Northern Ireland seems to be in a poor state as discussed in part I. In addition to the Economic and infrastructure problems, of course the legacy of the troubles is still raw. NI is one of the most traumatised societies in the West, with extremely high prevalence of mental illness including the world’s highest rate of PTSD. Healing is certainly not helped by the two dominant parties: the DUP and Sinn Féin who are at opposite extreme ends of the political spectrum and feed off “fear of other”. Many Unionists are repulsed by Sinn Féin’s past (and suspected current) pIRA (provo) links and glorification of past violence. Nationalists are repulsed by the Protestant Supremacist tendencies of the DUP, their reliance on Orange Order and UVF votes and their 17th century social and religious attitudes.
Sinn Féin try at least to appeal to the centre ground (if not always very successfully). The DUP make little attempt to do so and indeed seem to be regressing into a more extreme and intolerant form of Unionism. What is more depressing is that these tactics seem to work, with the more moderate Nationalist and Unionist parties such as the SDLP and UUP respectively being soundly beaten in electoral terms. The centrist Alliance party very disappointingly rarely, if ever, gets more than 10% of the overall vote.
The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) gave a structure in which Northern Ireland had the potential to heal, and to become a more equal society. The Nationalist community is still discriminated against in many subtle and less subtle ways, not least being the status of the Irish language. “When you’re accustomed to privilege; equality looks like repression” is much the DUP mindset, that of their voters and possibly greater Unionism as a whole. Clare Mitchell has written quite a nice piece on what might be described as NI Wallpaper on this very topic.
What’s encouraging is that the people in NI as a whole are far less sectarian than the voting intentions might leave you to believe, particularly the younger generations. I had hoped that over the next 25 years or so, NI would become a more relaxed place where identity could be fluid and sovereignty issues of less and less importance as a feeling of being a European citizen became more important.
There will also be a “greening” of NI; there is currently a 47% – 42% Unionist/Nationalist voting age split, but this will be reversed within a generation given demographics. Only two outcomes seemed possible: a United Ireland or a Nationalist dominated NI. Ironically I suspect that the Unionists would be far more happy in an inclusive Ireland than in a legacy sectarian society where they are the lesser community.
Then of course the Brexit Referendum happened.
Brexit and the Constitutional Position of NI
I am not a constitutional lawyer, but here follow Brendan O’Leary who is Lauder Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, a world leading constitutional lawyer, and his Dalriada Document (it also looks at the constitutional position of Scotland). It was issued on the 13 July 2016 a few weeks after the Brexit referendum.
The United Kingdom is a multi-national state, a partnership of peoples, a country of countries, a nation of nations. It is neither an English nation-state nor a British nation-state. It is a union-state, not a unitary state. English politicians in particular have frequently told the Scottish and the Northern Irish as much, especially after they have been reminded that the UK is not a synonym for Britain. Yet political steps currently being considered — and demanded — may well destroy forever the merits of defining the UK as a multi-national union-state. If these steps are completed, they will emphatically confirm the claims of those who have maintained that the UK is mere camouflage for what has always really been Greater England (or Greater England & Wales).
This is indeed rather prophetic as the current UK Gov seems to totally be riding roughshod over Scotland and ignores NI views apart from those that allows it to cling to power via DUP support.
Northern Ireland is in partnership in a union state. But, unlike Scotland, it has never been a state, except in colloquial usage. It has, however, recently been on track to become a ‘federacy’, i.e., engaged in a distinctively federal relationship with Great Britain, in which its constitutional and institutional arrangements would not be disturbed by unilateral measures taken by the Westminster Parliament. In solemn UK declarations, statutes and agreements, in conjunction with the rest of Ireland, Northern Ireland has been recognized as a twin unit in exercising the right of self-determination. In the Joint Declaration for Peace, the Downing Street Declaration of 15 December 1993, the Prime Ministers of the two sovereign states agreed that, ‘The British Government agree that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish.’ The declaration also recognized the right of both parts of Ireland to remain divided until such concurrent consent occurred, but subject to the arrangements subsequently agreed in 1998.
It could be argued therefore that taking the major constitutional change of taking NI out of the EU without the agreement of the people of NI is of dubious legality.
