Irish Mist more Opaque than Ever

Along with the the status of EU citizens in the UK (and vice versa) and the financial settlement, the Irish border is the third major issue that needs to be resolved (or at least significant progress needs to be made) before talks on future trade between the EU and the UK can begin.

Sadly the situation regarding the border is far from clear. The UK government produced a position paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland on the 16th August. This paper has not been well received in Ireland or the EU and is full of technical detail and very short on principle.

As Fergus Finlay said in the Examiner

It was a wise Irish civil servant who told me once, years ago, that the time to be afraid of British negotiators was when they offered a flurry of ideas. “Read them,” he said, “and you’ll notice one thing. They’re trying to trap you into discussing points of detail, so you end up ignoring the fundamentals.” His remark was made in the context of Anglo-Irish negotiations about the Northern Ireland peace process, but it applies just as much to Britain’s position in the Brexit negotiations, at least where Ireland is concerned. Their negotiating stance is based on an age-old truism — get them haggling about price, and they’ll forget the point of principle.

The principle is simple. After Brexit, any border in Ireland is a border between Britain and the EU. That border affects how people and goods come into and out of the EU. If Britain leaves the EU and the customs union, then Britain, and by extension Northern Ireland, are on the other side of the border. Full stop.

Not surprisingly the EU negotiating team under Michel Barnier spotted this immediately describing the paper as inadequate (I think the term “Magical Thinking” was again used) and pointed out that Britain had entirely ignored the fundamental issue of principle.

I have spent some time on the Northern Irish Blog Slugger O’Toole recently. The blog is unusual in that both Unionists and Nationalist contribute, who generally have dramatically differing world views. The Unionists are very keen on the sovereignty of Westminster and very trusting of the Tory party to do the best for NI and the UK in general.  They are deeply distrustful of the EU, indeed some are rabidly Europhobic. The Nationalists are suspicious of Westminster and the Tories in particular and in general are happy with the EU, whilst readily admitting it is by no means perfect. (Curiously some Unionists accuse the Nationalists of being Europhillic but the word Europhobic seems never to be used in retaliation.) Somehow on most topics there is a courteous if rather heated discussion. However the Slugger article on Friday  The Irish border as a Brexit bargaining chip: A rejoinder to Legatum was so contentious that comments were closed.

Legatum is an International Think Tank driven it would seem by Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, with little to no experience of negotiating with the EU. According to Miriam González Durántez in the Guardian “A think-tank with unparalleled access to Davis and Theresa May and that seems to have been at the origin of some of the preposterous positions on Brexit taken by the government so far. Its inexplicable presence at that table was the clearest signal that the government has not changed its views on Brexit after the general election even one tiny little bit”.

What is worrying is that Legatum’s recent paper on Northern Ireland is a classic Empire Mark II analysis. The Slugger article was by the well respected Dr. Katy Hayward (a Reader in Sociology at Queens University, Belfast). Katy does not pull her punches and her analysis includes sections on: Leveraging a partisan opportunity from a shared problem and Turning ploughshares into swords. A flavour of some of her analysis is here:

“As if the welfare of Northern Ireland wasn’t enough collateral, Legatum sees fit to present the Republic of Ireland as potential leverage for a means getting a Free Trade Agreement from the EU.

Indeed, much effort is exerted by the authors towards aggrandising Great Britain in comparison to its nearest neighbour. They even go so far as to parade the legacy of British colonialism in Ireland as a negotiating strength……….”

Whereas it is not clear that this will become official British policy and things may be clearer after May’s Florence speech, Boris Johnson’s recent article in the Telegraph which rules out membership of the Single Market and Customs Union may be the shape of things to come. Immigration and border control seems to have become the “Holy Grail” of the Tory party (and is not challenged sufficiently by Labour).

In truth the Irish are very worried about the UK. They see Brexit as a manifestation of English Nationalism and even though only about 10% of Irish exports go to the UK, much of this is in the agribusiness sector and is very high profile and will hit rural Ireland badly. They are also deeply concerned by Northern Ireland; sometimes it is the “Elephant in the Room.” The Irish don’t talk about NI very much but are deeply concerned about it. (In contrast to Britain where it seems there is little interest or concern). There is a near universal belief in Ireland that Brexit will be harmful to the UK and negotiations will be a process of damage limitation for both  the UK and Ireland. The belief is the harder the Brexit the worse the outcome for the UK and for Northern Ireland in particular.

