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Paul Vallely on Brexit and Ireland: a Swiftian solution

19 October 2018

Paul Vallely turns to the satirical Dean of St Patrick’s, Dublin, for inspiration


I HAVE a modest proposal as to how the Prime Minister can extricate herself from her dilemma over Brexit. The irreconcilable fundamentals are these: Britain wants to leave the European Union; both sides want to maintain the free movement of goods between us and the Continent; everybody wants an invisible border between the north and south of Ireland to maintain the hard-won peace that ended decades of bloody strife there. But all that involves squaring a circle.

We can keep goods moving freely across the channel, and across the Irish border, only if the UK remains in some kind of customs union with the EU. But the hard Brexiteers want us out of any customs union. And many more are uneasy at the idea that Northern Ireland will remain in a customs union while the mainland opts out — thus creating an invisible trade barrier somewhere in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The answer, it seems to me, is to give Northern Ireland back to southern Ireland. Irish reunification would create a single entity that could remain in a different trading relationship with the EU from England, Wales, and Scotland. Of course, the Democratic Unionist Party would vehemently object, but they and their hardline supporters could all be transported back to the Scottish plantation, or to the United States. This is merely facing the inevitable, since it is only a matter of time before the Catholic population outbreeds the Presbyterians in the North.

Perceptive readers will have noted by now that I am drawing my inspiration here from Jonathan Swift’s solution to the problem of Irish hunger in the early 18th century. His pamphlet, A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick, famously suggested that poor Catholic families should sell their babies for the rich to eat. “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout,” he famously wrote.

His plan solved several problems simultaneously: the poor would have money for food and to pay rent to their landlords; the dead babies’ skins would make gloves for ladies and summer boots for fine gentlemen; butchers and tavern keepers would thrive; men would stop beating their wives, at least during pregnancy; and it would reduce the number of papists among us. Swift wrote elsewhere that able-bodied indigent Catholics could be sent off to America, and made clear his dislike of the Ulster Presbyterians by referring to their abode as the Scots plantation of the North.

The target of Swift’s irony was not simply heartless landlords, but also those who thought that political arithmetic would offer solutions to deeply human problems. Today, one might suspect, he would direct his satirical derision to those who think that technology can render a new trade barrier invisible and innocuous.

But his most withering disdain would surely be directed at those who appear to think that a glorious golden Brexit is more important than maintaining peace on these islands.

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