Will the UK go Rogue on Northern Ireland?

Fig.1 Summary of UK’s approach from the NZ Herald


As we have left the EU, the “trivial” task of negotiating the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) is done. It is now a legally binding international treaty, including the Irish Protocol.

We now move onto the far more complex future relationship talks. It always seemed impossible that the talks could be concluded successfully within the 10-month transition period. The fact the WA took three years to negotiate is ominous.

Whereas the EU approach has been clear for some time, there has been lots of “sabre-rattling” from the UK. As Chris Grey says, Brexiters need to stop campaigning and start governing.

More clarity on the UK’s approach has appeared with the David Frost Brussels speech (full text here). Alas, it still seems to be campaign mode based rather than an attempt to confront reality.

The approach as set out in the speech is flawed on many different levels, based on Brexit zealotry and British exceptionalism, rather than evidence, logic, strategy and intellectual coherence. The intended audience appeared to be Daily Telegraph readers. If targeted at an EU audience it looks insulting, arrogant and above all, as humorously illustrated in Fig. 1, naive.

It seems that rather than working with the EU, not content with Brexit, the ultimate aim of the current UK government is to destroy the EU.

I can’t find a serious commentator who has much good to say about the speech. Prof Richard Murphy, for example, puts it well in his piece: David Frost’s vision for Europe is a fantasy based on a pretence:

It is a fantasy. Or a delusion. It is a pretence, and a dangerous one. What it is not is an explanation of anything. As a vision it is even less successful. As a forecast, it looks dire. And this is the man tasked with negotiating with the EU. Heaven help us. The Tories had better still pray, because if they don’t things are even worse than this speech suggests.

One of the few people who see any grounds for mild optimism is Tony Connelly, but I share John O’Brennan’s pessimism.

It seems that rather than negotiating in “good faith“, it’s more than likely that the UK has no intention of doing an ambitious deal with the EU. Rather, it prefers what it euphemistically calls an “Australia-style agreement” (aka no-deal dressed up in a sexy bikini) and to blame the intransigent EU for any adverse outcomes.

This, of course, may well be disastrous for the UK as a whole — a neoliberal experiment destined to make the 1980’s look like a minor rebalancing of the UK economy. Very good, I suspect, for the very wealthy and the shady Russian and far-right American funders of Brexit.

The UK as a whole seems to be moving towards a more authoritarian, poorer and more closed country. The new points-based immigration system is economically and culturally impoverishing, cynically designed to appeal to the basest instincts of the English electorate.

The main battleground and likely flashpoint, however, is the NI protocol.

Effect on the Northern Ireland Protocol

A no-deal, or minimal deal, makes the Northern Irish protocol far more difficult to implement. In order to protect the GFA, which commits all concerned to support the development of an all-island economy, the border on the island of Ireland needs to remain open. This made a border of some sort on the Irish Sea inevitable. The higher the tariff and non-tariff barriers are, the more onerous the checks need to be.

The PM insisting there will be no checks is unhelpful. As Jess Seargent says in her piece: the PM’s rhetoric risks the Northern Ireland protocol not being operational in time. Unhelpful may be the wrong word. Is the PM really on top of his brief or even, as it appears, intent on tearing up an internationally binding treaty?

In Julian Smith, the UK had an excellent NI Secretary who was totally across the issues, including the Irish Protocol, and was very capable of telling truth to power. Before being sacked he gave considerable confidence that the PM was simply mistaken, or that his statements were purely for domestic consumption.

The new NI Secretary Brandon Lewis, in contrast, seems clueless, parroting his boss’s line that there will be no border in the Irish Sea. Rumour has it that it was Smith’s courage and ability to tell truth to power that caused him to be sacked.

There are at least six possibilities.

First, Lewis is simply ignorant – given the quality of many recent NI secretaries, this is a distinct possibility. Apparently he was spotted thumbing through his ministerial folder containing a document entitled “A beginner’s guide to the political scene in Northern Ireland” — possibly containing Fig. 2?

Fig. 2 Beginners Guide to NI political scene according to Nyberrite

Second, as a member of cabinet of sycophants and yes-sir-three-bags-full-sirs he is simply reiterating a party line that he knows to be untrue.

Third, HMG has every intention of violating the Irish Protocol part of the WA, and an international treaty. Northern Ireland seems to be of little consequence to HMG, just a pawn to be played in a greater game. Prof Michael Dougan has come to a similar conclusion – further down this thread (below) he writes: Johnson has already proven: NI = zero to him“.

Fourth, despite the sabre-rattling, the UK will eventually pivot to something like the Norway+CU option. This seems unlikely given the rhetoric from this government.