Northern Ireland is neither legally nor geographically part of Britain; it has a separate statute book, and a separate judiciary; and it has a distinctive power-sharing executive and assembly, the rules of which reflect an agreed partnership among those who designate as unionists, nationalists, or others. Its current arrangements, whose complexity need not be fully described here, were established in two referendums held in both parts of Ireland on the same day in 1998. One question now before the Westminster Parliament — and the institutions of the European Union — is why a referendum held in 2016 within the UK and Gibraltar, in which the weight of Great Britain was preponderant in population, must be read by the Westminster Parliament unilaterally to supersede or abrogate key features of the agreement ratified by referendum in both parts of Ireland in 1998, and subsequently ratified in a treaty registered at the United Nations, which affects two member – states of the European Union, not just one. That treaty and the agreement it protects contain implied or explicit provisions that assume the sovereign states of the UK and Ireland are member – states of the European Union.
What is very annoying is that it is the NI Executive and Assembly which is tasked with getting NI out of the Brexit constitutional crisis. The very same assembly that has not been able to form for over a year.
The Westminster Parliament must therefore reflect on whether the damage to the arrangements within Northern Ireland that would flow from the United Kingdom’s complete withdrawal from the European Union would be just, democratic, or necessary. It would not be just because a UK referendum mandate cannot wipe out a Northern Ireland and Ireland referendum mandate unless both parties to the previous referendum result agree that it may have such an effect. It would not be democratic because there is no common demos across the UK and Ireland, and because the people of Northern Ireland, a distinct partner to a recognized right of self – determination with Ireland, voted solidly to remain within the EU. It is also not necessary, because the referendum is advisory, and a constructive compromise is available that would be both just and democratic.
Opinion polls in NI repeatedly have substantial majorities for some form of special status, favouring some form of Irish Sea border over the reintroduction of a Land Border, should one prove necessary. The insistence by PM May that no Prime Minister could agree to a sea border appears to the Irish as the worst form of greater England Imperialist bullying (and DUP appeasement) and completely against the spirit of the GFA. It is of course also historical nonsense as there was a sea border under four Prime Ministers: Churchill, Atlee, Eden and Macmillan.
Brexit, the Border the Withdrawal Agreement – the Irish Position and Current State.
The Irish see peace on the Island, the protection of the Good Friday Agreement and their citizens North of the Border as their number one priority. This is despite the fact that from the point of view of hard headed trade it might not be sensible, as Ireland does roughly 10 times as much trade with Britain (c 10% of exports) as it does with NI (c 1% of exports). Border trade is of course very important regionally, particularly in agribusiness with goods often crossing and criss-crossing the border. The major cornerstone underpinning the GFA is the completely open border between Ireland and NI.
There is historically little trust on the border issue and the Irish were, and still are, adamant that there will remain a completely open border. Before a withdrawal agreement is agreed there must be legally binding text as opposed to woolly platitudes or hair-brained leprechaun flying on drone schemes. The British agreed to this on the 8th December 2017. The Irish and EU have come up with a solution which requires NI to remain part of the EU’s customs territory (CU and SM for goods), with minimum checks on goods flowing from the UK. The British to date have simply not taken this seriously and certainty have produced no credible alternative scheme. There is a belief that the UK will use a “might is right” technique to bulldozer Ireland. This is re-enforced by May’s comments last December as published in Tony Connolly’s Brexit and Ireland (yellow highlight):
Support in Ireland towards the government approach is monolithic in the Dáil and Seanad. My guess it that is supported by well over 90% of the populace. Such criticisms that have been are that the government have been far too lenient with the UK, in allowing them to kick the can down the road for too long. There is absolutely die in a ditch determination on the part of the Irish. They want an “all weather insurance” backstop and there will be no withdrawal agreement without it. The Irish will not change their mind on this – I think there is little appreciation in the UK as to quite how determined the Irish are; if ever there was a die in a ditch issue this is it. There is a remote possibility that EU unity of support for Ireland may fracture over this, but if anything support seems to be strengthening. It is hoped that the backstop need never be used as a deep and comprehensive trade agreement will render its implementation unnecessary.
David Henig (for whom I have tremendous respect) has argued on twitter that there is a UK Sovereignty argument. From the UK’s perspective the Irish version of the backstop looks like EU bullying and overplaying its hand. He thinks that it will be very difficult to get the backstop through parliament and that the Irish should try to help. Existentially if I understand David correctly it is a Bismarkian “politics is the art of the possible” approach. The Irish are certainly happy to help in terms of wording – what Barnier calls de-dramatisation, but not in terms of outcome. The response to David by Irish commentators and vehement rejection surprised him, I think. Not agreeing to the backstop is seen as bad faith of the most heinous kind (as the UK already agreed on the 8th Dec), rewarding the Brexit zelots of the ERG and DUP, and as already stated the worst form of Greater Englander Imperialist bullying. It is seen as “paper tiger” posturing and not credible. I refer again to Prof Brendan O’Leary’s analysis above.
Brussels is also baffled by the UK’s position on the backstop. EU officials point out that some checks already take place at Northern Irish ports and airports and that the EU’s proposal simply would build upon them. Indeed, Northern Irish civil servants this year produced a draft paper that proposed what they dubbed a “Channels” approach, under which goods entering Northern Ireland from the UK could pass through either a red or green channels at ports or airports depending on whether those goods were destined for local consumption or export to the EU. Such a system would depend on some level of risk-based checks combined with appropriate documentation, cross-border co-operation and tough penalties for infringements. The paper concludes that such “a pragmatic extension of present reality . . . seems infinitely preferable to a return to the border of the past”. Yet the UK government has blocked publication and refuses to share with Brussels any underlying data on volumes of goods entering Northern Ireland.
There is a suspicion also that, as the UK has long declared that it has no strategic interest in NI, the border is callously and crudely being used as bargaining chip to get the EU to agree to a UK wide backstop – Chequers (and appeasing the DUP in the process). This is very unlikely to be successful. The UK could always go for a Norway+(CU) solution.
The Irish position is that the backstop is an insurance policy to be used only in the case of last resort, but needs to be there before moving on. They have repeatedly stressed that if the UK puts forward a legally binding solution which guarantees no hard border, they will be more than happy to accept it if truly workable. No such attempt has been made; indeed there seems absolute refusal by the UK to even try. Should the talks break down and there is a hard NI border, so be it.
Irexit and Ireland rejoining the UK or at least its Sphere of Influence
This is a dream of some of the Brexit Ultras and some NI Unionists. I have discussed this about 18 months ago in the blog and came to the conclusion that hell would freeze over first. The near infinitesimal probability of this happening has decreased even further. It merits little further discussion but in a nutshell Ireland has improved significantly in the intervening period, while the UK seems to be descending into Brexit chaos. Andrew Adonis, who is taking a particular interest in Ireland and Northern Ireland recently, wrote Ireland: Europe’s new liberal icon? last week (31/8) which sums up the mood well.
There is however a new Irexit Freedom Party launching this weekend. This may be useful as a barometer to test public opinion. I will be astounded if it ever polls more than 10% of the electorate.
Special Status – A Hong Kong in Northern Ireland?
NI voted not to leave the EU by a 12% margin (56%/44%) in the referendum and recent opinion polls, if 2016 were rerun, give a much greater margin with typically 60-70% of voters choosing to remain in the EU.
When the question of special status is asked, polls repeatedly give a result that, if necessary, a sea border is preferred to a land one.
In the recent Kent study (29/06/18) for example:
In a scenario where the border was East-West and characterised by an ‘electronic border with the provision of random physical checks, where there was shared control and maintenance of the border by the UK and Irish governments, and financial compensation for the costs of the border’ (a 10% rise in public spending in Northern Ireland) there was majority support expressed across BOTH unionists and nationalists surveyed (65%). (66% of nationalists and 65% of unionists).
Other proposals include the upgrading of links to NI via improved road links or indeed a bridge as illustrated in Fig. 2 and discussed in The National. To me the northern route does not make sense, either as a road or rail bridge. The Mull of Kintyre is very remote – I have never visited, though it is a long term ambition – simply too far from anywhere – and there are no rail links. The more southerly route could easily tap into the existing rail or road network. There is however the engineering difficulty of the Beaufort’s Dyke – a 300m-deep sea trench off the Scots coast (with another difficulty discussed below). The cost is estimated to be in the region of £15bn.
Dr Charles Tannock MEP has examined this scenario in his Hong Kong in Northern Ireland paper:
Convincing the DUP’s senior opinion-formers, particularly their hard-line MPs in the House of Commons compared to the more pragmatic Assembly Members, is key in all this. One way to maintain the connection between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is literally to build one. The British government could offer to carry out a serious preparatory feasibility study for constructing a fixed link, via tunnel or a combination of tunnel and bridge (to avoid the very deep and unexploded ordnance-filled Beaufort trench in the Irish sea). The shortest distances are considerably less than the Channel Tunnel. This is a major infrastructure project that would excite and unite all Ireland and provide great comfort to the Unionist community in the north.
The DUP are not considered to be doing well over Brexit with only a 15% say they are doing well or very well in the recent OFOC opinion poll. The same poll indicates that in the case of Brexit with a hard land border NI would vote 56% to 40% for a United Ireland in a Border Poll.
On the economic advantages:
The fixed link would be complemented by the unique advantages this special economic status would give Northern Ireland, as effectively remaining in the economic area of the EU while also fully in the United Kingdom. This could, if properly marketed, act as a magnet for investment for firms seeking to take advantage both of the UK’s business-friendly common law legal system environment and Northern Ireland’s regulatory alignment with the EU.
What was evident from my recent travels North and South of the border was just how far NI had fallen behind Ireland and anything which improves the Economic performance of NI is to be welcomed. If, as appears to be happening, NI voters – particularly Nationalist ones, are increasingly looking towards the South for their future it could well hasten the demise of NI.
The pressure on the DUP, who are the main roadblock to this solution is increasing. Many observers have noted that their attitude over the past few years has done more to bring about a UI in than the pIRA and Sinn Féin have done over the past 50. The irony is that a HK style solution could cement NI’s position in the UK for decades to come.
An Accelerated United Ireland
With demographic changes it seemed before Brexit very likely there would be a UI, but within about a 25 year time frame. I had previously thought Brexit would advance this time frame to a 5-10 year window, but recent “paper tiger” posturing on the Border by the UK side has accelerated the time frame even further. It is now possible (maybe even probable) that if a Border Poll was held next April after a complete no-deal Bexit breakdown that NI would vote for Unification. Some points are worth making.
- While many in Ireland would welcome Unification, the experience is that sudden changes can be chaotic and a hastily formed UI without careful consideration is unwelcome.
- Ireland is doing very well at present but has come out of a very deep recession after the Global Financial Crisis. There are major issues particularly in housing and health that require urgent attention. These are solvable over say a 5 year time frame, but the initial burden of taking on NI means the timing is not perfect.
- Ideally there would be a string of white papers on every aspect of Unification, there may not be time to do this, but obviously much more needs to be done/
- In health in particular where the health rankings of Ireland and the UK are similar (a recent Lancet study put Ireland considerably ahead) the free at the point of use NHS model is extremity attractive. For historical reasons the Irish system is very complex. Ireland is moving towards Sláintecare but this will not be fully implemented for around a decade. Ideally this should be in place before a Border poll.
- Whereas it would be unfair to describe NI as an “economic basket-case” it is certainly, at present, in the short term, an economic liability rather than an asset.
- It is estimated the the UK exchequer subsides NI by c £10bn pa. This figure is disputed, but even so it is far more difficult for Ireland with an economy c 8 times smaller than the UK to match this.
- NI is still a very traumatised society and the longer it has a chance to heal before Unification the better.
- There is a hardcore of Loyalists who will fight tooth and nail against a UI and may well try to destabilise the state after Unification.
Orginasations such as THINK32 are being formed to open the discussion. They are already producing election literature such as that shown in Fig. 3. Obviously the Irish Government needs to get on board.
Cancelling Brexit via a People’s Vote
Of increasing likelihood is a people’s vote where Brexit is cancelled altogether. More politicians and pressure groups such as Unions are advocating this, with new names and organisations being added, on an almost daily basis. For this to actually happen, it is generally considered that the Labour party has to get behind it. It seems that the UK public are gradually swinging against Brexit with a recent poll showing 59%-41% pro Remain. Analysts have long argued that there needs to be a clear 60%-40% lead for a peoples vote to happen. This is now getting very close. The likelihood of a people’s vote is increasing. This would however need an Article 50 extension, which would be probably granted in the case of a democratic process such as a referendum or GE. In the NI context this will likely restore the prospect of a UI towards the original 25 year time frame.