In contrast to Britain, the Irish economy is doing very well; indeed it is possibly the strongest it has ever been, with strong growth and approaching full employment. Employment is marginally below 2007 levels but back then a vast amount of the jobs were in construction which was hit very badly by the GFC. Something like 80% of the new jobs in Ireland are high skill/pay in contrast to Britain’s low skill/pay model. Productivity is much higher than the UK and there is a very strong balance of trade surplus.

It would seem that a United Ireland is again on the cards. As  Fergus Finlay puts it: “But the only possible way for us to protect the interests of the people of this entire island is by declaring that there will be no border on the island, not under any circumstances. A border between Britain and the EU can only be achieved by Britain leaving Ireland”.

Of course many of the Unionists, in particular those who vote for the DUP are vitriolically opposed to a United Ireland. Under the Good Friday agreement it would take just 50%+1 to vote in a referendum pro a United Ireland for that to happen. Of course the South would have to agree to take NI; which is increasingly looking impoverished compared to the South. It seems that many Unionists have become fans of Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

I have lived in the UK for many years and have seldom if ever come across people with a passionate belief in the Union with NI (Scotland is a different matter). In 1922 when Ireland was partitioned the North was was easily the richest part of the island and furthermore strategically the naval ports were deemed to be very significant. Neither is the case anymore; Northern Ireland is the poorest part of the island and a major drain on the UK treasury (estimated in the region of around £10bn per year). Should a United Ireland be declared it is likely that champagne will flow in every bar in the Palace of Westminster for at least a week.

There is worry in Unionist circles and even talk of re-partition in the event of a positive UI outcome in the referendum – shrinking NI to say Antrim and Down, but it is by no means clear the UK would have them back.

Of course with the DUP propping up the Tory government a UI will not happen immediately and the prospect of a border poll is effectively vetoed. However it is unlikely that the current government will run a full term and things would look very different under Labour.

Will we see a United Ireland soon?  The probability has seldom looked more likely.









  1. Jeni Parsons aka havantaclu -

    I certainly hope for a re-united Irleand in the near future. But then we have the DUP. And no doubt the old slogan will re-emerge ‘Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right.’ Sinn Fein aren’t doing themselves any favours either; if they’d attend the Westminster Parliament to join with other progressive forces in controlling this Government’s attempt to make Brexit as hard as possible, they’d score very well with the 48%, of whom I am, of course, one. But then – are Sinn Fein progressive?
    We are living in perilous times. ‘And what rough beast, its time come round at last/Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?’

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Indeed Jeni
      I’m no great fan of Sinn Fein and even less so of the DUP. Its a shame that more central parties such as the SDLP and the UUP get so few votes. Sinn Fein is however very much to the left and sits with the European United Left–Nordic Green Left in the European Parliament. I wonder sometimes if this is because the DUP are so conservative – much to the right of almost anyone in the UK. In NI taking the opposite view to your opponents on every possible topic seems to be a badge of honour. Possibly Jacob Rees-Mogg is the closest mainstream politician to them in the UK but he is of course a Catholic and may be difficult for them to stomach.

      I really don’t know what will happen. There is no longer a strong Unionist majority in NI but up to the Brexit referendum many Nationalists/Catholics/Republicans were happy with the status quo and direction of travel and would have voted to stay in the UK.
      The Republic was also hit very hard by the Global Financial Crisis so it was less attractive between 2009-2015 than now. Furthermore whereas there are problems in the Republic; lack of house building and a struggling health service they pale into insignificance as compared to the myriad of problems faced by the UK. Indeed the Republic seems to be very much moving in a forward direction, embracing the 21st century with confidence, the opposite seems to be happening in the UK. We indeed live in perilous times and Yeats “Second Coming” seems particularly apt.

  2. Peter May -

    It always struck me that the EU was the end reassurance that Ireland would remain peaceful as it had really made the question of a United Ireland substantially irrelevant. But if it did happen and the DUP’s ‘men’ decided to resurrect the troubles in protest then Britain would not be able to completely withdraw and Ireland’s economy would nosedive.
    In fact I think the Irish question alone should have prevented a Brexit referendum, until the border issue had been resolved. But I’m sure Cameron never even thought about it.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Indeed its a major worry. Both John Major and Tony Blair warned that Brexit could be very destabilising for Northern Ireland as indeed did the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny. There is a very real prospect if there was a vote for a UI that the hardline loyalists could resurrect the troubles. If there is a hard border there will be other problems.

      Agree entirely Cameron gave very little or no thought as indeed much of the English voting public. It is very possible relations will sour between the UK and Ireland. Indeed when Frances O’Grady tried to bring the NI question up in one of the Brexit debates it was dismissed almost immediately.

  3. Paul Hunt -

    A very good analysis, but the powerful and influential rent-seekers that dominate politics, the economy and society in the South, while paying lip-service to a United Ireland, are absolutely horrified at the prospect and would be do everything in their power to scupper it – surreptitiously, of course. The South doesn’t practise capitalism with functioning markets and sensible economics in a miced economy with a reasonably efficient public sector. Instead it practises classic rent-seeking feudalism with a Leprechaun economy MNE enclave bolted-on and the EU’s largest percentage of households with very low intensity of work being cross-subsidised by the rent captured from the MNEs.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      I think your comments re the Irish economy are a bit harsh and more appropriate for the economy in 2007 than today. I haven’t lived in Ireland for many years and nearly all my friends/relatives are professionals; nowhere near the rent seeking sector so I may get an over rosy view. Some decent references would be useful. Leaving the economy aside I’m not sure I understand your point as to why the rent-seekers would want to block a United Ireland.

      There are two reasons as to why the people I talk to in Ireland are not very enthusiastic about a UI. The first is economic; the North is Very heavily subsidised by the UK. There is a large current account defect of c£10bn and there is a very large pensions liability. Secondly there are thousands of rabid Unionist which do not want a UI under any circumstances and may well try to destroy the country. I think the financial problem is solvable with a long transition period. I’m much less sure about the rabid Unionists.

      My own view is that is there is to be a border poll it should not be held until Brexit has played itself out. I think 2022 would be the earliest date to aim for. The UK situation re Brexit is unclear. I can’t see beyond Friday at present; there seems close to civil war in the Tory cabinet at present

      1. Paul Hunt -

        Thank you. As for references you can get an idea of Ireland’s relative position in relation to GDP and AIC per capita at this link:,_consumption_per_capita_and_price_level_indices

        The GDP per capita data look silly because of the Leprechaun economy bolt-on, but the AIC pc is well below the average for the Euro Area.

        This link provides an indication of expensive Ireland is to live in.
        It’s the most expensive in the Euro Area – and second only to Demark in the EU.

        And this link presents one measure of the very low level of work intensity among so many households in Ireland:

        The IMF as part of its Article IV deliberations with Ireland this year raised a number of these issues in a selected issues report:

        Naturally the Irish establishment and commentariat ignored it.

        There’s a very finely tuned and extensive re-distribution being performed in Ireland to ameliorate the impacts of high levels of inequality driven by endemic rent-seeking and of low work intensity in many households. Even the most minor tweaks to this re-distribution are the focus of intense interest in the run-up to the Budget next month. The prospect of extending and re-allocating this great re-distribution to accommodate the North is simply too frightening for all of those with their snouts in the trough. The vociferous opposition of the Unionists is a relatively minor matter in comparison.

      2. Sean Danaher -

        Thanks Paul
        lots of useful links and data. Its clear that things are not as rosy as the Irish Government likes to present. I think Fintan O’Toole has commented on some of this but he is unusually astute.

      3. Paul Hunt -

        Thank you. I wouldn’t rely too much on FOT’s take. He appears pathologically incapable of getting beyond an “Animal Farm”-like “State provision good; private sector provision and market mechamisms bad”. The balancing act I describe in the South requires a huge amount of effort and handling. What might be seen as relatively minor matters in the overall scheme of things can throw things awry and it requires no end of time and effort to get things back in some sort of sustainable baalnce again. The water charge debacle is a perfect example.

        Nile’s comments below capture perfectly the balancing act within Unionism in the North.

        SF is angling to upend the applecarts in both jurisdictions in the naked pursuit of political power regardless of the consequences. Sadly there’s little appreciation of all of this in Whitehall, Westminster or in the British body politic.

      4. Sean Danaher -

        Hi Paul thanks. Can I ask if you are the Paul Hunt referred to here: ?

        Paper looks interesting though I haven’t had much time to read?

        The water rates thing highlights how difficult change can happen. There seemed to be an enormous amount of work in Dublin a year or two ago installing water meters in every home. Now it seems to be kicked into the long grass?

        My brother who still lived in Dublin is very suspicious of SF (and FF for that matter). He thinks SF will promise almost anything to gain power, mostly unaffordable and undeliverable.

  4. Peter Dawe -

    With the leave vote needing support of the DUP I can see no prospect for a united Ireland. Get real!
    I can envisage no circumstance where there will be an exit deal. The EU has its “Redlines” which due to their processes are near impossible to move. And those “Redlines” will not be acceptable to the (any) UK government. Which leave Hard Brexit or no Brexit!