Fifth, the Brexiters may believe that they can persuade Ireland back into the UK’s orbit — an insane delusion. Ireland sees Britain as a Jekyll and Hyde country. It likes Jekyll (the “Remain” side of the UK) but loathes the Hyde side of Britain, currently firmly in charge. The minuscule chance that Ireland would ever rejoin the UK evaporated long ago. Nevertheless, the Brexiters have never let reality get in their way and their knowledge of Ireland is so flawed that some may believe Ireland will join their Titanic voyage.

Sixth, Brexiters like to believe that Ireland is of little consequence, not a real sovereign country, merely a puny rebellious former province of the empire that, if it persists in inconveniencing the EU in striking a deal with the UK, it will be thrown under the bus as a pawn that has outlived its usefulness. In effect, the EU will force sea border controls on Ireland, driving it out of the frictionless single market. Believing this, of course, necessitates believing that the other guarantor of the GFA, the US, would acquiesce, that Ireland lacks agency in the EU despite having already clearly demonstrated it, and that the European Parliament would agree. Ireland rejoining the UK is many times more likely.

I have previously written two pieces on why bullying Ireland is unlikely to work: Will Sabre Rattling towards Ireland Work? and Will virtual Liffey Gunboats Work? Economically, Ireland is increasingly decoupled from Britain. Irish exports to GB are now less than 9% of the total and continue on a downward trajectory as shown in Fig. 3.

Fig. 3 Ireland GB Goods Trade

Of these options, the third, which amounts to constructive violation of the GFA (necessitating NI border controls to protect both the EU single market Ireland’s place in it), seems most likely. For the EU no-deal is certainly better than a bad deal–economically. The opening gambit from the UK is clearly something that the EU could never accept and is almost certainly designed for domestic consumption and a blame game. It also looks like either a compunction-free attempt to use the prospect of conflict in Ireland as a lever, or a shameless indifference to that possibility and the costs.

If Dominic Cummings is truly in charge then it seems likely that NI and what happens there, as well as on the island of Ireland, is truly a matter no consequence, as speculated by Michael Dougan and as illustrated in Fig. 4.

Fig. 4 Cummings view on Northern Ireland

Is the UK really prepared to rip-up an international treaty and ignore the Irish Protocol? The consequences for the UK will be intensely painful. The EU will certainly apply sanctions and any chance of a trade deal with Washington will vanish.

Strangely, the UK’s asymmetric vulnerabilities in a conflictual situation with Ireland are rarely mentioned. Ireland, together with the Netherlands, supplies most of the food the UK imports form the EU (27% of its needs). Reportedly, almost half of the UK govt’s data is held in Irish data centres. Currently, the UK has a £13.5bn trade surplus with Ireland. Ireland on the other hand, is the most food secure country in the world, will continue to be able to source goods and services from the single market, and has been preparing for no deal since the day the Brexit referendum was called.

Another possibility, which is not often expressed openly, is that HMG looks on NI as more of a liability rather than an asset. It costs more in net terms annually than EU membership ever did (currently c.£10Bn vs £8.2Bn). Despite being, on a per capita basis, the most heavily subsidised region of the UK it is also one of the poorest performing. Dominic Lawson writes in the Times that: A united Ireland is the secret Tory dream.

My higher echelon Tory party contact says the DUP is largely despised by Conservatives. Whereas the “Big House” (i.e., affluent land-owning) Unionists fitted in well, the DUP are considered to be less trustworthy and even less “British” than the Scots. The humiliation of May has not been forgotten and… “revenge is a dish best served cold“.

Is a United Ireland within the next few years likely?

The GFA (Belfast Agreement) makes provision for Irish reunification. The NI Secretary can call for a border poll at any time but is obliged to do so if:

The Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 [call a border poll] if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.

Some opinion polls, such as this Lord Ashcroft poll, say the majority is already there, but at 51%-49% it is really too close to call. My own feeling is that it is too early to call one, but preparations need to get underway urgently to establish what a United Ireland would look like. Should it be, for example, a unitary state, a federation or even go in the direction of Switzerland with cantonisation?

Ireland, of course, also has to agree and hold a separate referendum, but it will not do so without extensive preparations which have yet to commence. (Irish referendums are on the basis of an agreed text, including draft legislation, so that people know in advance exactly what they’re voting for). There are two major worries, the economy and the political and social effects of integrating the Unionists (in particular the Loyalists). Nevertheless, I think Northern Ireland deserves to be treated better than it has been and, under new management, improvement could be rapid.

