Yesterday the EU put into legal form the Phase 1 agreement between the EU and the UK. As David Allen Green (DAG) says, very little of this should come as a surprise.
The EU simply put into legal form what the UK had already agreed to back in December, and such is the nature of UK politics this is a major event.
— David Allen Green (@davidallengreen) February 28, 2018
I agree completely with DAG on this point. He has an excellent legal mind and his Brexit by Timetable Parts 1, 2 and 3 in the FT are well worth reading. He was (still is?) a “Leaver” and his criticism of the UK is based on the ineptitude of the way the process has been handled by the UK, in total contrast to the EU. More of his thinking is in the FT Brexit: 10 observations on the draft withdrawal agreement.
There has been some wonderment as to why the UK government had not attempted to put the December phase 1 agreement into legal text as the UK has the capacity to turn political agreements to legal text very quickly. There are expert teams who work overnight sometimes to do exactly this. Even with a very much hollowed out Civil Service this is of such prime importance that it could have been expedited very quickly. Therefore, the reason it has not been done must be political. As DAG observes:
“So to the third thing: those Brexit supporters who object to the contents of this draft should ask why the UK did not bother to prepare its own version. In both diplomatic and commercial negotiations, the party that produces the first draft invariably starts with and keeps the advantage until the deal is done. For Britain not to have provided its own document is nearly as negligent as sending the Article 50 notification without preparation in the first place. Imagine if the UK had prepared its own draft withdrawal agreement before sending the notification.”
Another remarkable thing is that throughout the entire Brexit process the professionalism of the EU and the chaotic and amateur nature of the UK has been evident. Observation five is:
“But the fifth thing is that this is not a draft out of nowhere. Most of it is merely the translation into formal legal prose of December’s joint report. That key document, in turn, followed an array of published position papers and negotiation documents. There is a certain neatness in how the draft ties together the strands. It is almost as if the EU knew what it was doing and working towards all along”.
The reaction of the British media has been extraordinary. The once great BBC more and more resembles the TASS news agency, and its reporting on the Irish border question resembles pro-Brexit brainwashing. The “report” on the Today programme this morning on the border issue was extraordinary. From Dublin it concentrated on Ray Basset of Policy Exchange who is an outlier – one of the 10% in Ireland who support Brexit (and probably flew back to Dublin from his right wing UK based think-tank). Moving North, I had lost interest at that stage but in Belfast there was a pro Unionist blogger interviewed, possibly Jamie Bryson? Even by the recent abysmal standards of the BBC this was a new low.
It is worth however looking at the situation on the ground in Northern Ireland and the shifting sands of demographics which means major change is possible within the next few years. Unionists have never been so worried and Nationalists so hopeful. Brexit has proved a catalytic force for a United Ireland.
Geographical and Sectarian Divide in Northern Ireland
The Nationalists and Unionist have fundamentally different views on sovereignty. There is of course a spectrum.
The more extreme Unionists (Loyalists) see themselves as British and have a detestation for Irish culture and language. As an illustration I would recommend a short article, “We protestants fear Gaelic and we were raised to mock it” by Richard Irvine (who has now seen the error of his ways). There is a siege and a give not an inch mentality. There is a love of symbols: the Union Jack, God Save The Queen, the Royal Family and a passion for marking territory through parading and bonfires. There are aspects of the DUP which are similar to UKIP, and indeed Tom Peck of the independent attended the last DUP conference and penned I went to the DUP Conference and what I found was disturbingly familiar – this is our new UKIP. One way to tell if you are in a Loyalist area is if you see Israeli flags flying. There are a number of loyalist Terrorist Groups, including the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), The Ulster Defense Association (UDA), The Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), and Red Hand Commando (RHC).
The more extreme Nationalists (Republicans) see themselves as Irish and believe the Northern Ireland Statelet is totally illegitimate. They value Irish language and culture. They see themselves as second class citizens in their own country. They see themselves as the French might have during Nazi occupation. Whereas few would resort to Terrorism, low level civil disobedience and destruction of crown symbols if not actively encouraged is tolerated. They think Westminster should have no jurisdiction over Northern Ireland. They see themselves as being repressed by a tyrannical regime. One way to tell if you are in a Republican area is if you see Palestinian Flags flying. The main Republican terrorist organisation is the Provisional Irish Republican Army, PIRA (Commonly referred to in NI as the RA).
