Crunch time for Brexit Negotiations


I am against Brexit for many reasons, but my primary focus has, and always has been, the effect on Northern Ireland and the destabilising effect it will have on the island of Ireland, in terms of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. I still very much hope Brexit does not happen and was in London last Saturday for the People’s Vote march (and Sunderland the week before).

I have always thought the chance of a “deal” was low. The ludicrous Brexit vision sold during the referendum has been correctly mocked as golden unicorns for every child and cakeism, inspiring the cakewatch podcast.

My natural pessimism has always put the chance of a deal at below 50-50, apart from a 4 day window from the 4th to 8th December ’17, when indeed it did seem as if a deal were possible.

The 8th Dec ’17 joint report from the negotiators of the EU and the UKGov on progress during phase 1 of negotiations on the United Kingdom’s orderly withdrawal from the European Union states in p 46:

The commitments and principles outlined in this joint report will not pre-determine the outcome of wider discussions on the future relationship between the EU and the UK and are, as necessary, specific to the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland. They are made and must be upheld in all circumstances, irrespective of the nature of any future agreement between the European Union and United Kingdom.

And in p 49:

The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

The 4th December version was v. slightly different as it used the phrase “no emergence of regulatory divergence” but was changed to “full alignment” by the insistence of the UK – which is considered slightly more flexible.

The main difference however between the version of the 4th and 8th Dec was the inclusion of a further paragraph (p50) on the insistence of the DUP. For a good history see Tony Connolly’s article.

In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.

This paragraph was strange. My understanding is that this is totally an internal UK matter. It is outside the competence of the EU and would indeed be illegal for the EU to enforce within existing treaties. Given that May had already ruled out being a member of the Customs Union and Single market, it seemed impossible to reconcile the three paragraphs, setting up the famous trilemma that has dogged negations ever since. My brief period of optimism vanished. It is clear however that as this paragraph was put in by the insistence of the UK it was entirely the UK’s responsibility to work out a solution.

The Current State of Play

A very good summary of the current state of play is given in BEERG blog by Tom Hayes. This is worth reading in full, but the EU and Irish position is very clear, as this passage explains:

As Irish Foreign Affairs Minister and Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Simon Coveney yesterday warned, “There will be no withdrawal agreement without the backstop, end of story.” Adding, “Ireland wants a close future trading deal with the UK, but at this point the commitments already made need to be honoured.” Without a withdrawal agreement there will be no transition. The UK would be out of the EU with no agreement in place on future arrangements on March 29th next.

There is monolithic support for the Irish position in the EU. Guy Verhofstadt (European Parliament Brexit coordinator) has stated “Progress on the Brexit negotiations can be 90 per cent, 95 per cent or even 99 per cent, but as long as there is no solution for the Irish border, as long as the Good Friday agreement is not fully secured, for us in our parliament progress is 0 per cent.”

The position could not be clearer, however there has been every indication that the UK has from the 8th December constantly tried to weasel its way out of its commitments.

May has repeatedly stated that no PM could agree to the backstop. This is considered as ludicrous by the Irish and wider EU – a cynical attempt to appease the DUP and use NI as a pawn, as leverage in the wider future agreement. The reasons have been detailed on Progressive Pulse here and in the BEERG blog quoted earlier.

It can not be stressed more that the Backstop is a simple an “all-weather insurance policy” which never should need to be used. I have an insurance policy on my House which (very fortunately) I have never had to use.

The position of NI within the UK is also not very secure. Ireland in becoming an increasingly wealthy and attractive country, while NI stagnates. For example the recent 2018 UN Human Development Index, an internationally recognised metric of general quality of life, ranks Ireland as 4th globally, ten points ahead of the UK. Opinion polls are moving dramatically and in the case of Brexit with a hard border there is a substantial majority for a United Ireland.

Possible Motivation

PM May seems to have two obsessions, one with immigration and the other with holding the Union together.