NI Economic Performance

The NI economic performance is summed up in Fig. 5. It’s dire. The NI economy has not recovered to its pre-financial crash peak and is 3.6% below Q2 2007. The UK as a whole has done better with a GDP now 13.6% higher. “Better” is of course relative. Given that 12 years have passed the improvement equates to an average UK growth rate of only around 1% per year – the worst decade since the Industrial Revolution. Ireland, by contrast, has grown by c. 61% in that period and is in danger of overheating.

Productivity in NI (not shown on the chart) is actually falling as manufacturing jobs are being replaced with lower-paid ones in the retail and services sectors.

Fig. 5 Key NI Economic Indicators click on image to enlarge

On top of this, of course, is the fact that NI does not pay its own way. If it were not for an annual injection of c. £10bn from London (c. 25% of NI GDP) then NI would be in an even worse state.

Unionists and Loyalists

There is an element of the NI community irreconcilably opposed to a United Ireland. I’m sure many Unionists would integrate well but many Loyalists are fanatical Brexit supporters, some with similar attitudes to “foreigners”, including the Irish on the island of Ireland–people whom DUP MP Sammy Wilson has referred to as “ethnics”–to those of the English Defence League.

Accommodating these people will be a real challenge if they resort to violence and try to destabilise a new Ireland.


Any pretence that the current government is a “One Nation” Conservative one is gone. It is pandering to the populist “Hyde” aspect of the English psyche. The new points-based immigration system, designed to gratify it but with as little damage to London as possible, is crazy and will have many destructive unintended consequences. As Ian Dunt writes: The end of free movement: This is a nation dismantling itself over nonsense.

The row over Eugenics has been chilling and, yet again, raises the question of whether Fintan O’Toole is right and Trial runs for fascism are in full flow.

My previous piece Fascism as a Methodology rather than an Ideology seems outdated after only a week and we continue in the direction of National Conservatism.

The Northern Ireland Protocol will be a flash point. Conceivably, a United Ireland is nearer than many think. As Lenin said

There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen

We need to restore England to its Jekyll persona, but it will be an uphill struggle and it may take the break-up of the UK to achieve it. English historian David Edgerton, however, is sanguine about that prospect.

The challenge for the EU is how to manage an angry neighbouring 3rd country with a hostile government that will attempt to use the consequences of its own actions to entrench its position domestically. Meanwhile, the need for peaceful international collaboration has never been greater.

The recent EU decision to designate the Cayman Islands as a tax haven, something enabled by Brexit and the removal of British ability to block this, points to the likely future: a slow turning of the screw on dark money and illiberal capitalism by increased transparency and regulation.

Still largely unremarked in the British media, amidst the fuss about the possibility of such impertinences as the Greeks even thinking about the return of the Elgin marbles, are the EU’s plans for data sovereignty and their implications for trade.

A glance at https://afterbrexit.tech/data-protection will reveal that the EU already has a range of options for cooking the British bullfrog as gently or as quickly as it cares to, from sous vide to full-on microwaving. When the EU’s digital goals include protecting European democracy by acting as the global leader in regulating hypercapitalism’s use of data, dealing with Brexit should be a smaller trial that the EU cannot and will not lose, whatever the collateral effects.


  1. Samuel Johnson -

    Chris Grey has some parallel ruminations and a new entry for the Brexit lexicon:

    My take is that it will be the Brexit of unintended consequences, and that the incompetence of Brexiters will prevail.

    Meanwhile, Google has decided to illustrate the extent to which the “We can do what we like” (outside the EU) posture of Michael Gove & co before Brexit, and of Andrew Neil, more recently, will prove a hollow boast:


    It seems that British citizens are being asked to agree to new terms and conditions as their data is relocated to the US. My English wife, resident in Ireland, was asked yesterday despite having switched her Google Play Store account from the UK. Does Google really know one’s citizenship? How will they handle data of NI residents?

    The head of Ireland’s data protection organization revealed in an interview published this week that substantial fines (plural) for data protection violations are pending some further legal advice, and that the quantum of $5bn levied on Facebook in the US is “relevant”. Ireland is the de facto EU regulator for US multinational IT companies headquartered in the EU. It has been under-resourced and under attack from critics in other EU countries for apparent inaction and suspected national conflict of interest.

    Apparently, preparations for fighting legal appeals against swinging fines are underway. After that, as they say in Brussels (in Dutch anyway), the ape will come out of the sleeve – – all will be revealed. The impression that the EU is serious about data regulation is growing and undoubtedly accounts for Mark Zuckerberg’s recent closed-door meeting with the EU Commission. That he presented himself months after declining to do so at the House of Commons, or to meet with representatives of 9 assorted parliaments, illustrates the difference European solidarity and market & regulatory power makes.

