exit in less than two weeks' time. Britain's exit from the European Union brings with it the fear of the possible reimposition of physical checks on the Irish border, which would be the UK's only land border with the EU, a fear especially real in a no-deal scenario. A so-called hard border could threaten the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to decades of civil strife between Protestant supporters of British rule over the province, and Irish Catholic nationalists, who believe in a united Ireland. / AFP / Paul FAITH
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With a final Brexit decision still eluding Westminster, I took a trip to Northern Ireland. The border between here and the neighbouring republic has been the main sticking point in this endless political saga.

Unionist politicians want Northern Ireland to be treated exactly the same as the rest of the United Kingdom after Brexit.

They are “unionist” because they are proudly British and strongly in favour of being part of the United Kingdom. But nobody here in Belfast wants a return to the bad old days of armed conflict between unionists and Irish nationalists over the border.

In that period, border customs posts, guarded by armed police and soldiers, were routinely blown up and shot at. If – or maybe when – Britain leaves the EU, the Irish border will immediately become the border between the EU and the UK, with potentially profound implications for trade and everyday life for people on both sides of it.

What is remarkable is that while that border exists on paper, the reality is that nowadays you hardly notice it on the two-hour drive between Belfast and Dublin.

In Beckett's play, Godot never turns up. He may not even exist. Brexit, to some of my friends in Belfast, may turn out to be a similarly pointless experience of waiting and waiting for nothing.

I lived in Belfast for a few years and it is now difficult to see how the disputed border led to 30 years of fighting, more than 3,000 deaths and untold misery.

During what are widely known as the Troubles, one of Belfast’s main thoroughfares, Great Victoria Street, was bombed so often that in the 1980s it looked like a mouth with most of its teeth knocked out.

There were more temporary “car parks” where businesses had been destroyed by IRA bombs than decent shops. Now, thanks to 20 years of peace, every time I come back to Belfast it seems a more prosperous and happier place.

The writer Samuel Beckett once taught at Campbell College in Belfast. He is best known for his masterpiece, Waiting for Godot, which has been described as a play in which "nothing happens – twice."

It came to mind when I was walking through Belfast, because you could say that we're all Waiting for Brexit – and nothing has happened three times.

Theresa May has repeatedly put her Brexit deal before the House of Commons for a so-called “meaningful vote”. Every time, the result has been overwhelmingly to reject her plans. She is now seeking a fourth attempt.

In the Beckett play, Godot never turns up. He may not even exist. Brexit, to some of my friends in Belfast, may turn out to be a similarly pointless experience of waiting and waiting for nothing.

What happens next is, once more, anyone’s guess. While both the governing Conservative party and the Labour opposition threaten each other with a new general election, the truth is that no one really wants the disruption that would cause.

Both parties are divided on Brexit, the Conservatives most acutely. Both have weak leaders with plenty of supposed “supporters” who want to get rid of them.

But I wonder whether the people of Northern Ireland, who have themselves been divided – sometimes violently – for generations, might have a lesson to teach the politicians in Westminster: that of compromise.

The Troubles ended when most people from the British unionist and Irish nationalist communities came to realise that there was no chance of either side winning. Neither could defeat the other, or get everything it wanted.

Then a peace process began, resulting in power being shared between people who, at first, loathed each other. The violence did not end completely, but it has reduced significantly.

People got down to business. They made the economy work, mostly getting along with each other. Things are not perfect. Stormont, the devolved legislature of Northern Ireland, has been suspended since January 2017, owing to policy disagreements within its leadership, but day to day life continues.

The lesson of Northern Ireland is simple to say, if difficult to put into practice. Mrs May has spent two years demanding a winner-takes-all Brexit. She constantly says that she must "deliver" what she refers to as "the will of the people".

But only 52 per cent of people voted for Brexit in 2016. The British prime minister has never reached out to the 48% who did not vote for this enormous change, many of whom are now even more convinced that it will be disastrous for the country. In fact, opinion polls suggest a majority of British people are now against any kind of Brexit.

A winner-takes-all policy means that, ultimately, everyone loses.

The week ahead may be the last chance for Westminster to reach an agreement. If the people of Northern Ireland can put aside historic enmities going back centuries for the common good, surely this is not too much to ask.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter