The Important Wrecking Amendment


I’ve been worried about the Irish border for some time – my wife thinks excessively – but growing up on the island of Ireland it tends to loom large. Last night was difficult as the chances of a cliff edge Brexit in March and the return of a hard border have increased dramatically. I didn’t sleep very well.

There is some historical context here:

If we close our eyes will we know we have left the EU?

The actual topography of the border makes it almost impossible to use as a customs border:

Bordering on Madness?

There are good reasons also to think that Northern Ireland as a separate entity from the Republic is on borrowed time.

Reuniting with our friends in the North?

Or possibly not as NI is not a very attractive going concern, it is economically way behind the Republic and the Loyalists in particular may be troublesome.

Ireland As Cyprus Rather than Germany?

Westminster Representation and the DUP

One major issue of course is that the DUP, a party that only got 292,316 votes in the 2017 GE but 10 seats has undue influence in Westminster. Sinn Féin who polled 238,915 votes, and seven seats, do not for historic reasons take their seats. There is a school of thought that given the tightness of the voting at present they should break the habit of  100 years and help vote down the government. There is another school of thought that it could backfire by frightening some of the Tory rebels to vote with the Government. There would be howls of derision also from the rabidly right wing press who see Sinn Féin as an unreformed terrorist organisation, while simultaneously turning a blind eye to the DUP’s terrorist connections as detailed here:

A More Definitive guide to the DUP

The June Ashcroft poll (Fig. 1) shows that NI is fairly neutral on EU related matters. From a GB perspective, on the EU, the DUP are similar to UKIP and SF similar to the Lib Dems or Greens. The only question which is significantly far from the 50% line in the overall population is agreement on no hard border between NI and the RoI.

Fig. 1 The June Ashcroft poll and polarisation.


Another interesting study is that from the University of Kent: Little public support in Northern Ireland for a No Deal outcome on Brexit:

A University study investigating opinions in Northern Ireland about the fate of the Irish border after Brexit found that both unionists and nationalists would prefer the least intrusive arrangements possible and that there is a form of border arrangement that could command cross community support.


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).

The Backstop and the Withdrawal Agreement

The main worry from the Irish perspective is that the introduction of a hard border may destabilise the carefully crafted peace in NI which has now existed for 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement. A hard border is in no ones interest and in any event would be well nigh impossible to either build or maintain.

There are advantages to being small and the NI economy is less than 2% of that of the UK as a whole. Ireland persuaded the EU that NI could be treated as a special case, being allowed to be part of the Single Market and Customs Union for goods without having to strictly abide to the Four Freedoms. On the 8th December the UK Government signed a political agreement including paragraph 49.

The EU has agreed that Northern Ireland can remain part of the “Customs territory of the EU” paving the way to a Hong Kong type scenario which could well make Northern Ireland prosper. This might well ensure the existence of Northern Ireland for decades. Indeed NI is already treated differently to GB in many respects:

There are already different rules and regulations between NI and England and between Scotland and England

As Brendan O’Leary put it regarding “here” in the Dalriada Document:

“ Northern Ireland is neither legally nor geographically part of Britain; it has a separate statute book, and a separate judiciary”…

Effectively this hyperbolic Unionist claim that having a system of trading differences somehow infringes U.K. sovereignty is simply rhetorical nonsense which apparently misunderstands the nature of how the Union actually functions between NI and Britain. If Unionists are genuinely requiring a truly homogeneous system across the entire U.K. a good start might just be to begin with demanding same sex marriage…

Whereas it is true that there is a general romantic desire withing the Republic for a United Ireland, there is no rush. Northern Ireland is an economic liability costing the UK exchequer c £10bn pa. Given that the British population is c 65M as opposed to 4.8M in RoI, the per capita subsidy would be more than 10 times greater on the citizens of the Republic. Northern Ireland also is still a very traumatised society after the troubles (NI ranks in the top 3 countries worldwide for most mental illnesses) and there is little appetite to absorb the Loyalists who consider a UI to be equivalent to Armageddon and fear they will be treated like the Rohyngia in Myanmar. This of course is complete nonsense.

The DUP of course see things very much from a Unionist/Loyalist perspective and rather than looking at the Backstop as a godsend, which could well revive the NI economy and ensure its existence into the foreseeable future are paranoid about anything which would distance NI further from Britain.

The reality is however that a hard border will make a United Ireland more rather than less likely. Opinion polls indicate that a hard border would move many in the middle ground towards a United Ireland. It only takes a simple majority, on both sides of the border, for a UI to happen. It is unlikely if push came to shove the Republic would say no.

The White Paper and the Backstop

My opinion of the White Paper is similar to that of many other commentators, for example Prof Chris Grey in This White Paper should be put out of its misery. There was however one very important piece of text “The operational legal text the UK will nonetheless agree on the ‘backstop’ solution as part of the Withdrawal Agreement.”

This is of vital importance and very welcome. Unless the Withdraw agreement is finalised the UK will have a “cliff edge” Brexit in March. From the EU’s perspective it is the withdrawal agreement that is urgent. The future trade arrangement can wait till the transition period.

The ERG and Wrecking Amendments

There is much discussion in the press about the wrecking amendments. The trade ones are not that important as the situation is fluid and there will be until the 31 Dec 2020 to come to agreement. The real issue is the amendment to make a border on the Irish sea illegal: “It shall be unlawful for the HMG to enter into arrangements under which Northern Ireland forms part of a separate customs territory to Great Britain.” This amendment passed fairly easily, but of course it will take some time to put into law.

The situation remains fluid and the real border expert Dr Katy Hayward has tweeted:

We live in uncertain times!


  1. Ivan Horrocks -

    I think you’re correct to be worried.

    The Brexit maniacs are far from done, and as this gets more bloody – and the electoral commission’s report has now further stoked the pot – they will more and more push for a hard Brexit. May’s ‘soft’ hard exit – as I described it to someone yesterday – is already dead, and her capitulation to the ERG today shows that her priority is to remain as PM, not lead the country out of this mess. Indeed, if push comes to shove – and that will occur later this week once the EU comment formally on the White Paper – I think she’ll capitulate entirely and go for a hard Brexit. Handled well – and with the Brexit press behind her – that could garner her enough political capital as a ‘strong’ leader to win an early election (in the national interest, you understand) and before the economic fallout from leaving hits the population. That then gives her/them five years to deal with the mess. Historically it will also leave her in a position similar to Thatcher: some will see her as a demi-god for delivering Brexit; while others will see her as a disaster for the UK. That’s all she can hope for now and I suspect she and her advisors know that.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      it’s interesting what drives such people. For me being PM would be the worst job in the world at present.

      You may be right at going for a hard Brexit; it may well look good in the short term, but there would have to be a withdrawal agreement. With enough drum beating and flag waving it will be a while before the economic meltdown becomes apparent.

      I think May will delay a border poll a Scottish Indi Ref as long as possible. We live in very dangerous times.

      If Brexit was ever a good idea, Trump’s behaviour makes it even less so. It seems that the Russians may be all over Brexit as well.

  2. Sean Danaher -

    As an addendum Ian Dunt

    Then the ERG hardliners came in with their amendments on customs collection reciprocity and a customs border in the Irish Sea. They won those battles, but victory had a delicious irony in it. These amendments clearly went beyond anything in a money bill. They made it almost impossible to argue for the government’s category. Bercow is now heavily expected to allow it to go the Lords. There, peers are likely to give it a good going over and return it to the Commons with a series of amendments.

    1. Peter May -

      Oh good!

  3. Andy Crow -

    It’s a deeply worrying situation that we are reliant on an unelected chamber to hold our elected government to account.

    The HofL is effectively the nearest thing we have to an opposition at present.

    What a shambles.

  4. Samuel Johnson -

    Something else to worry about is the growing evidence of anger in the nationalist community in NI. Aside from the border infrastructure and symbolic repartition, they are concerned about losing rights they currently enjoy, including representation in the EU parliament. The unionists are not just insisting that nationalists will not get an Irish language act (already agreed in the State Andrews agreement) but they will be deprived of rights EU citizens enjoy.

    The Irish govt raised expectations that the backstop would help preserve as much of the status quo as possible and it is now getting some blowback from NI, which amounts in tone to a reopening of the Irish civil war. It isn’t just NI that may be destabilised, it’s the Republic as well.

    One potential outcome is that this could harden attitudes in the Republic against reunification in the foreseeable future. Ireland’s prosperity is very much tied to it being a stable democracy. The country is emerging (strongly) from a period of adversity following the financial crash of 2007/8 and there will be limited appetite to assimilate an economic basket case with the SF DUP Punch & Judy show potentially poised to revert into enough of an all-island conflict to drive away investment. There’s zero chance I’d vote for it — despite my conviction that partition was a crime. I’d rather wait.

    Strategic patience is needed, and planning and agreement on future governance, which could, and hopefully will, see old divisions rendered irrelevant as new alliances emerge. But that’s going to take time, and it’s far from clear that there’s time available to prevent zero-sum warriors putting the clock back.

    And of course, events in the rest of the UK will have an effect. A collapse of the current govt. Scotland leaving the union. And most likely of all, a change in the Barnet formula.

    1. Sean Danaher -


      Numerous good points, Regarding the Irish Language Act I penned a piece Disgust with the Guardian: which shows the sheer pettiness of the Loyalists. It is long overdue.

      The “rights” issue is a very important one and citizens rights are likely to get worse than those enjoyed within the EU all over the UK. Nationalists of course carry Irish passports (in general) and see themselves as Irish and part of Ireland. It is worth exploring further.

      Regarding the EU parliament there has been some talk of making Ireland like Scotland such that all MEPs represent the entire country or island in Ireland’s case. I havn’t looked at the current state of play.

      It is certainly true polarisation is increasing and there is a strategic game to be played over the next months. I think Prof Kevin O’Rourke described the trade offs fairly well in this article (which needs updating)

      The contrast between Ireland and the UK is very stark. The 2007/8 crash had massive implications for both countries but was vastly worse for Ireland. Nevertheless, Ireland had a deep recession but has bounced back even stronger. The UK limps along like a zombie economy. Of course the ludicrous “expansionary fiscal contraction” policy in the UK didn’t help – it was of course a smokescreen to implement red in tooth and claw neoliberal policies. Ireland has major problems too in housing and healthcare particularly. With a rapidly growing economy these are easier to fix, but it would be great to have another decade without either Brexit or a UI to mess things up.

      Regarding the appetite in the Republic towards a UI you are by no means on your own. I explored this a bit in my Cyprus piece. My sister in law who was a top Dublin civil servant (Dept of Education) found her counterparts in Northern Ireland pretty useless and when asked about NI stated bluntly “we don’t want them”. Des, a friend and former UCD Physics classmate, who went onto do a MBA and work in industry is now in the DCU business school. His reply was “No, Ireland could become as ungovernable as Belgium” – which I thought was interesting.

      NI is considered an economic “basket case” GDP per capita I think is only about 40% of the Republic, growth rate forecast about 1/5 of the Republic, job creation rate about 1/20 of that in the Republic. What gets me also is the “begging bowl” mentality. There is almost delight amongst Unionists that they get c 10bn net pa from UK Gov some interesting discussion here (Brendan Heading is normally well worth reading).

      If Anna Soubry is correct, and if the ERG is effectively running the country, a no deal Brexit is increasingly likely, with no backstop, a hard border, economic stagnation in NI and escalating sectarian violence. The UK economy will likely also tank and may come to resemble the Weimar Republic in the short term, and maybe even worse in the long term. The appetite of subsidising NI to the tune of c £5,500 per capita from UK Gov is likely to reduce.

  5. Samuel Johnson -

    Ah, your sister would have known a former teacher of mine, and one of the finest men I ever knew, Prof John Coolahan, who sadly passed on recently. Men of his calibre are few and far between.

    Saw the Brendan Heading piece. Perhaps we may end up with some gradual transition with both push and pull factors at work — gradual reduction in subvention from the UK and an increased prosperity gap with the republic making the nose severing increasingly unattractive? It’s the seesaw effect we need to avoid, and of course it’s what has activated the DUP forever because there’s mileage in it. We need measures to protect us from what yr DCU friend anticipates, rightly I think.

    The Titanic scenario (let’s give it a name) is pretty bleak. The shouts about “Blueshirts” (and worse) from on board suggest that the potential rescue vessel may be attacked by people who wanted to hi-jack it all along, or capsized by conflict on board. I understand their helplessness and rage but it can’t be allowed to up-end things.

    I follow KHO’R.

    Incidentally, speaking of Belgium: an eccentric British relation of my wife’s moved in her last years from Brussels to NI as part of a desire to promote peace (she spent much of her postwar life “praying from Russia” and participating in global “prayer chains”). All fairly harmless stuff. However, after she’d been in NI a while my wife got a letter from her, in which this university educated, well-traveled and multilingual woman, rehearsed some of the most unbelievable tripe about the Kilorglin Fair and Satanism. No doubt there was a lot of prayer about it, but no actual going there or, oddly, hearing any derision. It really is quite weird.

  6. Sean Danaher -


    Will ask my sister in Law when I am over in Ireland next month re Prof Coolahan.

    I like the Titanic scenario; chimes with Boris Johnson’s “We are Going to make a Titanic success of Brexit.” I see that May is to visit the border to sell her plan – that’s sure to go well.

    The Killorglin Fair also known as the Puck Fair features a male goat (the puck) as the star and has origins in celebrating male fertility. Some year ago one of my more eccentric uncles decided that it should be marketed worldwide with a campaign with the central theme that attending was equivalent to spiritual Viagra. All it need was a few celebrities saying how much their sexual prowess and potency had improved after attending. He tried to persuade Bord Fáilte (the then Irish tourist board) to run a marketing campaign, but they didn’t take it up!

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