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So You Think You Have Troubles? Northern Ireland and Brexit

A talk given to Salisbury for Europe members on 21 May 2018 by our Vice Chair, Gerry Lynch. Gerry was Executive Director of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland 2007-10 and as a student office administrator to the Alliance talks team in 1998, was the youngest person in the room when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

Smart Borders. Max fac. Automatic gates. Electronic preclearance.

The discussion on the Northern Ireland border involves more incomprehensible jargon than an American football match, much of it churned out by people who seem to know very little about how actual borders work either in Ireland or in America.

I’m going to do my best to cut through some of the hysteria and frank nonsense that is emanating issues around the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland – and I think it’s important that at the beginning, at least, we start by framing the issue in those terms.

If we talk about this issue as ‘the Irish border problem’, then we’re framing this as a purely Irish problem, and allowing Britons to psychologically distance themselves from them. But it is the decision by the people of the United Kingdom to upend what had been a settled status quo by opting to leave the European Union that seems certain to create a problem on the Irish border.

And of, course, around half the population of Northern Ireland consider themselves British and very proud to be so, as every political party on both islands has agreed is their right and an entirely honourable position.

I say I would try to cut through the hysteria and nonsense around this issue because giving you a clear picture on the likely course of events would require some clarity on behalf of the UK government. As on so much else, this is not forthcoming, because the government itself seems to be bitterly divided on the way forward.

There are, however, three principles which the government says are inviolable in any post-Brexit arrangements between the UK and the EU:

No hard border in Ireland.
No customs controls between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The UK will leave both the Single Market and the Customs Union.

The problem is that it is simply not possible to deliver all three of these objectives. It is possible to deliver any two of them together. But not all three. And I genuinely don’t know which of the three the government will decide to let slip once a hard choice needs to be made, and that is a decision that will have to be made very soon.

We’ll explore some of the ideas being presented by Brexiteers as solutions to the border problem in due course. But before that, let’s explore some basic facts about Northern Ireland.

A Brief Introduction to Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland isn’t a very big place; its six counties combined are about five times the size of the county of Wiltshire, or around two-thirds the size of the South West of England. Its population, at just under 1.9 million, is virtually identical to the county of Hampshire.

Yet this little region, politically as much part of the United Kingdom as Salisbury, was host to the bloodiest conflict fought in Western Europe since the end of the Second World War. Between the late 1960s and mid-1990s, over three and half thousand people lost their lives in what was universally known simply as ‘The Troubles’.

At its root was the reality that Northern Ireland is what political scientists call a ‘deeply divided society’. A majority of Northern Ireland’s population wishes to remain part of the United Kingdom, and as I noted earlier the vast majority of those consider themselves as British as people in Salisbury might; a minority, a large minority, wish Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and rejoin the rest of the island from which it was partitioned in 1921.

Poetry often communicates ideas better than prose, and we can gain an insight into the Northern Nationalist view of the Union in just two lines written by Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney in 1983 as an ‘Open Letter’ objecting to his inclusion in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry:

“Be advised my passport’s green. No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen.”

Which just goes to show it isn’t just Daily Mail readers who see importance in the colour of their passports.

Now, the UK has another live sovereignty debate taking place in Scotland, but there is no record in living memory of anyone dying through political violence there. The key difference with Scotland is that Northern Ireland is, to repeat a phrase I used a moment ago, a deeply divided society.

In Scotland, the fault-line of opinion on independence crosses most of the other main social cleavages, of class, religion, and even to some extent national identity. Even the most Unionist Scots consider themselves to be patriotically Scottish. Many Scottish families have people firmly on both sides of the independence debate.

In Northern Ireland, the balance of opinion on the constitutional question tends to map the religious divide, even in what is a secularising society, and that in turn maps divisions in ethnic heritage and national identity; by no means all Unionists in Northern Ireland consider themselves Irish at all, many regarding themselves as having a separate, distinctively ‘Ulster’, identity. That in turn is reinforced by a high degree of residential and social segregation.

Many areas are inhabited almost entirely by one of the community or another, a phenomenon that became much more acute during the years of The Troubles, where minorities were often actively intimidated out of areas in which they had previously lived peacefully; but much more subtly, during long years of political violence, people developed a mental map of the sort of areas they might feel most secure in when buying a house. That residential segregation is far from absolute, but it is present.

Beyond that, however, much social life in Northern Ireland is also segregated. In sports, Gaelic games tend to have an almost entirely Cathlolic/Nationalist player and supporter base, whereas cricket and to a lesser degree rugby are largely Protestant/Unionist pastimes. Most teams in the local semi-professional soccer league have supporters drawn overwhelmingly from one side of the community or another.

Schooling is profoundly segregated, with only 7% of pupils educated in formally ‘integrated’ schools; the vast majority attend schools which are either Catholic, or else non-denominational in theory but Protestant in practice. This isn’t just a matter of religion, but the countless subtle expressions of identity that mark each community as distinct: few Protestant schools teach the Irish language, for example, whereas many Catholic parents would object at an army cadet force or military presence at a careers day at their children’s school.

Social clubs are often segregated in practice: in small Northern Ireland towns, for example, a high proportion of Protestant men served in the armed forces during The Troubles, and might enjoy an evening out at the local British Legion, while Catholics might prefer a pint at the local Gaelic Athletic Club’s bar.

None of this is a matter of the sort of formal segregation that we might remember in the American South before Civil Rights or Apartheid-era South Africa. It is a matter of people choosing to be where they don’t have to watch their words, in a society where saying the wrong thing can still cause grave offence and for several very recent decades could even have brought death. People in Northern Ireland read dozens of subtle shibboleths in things from people’s names to the way they pronounce the eighth letter of the alphabet, and almost subconsciously work out whether they are ‘among their own’, in mixed company, or have, at least in social terms, ended up in enemy territory.

Let us return again to Heaney, who grew up in a rural area close to the centre of Northern Ireland, where the predominantly Protestant and proudly British east gives way to the rural West, where Catholics, still largely living on the more marginal hills and boglands, outnumber more prosperous Protestants in the fertile valleys. Here is a section from his 1975 poem ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’

“Religion’s never mentioned here”, of course.
“You know them by their eyes,” and hold your tongue.
“One side’s as bad as the other,” never worse.
Christ, it’s near time that some small leak was sprung

In the great dykes the Dutchman made
To dam the dangerous tide that followed Seamus.
Yet for all this art and sedentary trade
I am incapable. The famous

Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the “wee six” I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing.

Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:
Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,
Subtle discrimination by addresses
With hardly an exception to the rule

That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod
And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap,

Where tongues lie coiled, as under flames lie wicks,
Where half of us, as in a wooden horse
Were cabin’d and confined like wily Greeks,
Besieged within the siege, whispering morse.

The one real success in breaking down barriers has been in the workplace. Rigid laws preventing employment discrimination on the grounds of religion and national identity were introduced in the 1970s, but finally enforced robustly only from the late 1980s, after which an ancient tradition of anti-Catholic discrimination ended quite rapidly.

Nor is the rest of Northern Irish life entirely segregated, and there is some evidence that it is slowly desegregating further. But we cannot understand Northern Ireland, and why the constitutional question there has produced violence on such a scale, without an awareness of to how great an extent it follows from a territory inhabited by what are substantially two societies, not always sharing the same norms and values, and marking their identity in often mutually irritating ways.

Brexit and the Border

And how do Brexit and the border play in this divided society? Northern Ireland, as we all know, voted Remain, although it did so by a margin that was less than most observers expected before the Referendum, with a Remain vote of 55.8%.

It is also worth noting that the turnout in Northern Ireland, at 62.7%, while hardly poor, was the lowest in the UK, and that contrary to popular belief, this is often the case in general elections too. In particular, it was it was noticeable how turnout was poor in many traditionally strong Sinn Féin areas.

There were significant differences between how each community voted in the referendum – pollsters indicate that the Catholic/Nationalist/ Republican community voted about 85% Remain, the Protestant/ Unionist/Loyalist community about 70% Leave (those clunk terms are your first introduction to political correct terminology Northern Ireland style)!

Believe it or not, this was a less segregated pattern of voting than usually applies in Northern Ireland. It is also noticeable that many more socially high status Unionist areas in and around Belfast did vote Remain.

Overall, 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 parliamentary constituencies voted Remain, and that includes every area along the border: not surprising as these are, once one gets to the level of parliamentary constituencies, strongly Nationalist areas.

Let’s look at this border as it snakes along on its 310 mile journey from Carlingford Lough to Lough Foyle. Nobody is even sure how many crossings open to motor vehicles there are on it, especially on its south western edge where Fermanagh’s raggedy border means that even some major roads go back and forwards across it in the space of a few miles. But the best estimate seems to be 275 – or one per mile.

Despite what you might have heard, this has never been a closed border. British and Irish citizens have always had the right to cross it without clearance and it always had dozens of ‘unapproved’ but open border crossings.

However, it was customs frontier from 1923, shortly after Ireland was partitioned and what is now the Republic gained de facto independence. This continued until the completion of the European single market in 1993, when trucks no longer had to clear customs posts on main roads and passengers no longer risked being called into the customs shed in Belfast Central railway station, which I distinctly remember being present until a major refurbishment shortly after the millennium.

There have at times been security checks along the border, and there still sometimes are. Only during the Second World War were British and Irish citizens required to produce a passport to cross it.

The security posts, some of them genuinely monstrous fortifications, that many of us remember from the years of The Troubles on major roads were just that – they weren’t there for immigration or customs control. In those years, minor roads were often simply cratered by the Army to prevent their use, and you can imagine the sort of local bad feeling that created.

Then, in 1998, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement meant that political violence on more than a small scale became unlikely and the border assumed its current form – open, undefended, and increasingly a corridor between communities rather than a frontier separating them.

The border between Counties Louth and Armagh. (C) ‘Dantadd’ on Wikipedia and used under Creative Commons Licence 2.5.

Indeed, given that in a majority of the communities along it, people would like to see it abolished entirely, it is for the most part unmarked except in the subtle change of road markings: British white lines on the road shifting to American-style yellow, and the ubiquitous signs telling one that speed limits are in miles or kilometres per hour.

Is there a more wonderful example of the Northern Ireland art of whispering Morse? Whatever you say, say nothing!

But perhaps most of all, for border communities, the past twenty years have been ones not only of peace but prosperity, except for the hard post-crash years around the turn of the decade. Communities marked for generations by poverty and emigration have become prosperous and often ethnically diverse with immigration on a large scale not only from Eastern Europe, but also from countries like China, Nigeria and Brazil.

A Threat to Peace

So, let’s move on to the big elephant in the sitting room: is there a threat to peace in Northern Ireland?

The first thing I want to be clear about is that there is no justification for political violence from whatever quarter in Northern Ireland at present. There would be no justification for violence in the event of the hardest of Brexits – civil disobedience, perhaps, depending on how badly it was implemented, but not violence.

And there was no justification for violence even in much darker days of the late 1960s and early 1970s when Northern Ireland was a genuinely unjust society in ways that are scarcely imaginable to the younger generation. The vast majority of people on these islands agreed with that, and we should beware of the persistent Sinn Féin attempt to retcon some legitimacy back into the IRA’s campaign.

In their enthusiasm to highlight the folly of Brexit, some people are in danger of boosting the credibility of these tiny groups of bigoted, supremacist, fanatics whose support, even in staunchly Republican communities, is tiny, whose tactics are repulsive and whose morals – even by their own lights – are so degraded that many are paid informers for the authorities on either side of the border, passing information on their own comrades for money.

That doesn’t mean that they aren’t a threat and they won’t try to exploit Brexit – the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland has repeatedly warned that they will. I still think that memories of the past are too fresh for them to gain much traction, but I also think that obsessing with these maniacs draws attention away the real problems we might face on the border.

So, let’s look at what sort of controls might be see on the border after Brexit?

Border Controls on People

Firstly, I think it is highly unlikely that we are going to see any form of entry control of people on the border.

The United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are both members of the Common Travel Area, which allows one another’s citizens to travel between the two jurisdictions with minimal paperwork or identity documentation. Citizens of each country also have unusual privileges in the other, from the right to vote to the right to serve in the military.

This dates back to 1923 and is agreed by all to be an unshakeable cornerstone of peace in Ireland. That hasn’t stopped both governments occasionally proposing steps that would weaken it – so, for example, the Home Office in the 2000s, under a pro-EU Labour government, suggested effectively introducing immigration checks, in all but name, on passengers travelling between both parts of Ireland and Great Britain by sea and air. It’s not surprising that justifiably outraged Unionist peers launched a successful campaign to have this scheme blocked in the House of Lords.

It’s a useful thing sometimes, this House of Lords!

Bits of the Irish government, too, have occasionally proposed weakening the CTA, and Irish police carry out occasional identity checks on bus travellers between Belfast and Dublin, in search of illegal immigrants.

The idea of immigrants from third countries slipping between Ireland and the UK across the Northern Ireland border on more than a tiny scale is fanciful. The point at which immigration is effectively controlled is when people need a national insurance number or some other sort of official status. Brexiteers who point this out are entirely correct.

