I seem to be obsessed with the border recently. I would love to get back to looking at new economics, Modern Monetary Theory, tax, the optimal balance between the public and private sector spending and the myriad other difficulties afflicting modern Britain. We are also way behind on Book of the Month so suggestions please!
Things however seem rapidly deteriorating regarding the NI backstop. This is key to finalising the Withdrawal Agreement and unlocking the transition period. Whereas the EU is putting in heroic efforts to de-dramatise the backstop, and make is as non-intrusive as possible, the UK seems to be doing the exact opposite. The ERG wing of the Tory party and DUP seem intent on sabotaging any attempt at a deal on the backstop, possibly in the mistaken belief that Ireland and the EU will back down, but also knowing that such though “patriotic” talk goes down well with their right-wing followers. There are also the purists who genuinely want a no deal Brexit irrespective of the damage it might cause Britain.
This seems a clear and present danger. The rhetoric at the Tory party conference and, for example Hunt’s comparison between the EU and USSR seems again designed to exacerbate the situation. May’s outright rejection of FoM from the end of the transition period will also go down like a lead balloon. The Tories seem to have little conception as to how they are perceived outside their bubble. Indeed to preserve my own sanity I try not to pay too much attention to the Tory party conference – the lunatics indeed seem to have taken over the asylum.
The primary focus of the Irish since the Brexit referendum was called was to preserve the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). It can not be stressed strongly enough, that despite Unionist paranoia, there is no desire, on the part of the Irish, to use Brexit to annex NI.
In 1922 NI was far the wealthiest part of the Ireland with c 80% of the entire industrial output of the island. I would be very surprised now if the industrial output was even 8% of that of IE. The GDP per capita difference is considerably greater than that between E and W Germany, with the NI GDP per capita only 40% of that of IE. This is despite the fact that HMG injects c £10Bn into the NI economy every year – approx 25% of the entire NI GDP. There is also the DUP, the Loyalists, the Orange Order and numerous terrorist groups such as the UVF, which from an Irish point of view are very problematic.
The GFA of course produces a constitutional mechanism, a “Border Poll” which should be triggered if it looks likely there is a majority in NI for unification. The Irish take a St Augustine like approach “God make me pure but not yet” and much preparation needs to be done in the form of multiple white papers in every sector before a border poll is called. My personal view is that whereas I would like a United Ireland, it will take at least a full decade to line up all the necessary ducks so to speak.
The simple economic reality is that NI is a liability rather than an asset. Ireland also went through a major depression after the GFC and even though it has bounced back strongly, there are major domestic problems particularly in housing and health which need to be addressed first. Brexit of course may also have a very detrimental effect on the Irish economy. The last thing Ireland needs economically just now now is the additional strain caused by uniting Ireland. Ireland will have to be in a position to inject masses of infrastructure and capital into NI in order to turn it around.
For a good summary of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland I would highly recommend last week’s article by Coakley and Garry, it is well worth reading in full, but they make three key points:
1. While Northern Ireland is a component part of the United Kingdom, it is not, and never has been, ‘an integral part’ of the UK.
2. The creation of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is not a violation of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement’s ‘principle of consent’.
3. There is little evidence that a customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is ‘something no British Prime Minister would ever agree to’.
Indeed if the ‘principle of consent’ means anything, polls in NI consistently show that a super-majority would prefer a sea border to a land border if one proves absolutely necessary. Historically of course there was an Irish Sea border under four PMs: Churchill, Attlee, Eden and Macmillan.
The belief in Ireland is that HMG have simply refused to take the Irish situation seriously – it is an inconvenient truth that they would prefer to ignore. The Irish have been, in Dr Tim McInerney’s words “shouting the importance of the border question from the rooftops” since the Brexit referendum was announced. Rather than it being overused politically on the part of the Irish and the EU, HMG simply have not seriously engaged with the problem. The quote from PM May in Tony Connolly’s book is telling:“One country cannot hold up progress. The UK is a much bigger and more important country than Ireland.”
May’s refusal to look in any detail at Barnier’s de-dramatised backstop and outright dismissal was not well received at Salzburg. Even less so is the fact that the UK legal version of the backstop was still not available and will not apparently be ready for the October deadline. It is rumoured when Varadkar reported this to the other EU27 members after a bilateral meeting with May, Macron in particular was incensed. There is a suspicion that the UK legal text either does not exist, or if it does it contains so many flaws to be unworkable.
Why then is the UK so opposed to the backstop, which after all is supposed to be just an all weather insurance policy and should never need to be used? There are a number of possible explanations.
The Belfast Agreement (GFA) ensures strict impartiality on the part of the sovereign government in NI, currently HMG:
…the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities.
After May lost her overall majority in the June 2017 GE she entered a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP. This on its own might have raised concerns with rigorous impartiality, particularly as SF do not sit at Westminster. HMG sadly seems to have abandoned any attempt at rigorous impartiality and seems to have swallowed the DUP’s view hook line and sinker.
There are probably too many instances of favouritism towards the DUP to mention but three stand out.
The events of the 4-8th December last year where May was happy to sign the joint political deceleration on Monday but was blocked by the DUP until para 50 was included (no Irish Sea border without the agreement of the NI assembly).
May’s visit to the Beleek Pottery on the border where inexplicably she met with Arlene Foster rather than the sitting SF MP as standard protocol demands – one of the very few opportunities to get a Nationalist viewpoint.
Within the past few days the announcement of a festival of Britain and Northern Ireland in 2022 to coincide with the hundred anniversary of the partitioning of Ireland is incredibly divisive. Nationalists see partition as an abomination and the choice of year is like rubbing salt into the wound or the sound of marching jackboots. The DUP will of course love this as another opportunity to humiliate “themuns” and have an orgy of flag waving. There is a distinct suspicion that the DUP tail is wagging the Tory dog, particularly as May seems to be referring to her party as the “Conservative and Unionist” party at almost every opportunity – an archaic terminology apparently resurrected to appease the DUP.
An interesting question is that if the UK is indeed in breach of an international treaty lodged at the UN, what court should rule (certainly not a UK one) and what sanctions can be applied towards the UK? There are rumours that the legal mechanisms are being investigated by the Irish Gov. in case the eventual Brexit agreement that indeed clearly breaks the terms of the GFA.
Use of the backstop to lever a UK wide agreement
The 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.
Despite this “backstop” being set down in black and white, UKGov have made repeated attempts to try to either make it UK wide or alternatively kick the can down the road and insist the border issue will be solved in the context of a wide and comprehensive trade agreement.
One can not blame UKGov for trying this. If there were good will and trust IE/EU might be prepared to let this run. Sadly trust is in short supply. As Chris Kendall says “From the outset, the UK has burned through goodwill as if it were an inexhaustible, ever-renewable resource. It is not.”
There is also as ever in Ireland a long history of England not keeping its word. For example my own family is from Limerick (father Athea, mother Galbally) and I can trace my ancestors back to the siege of Limerick at the end of the Williamite War, where they surrendered in 1691. It is said the ink was not dry on the Treaty before the English broke its terms.
Or as a former boss of mine, David Bell, says “Integrity is a bit like virginity, one cock up and you are fucked for life.”
Patriotic Misrepresenting the Sovereignty argument
As Coakley and Garry pointed out NI is not, and never has been, ‘an integral part’ of the UK. Will Jordan (who describes himself rather tongue in cheek as a 100% certified Protestant born on the Twelfth of July) of the Fly by Those Nets blog is very critical of the DUP, and states:
Any rational person trying to solve Brexit would say ‘let’s give Northern Ireland special status and be done with it as it keeps the border open and the natural sea border can be turned into a customs border without too much hassle anyway.
The problem is that knowledge of Ireland is poor and the sovereignty argument is extremely useful. As regular readers of this blog will know, I arrived in the UK in 1981 having completed my PhD at UCD/Harvard. At the time Margaret Thatcher was extremely unpopular. The Falklands war changed all that. There was a wave of patriotic fervor, which I found quite disturbing, but was extraordinarily effective at boosting Thatcher’s approval ratings. Thatcher rather than surviving only one term went on to be the longest serving PM in the 20th cent (11 years, 209 days).
All this Sabre rattling regarding sovereignty could well be designed to put the UK in the same place – indeed the Falkland’s spirit is one that the ERG seem particularly nostalgic about. There is no question that the Sovereignty argument runs deep in the British psyche – even Dominic Grieve seems susceptible as he revealed when interviewed in a recent Brexit Republic (Tony Connolly’s podcast). Certainly May is very beleaguered as PM – playing the patriot seems to be very much in evidence at the Tory party conference.
Belief that Ireland is still part of the family
In addition to the belief in some Tory circles that Ireland is not a proper country unlike England, France or Germany; indeed there is even a belief that Ireland is still a part of the UK, or at least just semi-detached. This can be helpful as the Irish are not considered as foreigners in the UK. Indeed it puts the Irish in a privileged position – they retain all the rights as EU citizens in particular Freedom of Movement, while being regarded as non alien in the UK.
There is a hope in some Tory circles that Ireland will rejoin the UK and that the land border in NI could be solved in this way. This seems to be a genuine belief in some circles. From the Irish perspective this is absolute madness. Ireland in many respects is more successful than the UK; regularly coming ahead of the UK in international comparison tables. The most recent UN Human Development Index for example (14th Sept) places Ireland 10 places above the UK in an impressive 4th position. The Democracy Index places Ireland in joint 6th place with Canada again well ahead off the UK’s 14th place.There is almost no desire to rejoin the UK (I suspect less than 5% of the population would think it a good idea). In addition the Union from 1801-1922 was pretty much a disaster for Ireland and there is absolutely no desire to go back there.
I think it was Fintan O’Toole who likened it to an abusive husband hoping his abused wife would come back after tracking her down with some tatty petrol station flowers and some out of date chocolates. Not realising she had long moved on and made a tremendous success of her life.
Belief that Ireland is Economically Dependent on the UK
There is little understanding that Ireland’s dependence on the UK is now quite low. In ball park terms only 10% of Ireland’s exports go to the UK, 50% to the EU 26 and 25% to the US. May has not used threats but Jacob Rees-Mogg has not been so diplomatic. This has been discussed in detail in my previous post Will Sabre Rattling towards Ireland Work? which concludes with: And England – or at least those ‘little Englanders’ who are such ardent supporters of Brexit – need to wake up and realise that their country is no longer powerful enough to ride roughshod over its smaller neighbour. Indeed, economically that particular boot may very well soon be on the other foot.
The Serengeti Strategy
If direct attacks on Ireland will not work then one strategy is to try to peel members (states) off from the herd. The Serengeti Strategy is a term created by Prof Michael Mann – a prominent Climate Change Scientist. What is interesting is that there is a very high correlation between people who support Brexit and a refusal to accept Climate Change as a scientific fact. At a higher level there is a major interchange between the American climate change denial supporting think tanks and the UK Brexit supporting ones. Both ideas and tactics seem to be shared. If one or more member states can be peeled off the unity of the EU27 could be shattered.
It has long been suspected but confirmed by Jacob Rees-Mogg here “The member states have not so far cracked under pressure from the efforts of our diplomatic service and have continued to support Michel Barnier.”
Indeed the consensus seems to be the exact opposite, the UK has simply annoyed other states and has actually increased the cohesion of the EU.
Is a deal headed towards the rocks or can careful choreography save it? From the Irish perspective the UK is a major trading partner, particularly in agribusiness, where in some sectors it is indeed the largest trading partner. Compromise may still be reached if the UK can sign up to a negotiated backstop and be simultaneously be offered a political agreement as to the future relationship which should ensure the backstop is never needed.
There are signs today that the UK may indeed be moving towards an agreed backstop after all, but May will probably have to sell it to the DUP, which will be no easy task. Whatever the DUP say publicly there many within the party who would like nothing more than a hard border and the harder the better.
From the UK point of view there may well be parliamentary gridlock. Knowledge of the true constitutional position of NI is poor, and it is politically far easier to buy into an absolutist sovereignty argument. Any agreed deal may not command a majority in the House of Commons. A second referendum (peoples vote) with the option to remain may be the only way out of this zugzwang.