On immigration May seemed completely inept as Home Secretary. As Craig Mackay summarises here:

The rules that define the permitted extent of Freedom of Movement within the European Union allow very much more control than the UK currently exercises. Working EU citizens are allowed in but non-economically active EU citizens can only stay longer than three months if they have sufficient finance and take out a comprehensive sickness insurance policy. Benefit/welfare tourism is illegal and EU citizens who have not been working have no rights to benefits. Theresa May was Home Secretary from 2010 yet she did nothing even though it was in her power simply to implement the rules as drawn up when the UK joined the European Union.

My analysis was that she was starved of funds and put in deliberately to fail as a scapegoat. Cameron and Osbourne realised that immigration – in particular Freedom of Movement (FoM) was vastly positive for the UK economy, but were terrified of making the case for FoM as it was a vote looser with their core constituency.

On the Union, May seems genuinely attached to the Union but blissfully unaware that her behaviour towards the Nationalists in both Scotland and Northern Ireland may backfire spectacularly. On NI in particular there is a very blinkered approach. From the outside at least it seems that May only listens to Unionist voices and acts as if a small majority gives her the right to march roughshod over the minority.

Fintan O’Toole has written a recent analysis which is worth reading in full. On the “precious Union” he discussed the UK’s position that NI is and integral part of the UK (and as British as Finchley – Thatcher’s position, but May’s seems very similar):

This has all the conviction of a brothel-keeper taking umbrage at the very mention of sex. At every stage of the Brexit process we have seen complete indifference to the fate of Northern Ireland. The “precious union” stuff is a gaudy orange garment borrowed from the DUP to cover the most nakedly obvious attitude: this Irish border stuff concerns a faraway people of whom we know nothing and care less. It is not our concern but merely a distraction being used by the EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, to deny us the perfect Brexit we deserve and demand.

Indeed a recent Spectator article seems to support this thesis.

The conclusion I come to that it is Scotland that worries May not NI. Allowing NI to have special status will in her mind accelerate the destruction of the Union. The irony is that it is likely to do the exact opposite. Granting NI special status will almost certainly cement NI’s position in the UK for a further decade.


It is clear that without the Backstop there will be no agreement and the likelihood of crashing out with no deal seems high. This will be so catastrophic for the UK that it should not be contemplated under any circumstances.  There seems no way of telling the future and the Westminster parliamentary arithmetic is such that there seems no majority for any deal. No deal however is the default state and as David Alan Green says it will happen by “automatic process of law” if nothing is agreed.

My hope is for a complete meltdown in Westminster and a People’s Vote, but in these circumstances we need to expect the unexpected.


  1. Samuel Johnson -

    All of this seems to me entirely accurate and obvious to anyone not blinkered by English exceptionalism and historical ignorance — ie, Mrs May, who advised Barnier that Ireland was “a small and not very important country”; Sir Socks, and too many others to list, plus, of course, a sizeable part of the population.

    For me, Brexit and Trump answer some mysteries of the past. 1930s Germany most prominently.

    A former colleague in the Netherlands had a pathological loathing of Germans and believed sincerely that there was something different about them (as in uniquely evil). My own view was and remains that we are all products very largely of our environment and there are no differences genetically, indeed the idea is absurd.

    But it was still somehow unfathomable, until recently, how a nation could lose its mind. Most have seen the Riefenstahl’s Triumph of Will and at some level felt our flesh crawl with repugnance but it was in black & white and seemed immensely long ago in some respects, though of course it was not. The recency of it was brought home to me when I stumbled on her video & photo studio in the main street in Windhoek in Namibia in the 90s, with videos of her underwater dives on display. The. Same. Woman.

    I’m aware of works like Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly (on my To Read list) and similar, but until recently all this blinkered madness was stuff one read about — though anyone who ever switched on a TV on a Sunday in America could see a virulent form of fear and loathing of others very much alive in the present. Granted, it always exists somewhere, where heads are cut off and other barbarities tolerated, but, for me anyway, such was my sheltered post-war upbringing, it’s still a shock of sorts to encounter performatively cruel madness and inhumanity *in English*.

    Arguably, that’s absurd, as mad as considering that there’s anything uniquely different about Germans. The British have plenty of blood on their hands even if they never resorted to gas chambers (smallpox infected blankets and witticisms like “Peccavi” are more the style, Bond-like before 007 perhaps; the original Cool Brittania, effortlessly victorious).

    The Irish have consumed at least some of that British Kool-Aid. We have some shared prejudices about demagogues and the swivel-eyed authoritarians generally, more, perhaps, as result of having been on the receiving end of imperial impunity, rather than being more virtuous, even if we took to parliamentary democracy.

    We’ve shaken our heads at Enoch Powell and everyone like him ever since, right across Europe, up to and including Orban. So, it’s pretty sobering to wake up today to an exit poll showing that a man who expressed some repugnant, Trump-like, sentiments about a minority community in Ireland (travellers) gained 21% support in yesterday’s Presidential election. Yes, it was a low turnout for something that was largely a foregone conclusion, given that the main political parties chose not to field candidates. In a larger poll the equivalent would, I have read, be more like 6-7%. Nevertheless, it’s a jolt. Not quite like finding oneself in Leni Riefenstahl’s shop, but chilling. A blip or a sign of susceptibility to things we assumed we were immune to and which could get worse? Of course, we aren’t better, just different.

    I have wondered a few times, having moved from London to the Irish countryside, if we’d moved far enough away. At first, it was if 2 cars passed in one day (I’m exaggerating). Brexit has made the periphery seem not peripheral enough at times. I avoid the BBC News & the Today programme and sometimes imagine tuning out entirely, having a new respect for at least the secular aspects of monastic life–the attempts at self-sufficiency & freedom from the endless outrages “going viral”.

    But isolation doesn’t really work. I visited St Simeon’s stylite a few years ago. I hadn’t realised until I did so the extent to which this famous loner depended on an entire community around him (whose ruined buildings were still very much in evidence around his broken pillar). And now the place is trashed all over again.

    I think the desire of some English to withdraw from the EU may not be THAT different from my current instincts about moving further away, and that is something I can empathize with in principle. In practice, it’s impossible; someone needed to provide Simeon with food and dispose of his poop (baskets up and down every day). None of us can truly withdraw however alienated we feel. Doing so is just facilitating the triumph of the worst.

    In truth, the centre is holding here pretty well. For now. We escaped physical invasion since the British navy left Irish ports in 1939, but I have no doubt our defences against digital subversion and even demagoguery are not as good as they could be. Our greatest and best hope for the future is clearly in European solidarity. But what a sad and extraordinary thing that it should need to be asserted against the British who, for the blood on their hands, helped save Europe from itself in the past.

    1. Peter May -

      Thank you, that really is – wow – worth a blog in itself. Emotionally I don’t agree with quite a bit of it and that’s a problem – I must see if I’m educated enough to overcome it….

      1. Samuel Johnson -

        Apologies, I should have been clearer. It feels like witnessing schizophrenia rather than completely collective madness. I have no conceit that the Irish have any immunity, only both the advantages and disadvantages of geography. As when looking across the Atlantic now it seems we are seeing both the best and the worst on display simultaneously. Historically, Ireland asserted it’s neutrality in WW2 as proof of it’s sovereignty and independence (also relative powerlessness). Now we’re pushed into a more pivotal role and are still adjusting.

  2. Sean Danaher -

    thanks. There is a lot here and I agree that there is nothing singular about the Germans. I am truly worried about the UK and US, but Ireland seems to holding together well.

    Fintan O’ Toole seems everywhere today anf has an article today on the Irish Presidential Election:

    The good news is that Michael D Higgins has been re-elected.
    As Fintan says:

    “His second term has been validated and he can continue to conduct a remarkable public critique of neoliberalism and its devastating consequences for democracy in the knowledge that he has the backing of the people.”

    Joy to my ears.

    The darker side of course is the Tump like Peter Casey using prejudice against the Traveler community as a main selling point, who got about 20% of the vote. This is not new. One of my most vivid memories of my mother was when someone from the local residence association came around asking her to sign a petition to block the setting up of a traveler rest site in the area. My mother was having none of it and felt travelers were badly discriminated already and asked the neighbour “how could you a church going catholic be so unchristian in your actions?” The neighbour should see the anger ramping up and hastily beat her retreat.

    Its easy to relax being Irish – we have had a very good year. Given the right conditions as my friend Dr Pat Murphy (who was the other Irish PhD astrophysics student in Harvard with me – and is now at NRAO Charlottsville) says people move over to the “dark side.” Its frightening to think that many Irish Americans (who used to be very much democrats historically) have moved over to the Republican side and are very close to Trump: Steve Bannon, John Kelly, Mike Flynn, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway and Paul Ryan amongst others.

    I agree European solidarity is more needed than ever. I’m sure you have seen Esteban González Pons speech: good stuff and great for my rusty Spanish! Pons sees Brexit as a betrayal.

    Another interesting thing in the US is the composition of the Supreme Court:

    Catholics have essentially taken over the Supreme Court with Kavanaugh, Chief Justice Roberts, Judge Samuel Alito, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, Judge Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch all raised in the religion.

    Indeed I think all the other members are Jews – there is not a single Protestant – Very different to the old WASP days.

    1. Peter May -

      Thank you for the link – love it – excellent!

  3. Sean Danaher -

    Thanks for the link. Misses out the DUP back to 1690.

    1. Peter May -

      You ought to tell him!

  4. Peter May -

    More seriously, I feel I should re-iterate that:-
    The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 para 10/2/b
    makes it a condition of withdrawal that there will be no border in Ireland.
    So I have to wonder, as WTO regulations necessitate a border, is this the Prime Minister’s secret weapon?
    It would in fact be illegal under the UK’s own legislation for the UK to crash out:
    “Continuation of North-South co-operation and the prevention of new border arrangements

    (1)In exercising any of the powers under this Act, a Minister of the Crown or devolved authority must—

    (a)act in a way that is compatible with the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and

    (b)have due regard to the joint report from the negotiators of the EU and the United Kingdom Government on progress during phase 1 of negotiations under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union.

    (2)Nothing in section 8, 9 or 23(1) or (6) of this Act authorises regulations which—

    (a)diminish any form of North-South cooperation provided for by the Belfast Agreement (as defined by section 98 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998), or

    (b)create or facilitate border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after exit day which feature physical infrastructure, including border posts, or checks and controls, that did not exist before exit day and are not in accordance with an agreement between the United Kingdom and the EU.

    So I think the PM is snookered – or is this her secret plan to remain?

    1. Samuel Johnson -

      All this is well and good. And thanks for it, quite sincerely. However, you cannot have failed to pick up the seemingly endless dismissals of all this from the UK. It starts with the usual suspects — Johnson and Gove — and then carries on from there, practically all the way to reproductions in words if not caricatures from Punch of the Irish as shillelagh wielding gorillas with leprechaun hats, knee britches and clay pipes. The descriptions of Varadkar, and of the Irish govt generally, from the Tory press and its comment sections these days basically scream “Who do you think you are?!”, “How dare you?” and worse, all the way to “If it wasn’t for us you’d be speaking German” (a particularly ironic delight, that one).

      I apologise if I hit a nerve in referring to a nation losing its mind. Half a nation would have been fairer. What I have tried to say is that we are at a low point in trust because of both historic experience of British injustice and impunity in Ireland and a feeling that, if it were not for the EU, Ireland would have had the short end of the stick already. Instead, there is immense surprise and anger that Ireland is unwilling to do what its former master thinks it should, and a bitter conviction in some quarters that it is simply being used by the EU. This is, of course, not just nonsense but offensive, patronising nonsense. And yet it continues, day after day, not just from the Tories but from the mainstream British media.

      The people, such as yourself, expressing different sentiments — respect for treaty commitments, recognition of constraints and obligations, moral and practical, are not obviously in charge in the UK. I think it’s no secret that the Irish have feared that the EU might be willing to throw them under the bus. One would like to think the EU hasn’t done so exclusively for reasons of solidarity and principle, but I think the UK has played its cards in a way that has enhanced support for Ireland and the backstop. And I say it in sorrow not recrimination. Sir Socks put his finger on it quite well when he warned a day or so ago that when elephants fight the grass gets flattened. Yr former nr 1 diplomat went on to say the Irish would be “screwed” (if they didn’t give way, implied).

      Only the angle changes; the gamut ranges from flattery to threats.

      • Can’t believe the proud Irish fought for their independence for 500 years and are willing to surrender to Brussels without a fight.

      • Nice economy. Shame if we had to cut off access to channel ports.


      When partnership and the Good Friday Agreement are invoked and the right things are said there is still a feeling that sincerity is simply absent. After all, how is one to interpret the attempts to resile from agreements entered into and which get dismissed later as “a form of words”, “a statement of intent” etc. And the unconcealed contempt of the likes of Sir Christopher Meyer, and the diplomatic efforts to brief against the Irish and the GFA. And it’s not just the Irish who are concerned by this, perhaps fortunately for us.

      Of course, it’s not just the Irish who are back in the frame as enemies of the people. We have some very distinguished company, and on an unprecedented scale. Our feeling of solidarity with, and affection for, that half of the British population is immense. For some, because it accepts and respects Irish autonomy and sovereignty, the GFA & value of peace, for others because of a feeling that we need to live in a post-national world where our shared concerns are more important than differences. For me it’s a cause for some pride, not anxiety, that large numbers of Brits are acquiring Irish passports. Correspondingly, we are shamed by the likes of first generation Irish immigrant “Tommy Robinson”.

      We were on the losing side in 1690, and, incredibly, that is still being litigated in part of Ireland. We have to hope for a more favourable outcome now and one that plays out faster.

  5. Sean Danaher -


    I agree with this and much of your earlier comments. As I have mentioned before my father was in Germany from 1937-39 doing a PhD and attended the 1938 Nuremberg rally -in fascination and horror. He was absolutely of the belief that there was nothing different about the Germans and given the right conditions it could happen anywhere most likely in England and the US.

    Living in England I can see the country splitting into two tribes. My wife and brother in law are an interesting case study. My wife, a top consultant in Intensive Care and Anesthetics is a passionate “Remainer”. My brother in law, dripped out of school with almost no qualifications unemployed and unemployable a vitriolic “Leaver”.

    Last Saturday my wife and I were in London for the People’s Vote march. We discussed Brexit for the first time with the Brother in Law. He seemed deranged and irrational and was convinced that Germany was doing well because it was running and had been running a 10% deficit for the past 20 years. He correctly stated a 3% max target for Euro countries. This was news to me! Indeed my main criticism of Germany has been that it has been far too tight on terms of fiscal policy since the 2008 crash.

    OK I said let’s check the actual figures – we had time before dinner- last few years in surplus and worst 2010 with 4.2%. Fake he shouted and stormed out of the room. The EU is doomed was his parting remark!

    I think this is probably an extreme case study.

    On Sir Socks (Christopher Meyer) there seems to be some trans Atlantic madness that sets in. Ray Bassett our own former ambassador to Canada seems equally affected. In stark contrast of course Sir Ivan Rogers – the former EU ambassador – who is extraordinary knowledgeable and sane. Like Ying and Yang.

    There is still a great worry that Ireland will be thrown under the bus. Ceartainly without backing from the EU, I’m sure it would have been done without the slightest remorse by the Brexiters (opinion polls strongly support this). The EU support has been impressive and welcome. I’m certain that without it the usual “might is right” attitude would have prevailed.

    “Tommy Robinson” is indeed a shameful individual and I have alluded to many Irish Americans on the Trump team.

    Regarding 1690 I have discussed it a bit here . I agree with you about hope, but that makes the current Irish state immensely stressful. Seeing the DUP having such immense influence on HMG policy is particularly galling. I do try to talk about the DUP in diplomatic terms but the RHI scandal is yet another black mark, even when I though they could sink no lower.