It’s also worth noting that both air and ferry company policy requires all passengers to have some form of valid ID to cross the Irish Sea, and that police sometimes perform checks on these.

There is simply no need to revise existing arrangements on the movement of people between the two parts of Ireland or across the Irish Sea regardless of what form Brexit takes. This is something of a red herring.

Which bring us to what I think is the real problem with Brexit in Ireland – customs controls and their effect on trade, and therefore on jobs and prosperity, especially north of the border.

Border Controls on Goods

I think the impossibility of squaring this circle is shown by Lars Karlsson’s Smart Border 2.0 paper produced for the European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs. You may have seen this paper referenced in the press, and it seems to have gained cult status among Brexiteers as indicating that a customs frontier could be implemented on the island of Ireland with minimal friction.

Now, Mr Karlsson’s views are worth listening to – he is a former head of Swedish Customs, and Director of Capacity Building at the World Customs Organisation. He is also, if one looks at his website, someone who is passionately enthusiastic about customs – I had not previously known such a thing was possible – and how good customs control can improve lives and poorly operated customs controls can destroy jobs and communities.

So, if Mr Karlsson says a smoothly operating customs frontier can be designed in Ireland, we should listen to him. The problem is, that that’s not what he says.

In fact, in a recent post on his website, he notes that never before in history that a country has left a well-developed customs union. He says:

“From a Customs perspective, Brexit is the biggest change I have experienced so far. I am not sure that the magnitude of the change in [relation] to trade was known by people. Sometimes I even wonder if it is known or accepted today.” 31 March 2018

And if we look at his Brexit 2.0 paper, even in his ideal scenario, it involves considerable new bureaucracy for cross-border traders and additional public cost in processing and enforcement

I’ll read now what he says in that paper is a “normal border crossing between Ireland and Northern Ireland in a Smart Border 2.0” scenario” (see pp 10-11 of the report).

“A company needs to move goods to a client in the UK. The company is preregistered in the AEO database (AEO status or application for AEO Trusted Trader), a simplified export/import declaration is sent, including a unique consignment reference number. The transporting company is pre-registered in the AEO database and the driver of the truck is pre-registered in the Trusted Commercial Travellers database. The simplified export/import declaration is automatically processed and risk assessed. At the border the mobile phone of the driver is recognized/identified and a release-note is sent to the mobile phone with a permit to pass the border opening the gate automatically. A post-import supplementary declaration is submitted in the import country within the given time period. Potential controls can be carried out by mobile inspection units from EU or UK with right of access to facilities and data, as required.”

Now what we see here on this slide is all the additional bits of paperwork and all the new bureaucratic instruments that will need to be created in Mr Karlsson’s – Smart Border 2.0 scenario; the one that this world-class customs expert sees as better than the alternative and which leading Brexiteers are telling us would solve all the problems. Let’s look at exactly what’s involved here.

180521 S4E Brexit

We start by noting that a number of new databases will need to be created here: one for trusted traders, one for trusted cross-border transport providers and one for the drivers themselves. There will be a cost to setting up and maintaining these databases – will this be borne by the taxpayer, or by the companies involved?

Presumably not every Tom, Dick and Harry will be able to claim to be ‘trusted’, so there will have to be some sort of agency for assessing applications. At present, HMRC rejects 95% of applications for AEO status – this is an expensive process with a high likelihood of failure, beyond most small-to-medium exporters.

And again, who pays for this? An expensive charge on exporters and haulage companies or will the taxpayer be stuck for this one?

We’ll also need some mobile inspection units on both sides of the border – we’ll not only need to pay the people who staff them but for some nifty new equipment. The pro-Brexit think tank the Legatum Institute has suggested not only drones but maybe airships would be helpful.

Is anyone starting to think that £350 million a week is starting to get used up pretty rapidly?

Now, we come to paperwork. The import/export declaration may be a simplified one that can be automatically processed – but it still needs to be filled in, and filled in correctly. Those of you who were at our recent by from Wiltshire-based exporter Rex Sandbach will know this can be a fiddly business and the HMRC can issue punitive fines if it done incorrectly. So, these will require additional time from skilled staff by the exporter, and additional customs officials to be employed to process and monitor these.

The additional expense doesn’t end there, because the importer also needs to fill in a post-import declaration – and do so within a specified time period. Presumably, there will be some sort of sanction régime to ensure people do so. You may have noticed that the tax man gets damn shirty and starts levying rapidly escalating fines if you don’t fill your tax return in on time.

Now, we also need a new smartphone app – and I don’t think this is a silly idea in principle, it’s a system that works on the Swedish/Norwegian border, but we all know that government IT projects in this country have a history of being… um… late. Not a situation we want to be in with a clock ticking.

Then we come to the final bugbear, physical infrastructure, which all parties have agreed is unacceptable. Yet Mr Karlsson’s report talks about automatic gates being triggered by smart phone apps. Now, that sounds like infrastructure to me. Lest there be any misunderstanding, I don’t believe there will be gates on the border, automatic or otherwise, so this is yet another area where the UK government position is a transparent bluff which will inevitably be called.

There are further questions: would goods vehicles would still be able to cross the border at every point or would they have to use a smaller number of approved crossings? Would there be a difference between how freight lorries were handled as opposed to local tradespeople like builders and plumbers operating either side of the border, often in remote rural areas with minor crossings? It’s a fiendishly complex situation.

This contrasts with the current situation, where a truck crosses the border and delivers its stuff: end of. And, remember, all this is based on the ideas of a world-renowned customs expert seeking to design as frictionless a border as possible if the UK leaves the single market and customs union.

Mr Karlsson has designed a scheme that would be much preferable to the sort of border that operates, say, between Russia and Finland or between Thailand and Malaysia. It is also much, much, worse than the status quo.

The reality is that trade outside the EU, even between countries with some form of Free Trade Agreement, trade is subject to much more hindrance and control than we have become used to in recent decades through our membership of the EU.

Let’s explore that a bit: much has been made by Brexiteers of the discussion in Mr Karlsson’s paper of existing practice between Sweden and Norway, the USA and Canada, and Australia and NZ.

Of these, the Nordic case is the most pertinent, and the basis of much of the ideas in the Smart Border 2.0 scenario outlined above. But Mr Larsson states it is only possible because Norway accepts most EU standards, and is indeed a member of the Single Market. But the UK government is adamant that we will leave the Single Market.

If we’re seeking to leave the Single Market formally while keeping an open border in Ireland – and also keeping exporters from Great Britain from the continent from being seriously damaged – that implies that the UK would have to remain very close to EU standards to maintain an open border in the longer post-Brexit term. In other words, the UK would have to remain in many areas a rule taker with no seat at the table. And I think the only thing almost everyone in the UK agrees on at present is that this is the least worst option.

The case of the USA/Canada border is less helpful.

Let’s start with this basic fact. The UK/Ireland frontier is 500 kilometres long. The main part of the US/Canada border is 6,300 kilometres along (if we ignore the 2,500 kilometre long Alaska border).

This border, more than ten times the length of the Irish border has only 118 border crossings, as opposed to 275 in Ireland. Many of these are not even open 24 hours per day.

How frictionless is movement at these border crossings? The US Border Service’s website helpfully lists crossing times at major entry and exit points in real time. On a recent Tuesday evening at the main Niagara Falls crossing, just before 6 pm East Coast time, the waiting time to enter the US was 40 minutes for cars and 49 for trucks. That doesn’t include any time for checks.

This was an ordinary midweek evening rush hour; obviously it’s much worse at periods like bank holidays. This is not feasible on the UK/Ireland border. Many people simply won’t co-operate.

And, of course, as NAFTA is a much less comprehensive Free Trade Agreement than the single market, there is considerable paperwork to be dealt with, adding cost and delay to trade.

Finally, both countries patrol the border with a dedicated armed border patrol- something which has not been necessary in recent decades in Ireland, and which really would be a depressing step backwards.

As for the Australia/New Zealand comparison, these countries are as far apart at their closest point as London is from Minsk, so this is not that useful a comparison. It’s also worth bearing in mind that nearly fifty years of talks, while producing some impressive better-than-EU results in a number of areas like the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, have still failed to see the two countries agree to remove customs duties on one another’s goods.

And the smart border here for individual travellers results in wait times at immigration of ‘no more than’ 30-45 minutes for 90% of travellers. Other countries struggle to achieve what we have learned to take for granted. This, sadly, seems to escape most Brexiteers.

The Irish border situation is unique, and will require a unique solution not available by March 2019 and probably not by the December 2020 end of the transition period without absolute chaos.

So I think too much of the debate on the UK/Ireland border question – paramilitaries, passport controls, physical infrastructure – misses the point. A customs frontier, even an invisible electronic one, will involve obstacles to trade and additional costs from bureaucracy.

That in turn will encourage business to relocate away from Northern Ireland. NI is, unfortunately, a much smaller market than the Republic, and one which would in turn be part of a much smaller UK market than the European Sagle Market.

That would cost Northern Ireland jobs and tax receipts. Some companies will simply move premises a few miles across the border. I suspect one impact will that more Northern Ireland people cross the border to work in the Republic, which means they’ll pay income tax there; they’ll also shop more in the Republic with a knock on effect on VAT receipts.

I’ll reiterate again, this is what looks likely to happen should Mr Karlsson’s Smart Border 2.0 proposals be adopted, which are being presented as a sort of deus ex machina by Brexiteers. Sadly, I think they have latched on to this paper because it has a few quotable soundbites that sound good in London newspapers.

But anyone familiar with on the ground realities in NI will realise even this, while better than a border with no sort of agreement, would damage NI considerably.

I think the danger is not in any immediate return to violence, but in long term economic damage to Northern Ireland

Commercial Break

Now, time for a quick commercial break – if you think all this sounds like a nightmare scenario, then you must, you must, join the anti-Brexit march in London on Saturday 23 June – the second anniversary of the dreaded day of infamy that was the referendum. We have organised a coach and tickets are available for just £15 return, a fraction of the cost of the train, on Ticket Tailor.

Constitutional Change

I want to conclude by looking briefly at the prospects of Brexit unleashing constitutional change UK-wide.

I think it was inevitable that the Scottish Parliament refused legislative consent for the Brexit Bill last week. What wasn’t inevitable was that Labour and the LibDems, not just the SNP and pro-independence Greens voted to do so.

I think it’s hugely significant as it means majority of Scottish Unionist opinion has withheld consent for Brexit. This can’t be framed as SNP gameplaying to try and set up a second independence referendum. Scotland, as we know, voted Remain by an even greater margin than Northern Ireland and Labour and LibDem voters North of the border were much more overwhelmingly supportive of EU membership than was the case in England.

There is still huge bad blood lingering from the independence referendum between Labour, and the LibDems, on one side and the SNP on the other. So the fact they’re capable of agreeing on very hardball tactics with Westminster bespeaks two things: firstly, a real fear of Brexit consequences given the incompetent handling of negotiations by the UK government; and secondly, a hardening of mood among Remain Unionists in Scotland.

As the UK government has not since 1998 imposed any relevant legislation on Scotland without Holyrood’s consent, doing so would create the biggest UK constitutional crisis since before the First World War, given the balance of Scottish public opinion.

A series of crises will build for Theresa May this summer: a crisis with Scotland is just one. There’s also the reality that Tory MPs at both ends of the debate seem ready to bring her down over Brexit; and the way the economy and house prices seem to be slowing with great suddenness against the global trend. I don’t see how Theresa May survives all that, and if she goes, I don’t see how the Tory Party in its divided state can choose a leader in less than months.

Add into the mix that the current bizarre governing arrangements in Northern Ireland have been ruled illegal by the courts there. No government in Belfast has existed for over a year now, and talks on creating a new one have broken down thanks to the Conservatives’ DUP partners. The Westminster government has refused to implode the situation further by reassuming direct rule over the region, so civil servants have been running Northern Ireland effectively without ministerial oversight.

Last week, the courts in Northern Ireland ruled that this was illegal – ironically in a judicial review of a proposed new municipal waste incinerator in the hills above Belfast. So, the government, with a Secretary of State who is frankly out of her depth, is going to either have to persuade the DUP to sign up to an agreement which it rejected a few months ago, or else it’s going to have to admit that Northern Ireland is ungovernable.

And that’s when all the increasingly tense relationships within the UK could all come crashing down – especially when one considers that many in the Lords seem to regard the abolition of the upper house as an acceptable price to pay for overturning Brexit.

Another question often asked is whether a United Ireland is possible? I think it is genuinely so for the first time in my life, but it remains unlikely.

And if it happened, it would be no panacea, as Northern Ireland would remain a deeply divided society with a bad history of political violence. If you pause to consider how shocked and frightened many of us Remainers were and still are by the dramatic changes to our identity and way of life threatened by a narrow vote for Brexit, imagine how Unionism would react to a similarly narrow vote for a United Ireland which is literally beyond imagining for many.

So we are in a very difficult domestic situation, the international situation is fractious, and our government seems to be living in a fantasy world. The only contribution most of us can make is to do what we are doing here – to gather together, and organise for a better future.