    Contrary to most commentators a Hard Brexit will leave the EU with the border problem, not the UK. With “contraband” more likely to be southwards rather than northwards. People movement is not an issue, as it is only permission to work that concerns the UK government and this is sorted already with the non-EU work permit system. ( I.e. make the employer the enforcer)

  5. Sean Danaher -

    Agreed that movement of people shouldn’t be a major issue. Agreed also that a hard Brexit or no Brexit are the only realistic options. I have consistently believed that a no deal Brexit had a likelihood of over 90% since before the referendum – I seem to have been in a minority of thinking “leave” would win.

    There is certainly no prospect of a border poll as long as the current government lasts, which will be less than 5 years unless as some have suggested that the government suspends democracy completely. If there is a border poll the earliest time I would support is 2022 but others would prefer much later say in 25 years, by which time there will be a substantial voting Catholic majority in NI.

    A hard Brexit will leave both sides with border problems. I’m not sure what commentators you are referring to but the EU problem is well understood, though many feel that the UK has a moral obligation to find a workable solution.

    Regarding the UK border problem I think Damian Mullan puts it well:

    “If the UK chooses to unilaterally have no customs with the EU, unthinkable, but lets say they choose economic suicide, just so they can make an infantile argument that it’s the, ‘EU that’s putting up customs not the UK’. They must also have the same customs treatment, that is no customs, with every other WTO member. That would be catastrophic for the UK economy.

    So no the UK will not be getting away with the argument, that it’s the EU forcing Ireland to put up customs, as the UK will be forced to do likewise if it’s not to breach WTO rules.”

  6. Nile -

    Something to watch for: Sterling being displaced by the Euro as the dominant medium of exchange in the Six Counties.

    Watch carefully: it’s the kind of thing that’s under-reported, and both Dublin and Westminster have reasons for keeping it quiet.

    That would, if it happens, be a clear mark of economic unification; and political union would inevitably follow.

    It’s quite telling that the DUP, who detest the EU and the Good Friday Agreement, are only so pro-Brexit as far as they can keep the borderless economy: even the hardest hardliners in their core constituency dare not support so damaging a folly as reimposing a hard border.

    Everyone’s jobs and businesses and shopping trips depend on frictionless free movement.

    The DUP have earned their reputation as ‘The militant wing of the Seventeenth Century’ but even their most violent Neanderthals are economic realists; and nobody who matters in Westminster has ascended to that level of intelligence.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Very interesting point Nile. You seem very astute and knowledgeable in your comments re NI!

      1. Nile -

        It’s been a while since I last set foot in Belfast, but I still pay attention.

        Nevertheless, I know less than I would like to: and the collapse of ‘respectable’ Unionist politics should worry every Conservative who worries about populist and racist ‘fringe’ politics going mainstream.

        It ought to worry any Parliamentarian on the Left, too: but the basic political skill of knowing where to look and who to ask – on any matter, and before it becomes dangerous – is entirely absent from the Labour benches.

        Meanwhile, Irish farmers and exporters to the UK have been taking serious economic damage; and there is a very clear political will to more than merely ‘awkward’ about the damage that a hard Brexit and a hard border will do to Ireland.

        I’d give 50-50 odds that a de facto border will become established at the Irish Sea ports following a hard Brexit; and the DUP will stay onside with that, if the superficial symbols of British Sovereignty can be honked and whistled and banged whenever foreign dignitaries come visiting.

        The other outcomes are equally likely and deeply unpleasant; and the help that the Republic gets in dealing with them will be very damaging to the UK.

      2. Sean Danaher -

        Thanks Nile. I agree setting up an Irish Sea border whilst not ideal is a far better option than a land border. The fall in the value of the pound has already played havoc with many Irish farmers and many mushroom farmers have gone out of business. The drift to the extremes with the DUP and SF worry me. As does the general quality of politicians in both the UK and Ireland.

        The confrontational framing of Brexit by many in the UK is deeply unhelpful. A very good article by Chris Kendall yesterday which is well worth a read but here is an extract:
        “This morning as I write this, Twitter is once again abuzz with something Boris Johnson has said. He thinks Brexit talks will fail and that Theresa May “will be humiliated”. “Nobody ever beats the EU in a negotiation” he apparently ‘told a friend’. If he really thinks this, it’s odd that he worked so hard to put his country into a negotiation with the EU, and then to frame this negotiation in needlessly confrontational, zero sum terms, so that the UK can only win if the EU loses.

        Boris is right, insofar as he says that the EU rarely emerges from a negotiation as a loser. But he is utterly wrong if he thinks this means that the EU’s negotiating partners must necessarily then be the losers. As I said back in October last year, the EU’s default approach to negotiations is to find a way for both sides to win. This is the best guarantee of success. By spurning this approach from the outset, the UK has engineered its own probable defeat”.

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