    Will it all be over by Christmas? I really don’t know.

  6. Donald Liverpool -

    The outcome I want, and always wanted, was the EEA/EFTA option, alongside a declaration of unilateral free trade with the Rest of the World. This solves the border problem with regard to goods travelling legally from the Republic to the North, as there is no need for infrastructure in that direction.
    It would not solve the problem of collecting any customs due in the opposite direction from the North to the Republic, and would put the Republic in quite a spot of difficulty as they would find themselves being rules takers over how to ensure they are collected.
    Quite a conundrum, but not one for the UK to overly worry about.

    1. Samuel Johnson -

      Good luck with that. It would last until the first case of serious food poisoning arising from criminals taking advantage of the UK’s abandoning border controls, or the first few busloads of illegal immigrants (so much for taking back control), and whatever happens there will no asymmetry (the UK will not be exempt from inspections, rules of origin, VAT regulations etc.). There will be no difference between NI and Dover except with the EU’s agreement, so the idea of sticking it to Ireland is a non-runner. Ireland is the EU and vice versa. The EU feeds 20m British people every day. Any disruption to food supplies will result in collapse of the current UK govt. The “We hold all the cards” merchants overlooked that one, among others.

      Implicit in yr instant unilateral free trade with the rest of the world is the sacrifice of agriculture and manufacturing. That wasn’t on the side a bus and the reaction to it would likely make the poll tax riots look like a picnic.

  7. Donald Liverpool -

    A question for you, Sean. You said 2018 UN Human Development Index, an internationally recognised metric of general quality of life, ranks Ireland as 4th globally . . .and about 40 points ahead of NI
    Have you got a source for that claim about where NI would be if treated as an independent entity that is from the last 7 years. I can find one from 2010 but nothing since.

    1. Seán Danaher -

      Yes it is a good point. The HDI is normally quoted on a UK wide basis and the NI figure is from a secondary source. I will make enquires tomorrow and try to get a proper reference. It could well be the NI figure is our of date.

      1. Donald Liverpool -

        Any update on this. Not sure how you can claim a figure for NI without a source and then also say that the number is out of date, but I’m sure you can explain.

      2. Sean Danaher -

        No my sources have not gotten back to me. I agree without a proper reference it is an unsound claim and I will remove it.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Yes I have seen similar comments but I can’t find anything since 2010 which does a regional analysis of the UK using the UN HDI parameters. I suspect that NI is now much further behind IE than it was in 2010, but unless I have a proper source I can’t say for sure. Parts of the NE are equally grim and without London and the SE the UK would be much lower on the International table.

    2. Donald Liverpool -

      That was an interesting little read, cheers. It looks like it’s easier to start a small business in the Republic, or that there are hindrances to doing so in the North. It’s almost as if the Republic has embraced the concept of economic freedom and the rule of law in a bigger way than other territories. Dare I say it on here – the Republic is more successful because it is more neoliberal.
      All I was questioning is how far behind the North is – 40 spots on a world league table doesn’t smell right, but it’s still well behind with high levels of state dependency and less trust in the law and each other.
      There’s a good chance of a referendum on NI leaving the UK at some point in my life. We’re squeezed between countries that love referenda now. Never underestimate the power of money though. The subsidies from West to the old East Germany haven’t equalised outcomes after all these decades, but there’s little doubt in spite of the evidence of aid based on inequality being a failure that the North would expect them from the Republic if unification occurred. If the Republic makes clear that there will be no hand-outs based on regional inequality, just more freedom, the majority catholic North would probably vote to stay in the UK when the time comes. Imv, of course.

      1. Samuel Johnson -

        Ireland is #1 in the OECD in the share of GDP expended on social transfers.

        Not exactly the hallmark of a neoliberal paradise.

        Overwhelmingly commited to staying in the EU — likewise.

        If a neoliberal paradise is what you seek, look to the money laundering capital of the world: London & its network of offshore tax havens.

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