Currently there are 10 Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs, seven Sinn Féin (SF) MPs, and one independent Unionist (Lady Silvia Hermon), in Northern Ireland as of the 2017 General Election. Belfast is a Nationalist majority city but gerrymandered; the boundaries are such that W Belfast has a super-concentration of nationalists (2017 GE SF 27,107 votes, DUP 5,455). If voters were spread evenly three out of four Belfast seats could have been nationalist. Also, an electoral pact between SF and the SDLP would have given the Nationalists a seat in South Belfast (2017 GE DUP 13,299 votes, SDLP 11,303, SF 7,143). One very important factor is that all the border communities have a Sinn Féin MP – as illustrated in Fig.1. This is very important for implications of securing the border, which I will discuss later.
Support for the Union
When Northern Ireland was set up in 1921 it was chosen as the largest area in which there would be a permanent protestant majority and even as recently as 1964 there was a clean sweep of Unionist seats. Consequently, fifty years ago the Union seemed absolutely secure:
- There was solid support for the Union in Westminster, particularly amongst the Tory party.
- NI was very prosperous and whereas it may not have been a major economic asset to the UK at least it was not a major drain on the exchequer.
- The RoI was an insular, cultural backwater. After independence the secularists lost out and De Velara’s vision of a Catholic rural Ireland with comely maidens dancing at the cross roads won out.
- The RoI was financially very poor, with low wages, lack of industrialisation and infrastructure.
- The inbuilt permanent Protestant/Unionist majority was holding strong.
Fifty years ago the electoral map was very different. As shown in Fig. 2 in the UK General Election 1964 for example the Unionists for the last time had a clean sweep.
Things are very different today
- The Labour Party, and particularly its leader Jeremy Corbyn, support a United Ireland and whereas the Tory party are officially agnostic it seems only about thirty or so actively support a United Ireland. (The current DUP pact prevents them from speaking openly).
- NI is getting comparatively poorer and poorer despite the fact that the UK treasury pumps about £5,500 per capita into NI ever year, costing the Treasury about £10bn per annum.
- The RoI is becoming one of the most progressive countries in the world, being the first to pass a referendum on gay marriage, for example, and has an openly gay half Indian Prime Minister in Leo Varadkar.
- The RoI has been transformed from being one of the poorest to one of the richest and most highly industrialised countries in Europe with rapidly improving infrastructure (more than 1000 km of motorway built in the past 25 years) and the fastest growth in the EU for four years in a row (7.3% 2017 for example).
- The inbuilt Unionist majority is paper thin at best and demographics are such that it could disappear completely within a decade.
Securing the Border is next to Impossible
- As I have discussed previously in Bordering on Madness, there are about twice (some estimates say over 3 times) as many border crossings between Northern Ireland and the Republic than the entire Eastern border of the EU.
- During the Troubles 20,000 British Soldiers could not secure the border.
- Nationalist communities live on both sides of the border and believe they live in the same country, as carefully recognised in the Good Friday Agreement.
- Technological solutions such as those suggested by Boris Johnson in his Camden and Westminster analogy have been widely derided.
- Even if such solutions did exist, unlike Sweden/Norway, for example, where people actually want a border, cameras etc would not last 24 hours.
- And there is no point in escalating border ‘security’ by providing manned guards as they will be seen as an illegitimate occupying force and fair game for the hardliners.
Some months ago there appeared to be a number of options but it seems increasingly likely that there are now just two: a Hard Brexit or no Brexit at all. No Brexit is obviously close to the Status Quo but may be politically impossible. For Northern Ireland a Hard Brexit will likely produce a majority for a United Ireland once a Border poll has been called in line with Fig 4.
The view south of the border will not be overwhelming joy but likely a dutiful acceptance that it needs to take NI on. I have argued that reunification might more resemble Cyprus than Germany but ultimately I think they will bite the bullet. There are two issues – economic and political.
The economic difference between the South and North is ever increasing and Fig 5 – taken from Prof Brian Lucey’s article Northern Ireland’s economy has a lot more to lose from a hard Brexit than the Republic’s – is illustrative of one difference between the two economies. However, think of the difference between East and West Germany at the time of unification and you will not be far from the truth.
The political difference is even more of a worry. The DUP voting Unionists are not well understood by the Southern Irish and there is a worry of civil disobedience or even renewed terrorism. But possibly they worry overmuch as younger Protestants tend to be far more tolerant, as illustrated in Fig 6.
To summarise: the prediction is either No Brexit or a United Ireland by its hundredth birthday in 2021.