Last weekend, the Sunday Times published an opinion poll that is sending ripples through the UK establishment. According to the poll, 47 per cent of voters in Northern Ireland support staying in the United Kingdom.
In anyone’s language, that’s just lukewarm support for the constitutional status quo that existed for the past 100 years since the island of Ireland was partitioned and Britain set up its rump state across the Irish Sea.
Another fascinating element of the poll was that a majority of voters — 51 per cent — in the British-administered province favoured a border poll on reunification with the Republic of Ireland being held in the next five years, and 44 were against the idea.
Put together, the two elements show that the government in London and Prime Minister Boris Johnson — or whoever might succeed him — faces an uphill task in keeping Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.
And come May 6, when the Scottish Nationalist Party is very likely to command a significant majority in the new regional parliament in Edinburgh, there will be even greater pressure on Johnson to maintain the ties.
Political and economic freedom
Should those ties simply sag like knicker elastic stretched too far for too long, a key element of the pressure will be Brexit. And a month into the great project of British political and economic freedom — actually, leaving the European Union was an ultra-English idea all along — any euphoria has been thoroughly buried under red tape, rotten fish and empty shelves.
In Belfast, members of the Loyalist community — who firmly believe that Northern Ireland is an intrinsic part of the kingdom across the Irish Sea and beyond the customs border imposed by Johnson as part of Brexit — have started to question why their political leadership backed Brexit in the first place.
And that introspection, in part brought about by supermarkets not being able to obtain consistent supplies of fresh produce and products imported from across the Irish Sea, is now being reflected in support for a border poll and less-than-enthusiastic backing for remaining in the UK.
Maybe things would be different if the whole trade deal wasn’t so rushed. It was, after all, a little more than a month ago, on Christmas Eve, that the UK and the EU finally agreed on the terms of the future relationship, with barely a week left before the year-long transition period was due to end.
That’s one reason, Johnson and his ministers say, why there are bound to be teething problems while everyone gets up to speed with the mechanisms of trade in — cue the trumpets — this grand new era for Britain’s exporters.
Whereas before, back in the days when all 560 million people across the EU could mingle and move freely in a market that is the third-largest in the world, an exporter of food products in Buckinghamshire could put treacle on a truck and trundle it to Trieste with just one piece of paper, now it takes 45 separate sheets, two days of processing — and that’s if there’s a haulage company willing to do the run in the first instance.
Teething problems? Just don’t tell that to Scottish fishermen who used to be able to ship their freshly landed lobsters one day and have them rolled out on ice on fishmonger stalls in Madrid, Berlin and Paris the following morning. It’s taking at least five days for the consignments to cross from Britain to Europe now.
The initial loads were delayed to the point where the crustaceans were crusty and the scallops so rank they could gallop away on their own. It wasn’t just the fish that was revolting, so were the fishermen.
Barely 10 days into Brexit and they had parked their trucks on Whitehall in London at the entrance to Downing Street as a reminder to Johnson that their industry was being smothered in red tape and Seafood Scotland complained that prices had been halved for their product because exporters couldn’t get it to market.
Things have gotten so bad that over the past couple of weeks, some Scottish trawlers are steaming for an extra day across the winter waves in the North Sea to land their catch in Denmark, avoiding the red tape altogether.
Easing the process
The optics have not been good, so much so that the government has now offered £23 million (Dh115 million) in temporary aid to ease the process. Maybe the long-term solution might lie in an independent Scotland that’s a member of the European Union, those Scottish fishermen note.
For sure, the pandemic is playing a part in the delays of getting products to market. One-third of manufacturers have reported a decline in exports because of the pandemic, some 60 per cent of others blamed Brexit.
Across Britain, consumers haven’t seen empty shelves yet. That’s because January is normally a quiet month and traders had doubled up on supplies in the run-up to the January 1 Brexit deadline anyway to avoid disruption. That’s all likely to change once lockdowns are lifted, people are out and about and buying more, and those pre-Brexit stockpiles have diminished.
It’s only a matter of time before complaints start reaching the in-boxes of Conservative MPs. And for opinion polls numbers to start showing significant shifts — just as they have done already in Northern Ireland.
Right now Johnson is focused on fighting Covid-19 and getting as many vaccines into as many arms as quickly as possible. Once the pandemic is over it’s a different story. The full cost of Brexit will have come home to roost.