    In a few months, after the transition period, British citizens will lose any possibility of taking Facebook, Google etc to the ECJ. Their data can be mined with impunity by the US government and whomever America’s digital oligarchs decide to share it with in search of profit. I would put money on search history and NHS medical records being combined and shared with insurers and much more.

    From 2021 British citizens should translate pop-up notices saying “Your privacy is important to us” as “Your illusions about your data sovereignty are important to us”.

    It’s hard not to recall Mark Zuckerberg’s verdict when still a Harvard undergraduate on why people were willing to share personal information with Facebook. He ventured, notoriously, that it was because they’re “dumb fucks”.

    Fortunately for EU citizens, the EU isn’t dumb.

  2. Korhomme -

    If I say, “Brexit was a mistake” many will be tempted to agree. But I’m thinking rather differently with this statement.

    It’s clear now that Gove and Johnson didn’t want to “win” the referendum; they wanted to frighten the government, and by doing so claim the right to be defenders of the UK in the EU, and thus bolster their own political ambitions.

    But now they are stuck with doing something that they know will and must be harmful; they cannot retreat from their position that the UK should “go it alone”, free from the “shackles”. Thus they make reference to England’s glorious past as a place to return to. These myths began with Henry VIII’s break with Rome, with the defeat of the Armada, with Dunkirk etc; England can and will do it alone.

    If you accept that there is at least some truth in my assertions, then the present government could well do almost anything to support their position. If that means saving £10 billion by dumping N Ireland, so be it.

  3. Sean Danaher -

    K, Yes I think that’s right. Prof Chris Grey has made that point many times on his excellent Brexit Blog – It clear that neither Johnson or Gove thought they would win and in many ways winning was a disaster.

    Whereas I welcome a United Ireland in principle there needs to be a lot of preparation first. My worry is that the NI Sec. will call a border poll prematurely and as you say “dump” NI and leave IE to pick up the pieces.

    1. Korhomme -

      As I understand it, under the Good Friday Agreement it’s up to the NI Secretary of State to call a border poll. This poll will then be held simultaneously in NI and the Republic. The Republic, because this would require a change in the Constitution, will have made extensive preparations, the the public will be well informed.

      In NI, though, it might be like the Brexit poll, done without any forethought. Both polls have to be in favour of Irish unity for it to occur.

      Nonetheless, I wouldn’t put it past the UK government to try to weasel out of things, and simply “dump” NI if they thought it would be politically advantageous. Perhaps I’m just too biased, too cynical.

      1. SeaánUiNeill -

        Korhomme, during the two televised interviews between the late Ian Paisley Sr and Éamonn Maille Paisley mentioned in passing the pressure put on him to enter government with Sinn Féin following the electoral success of the DUP in 2003 NI election and his refusal to power-share with SF. Explaining his volte-face between stating In 2006 that “ “[Sinn Fein] are not fit to be in partnership with decent people. They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland and it will be over our dead bodies if they ever get there” and his forming an administration with them the succeeding
        year he claimed that the very “dumping” of Northern Ireland was seriously threatened
        by the Westminster negotiation team as the

        One significant thread in the moves towards Irish reunification regards the need for a full and honest public debate between the reasonable portions of Unionism and the interests supporting reunification (really far wider than simply nationalism!) in order to
        hammer out the form that such a reunification should take in some detail. Those of us who have watched with mounting horror the three years of constant
        hyperbolic agression and misinformation are well aware that that may be all we will really get from political Unionism in such an exchange, but still feel that even that would be preferable to the sudden melt-Down that an unplanned ditching of NI by the U.K. would entail.

  4. Gerry Toner -

    The Fintan O’Toole piece is very prescient and aligns with the ‘fascism as method’ that you have outlined. Those who claim a progressive and inclusive outlook must look clearly at history. The crazy and narcissistic creatures we now have as ‘leaders’ were born in the inclusive democratic systems and cultures. O’Toole’s thesis is that we are in ‘pre-fascism’ and describes an evolving pathway for full blooded fascism. Where did that embryo come from except from within the social democracy that preceded this era? If O’Toole is accurate we are not going to ‘solve’ this like an illness; we are locked into it as we are part of the dynamic that created it. Whatever way you play the possible scenarios we are facing a rupture in what is called ‘western civilisation’. The human is at risk of pathological disease and disorder of its own making. The disease and disorder are legitimate parts of human evolution just like all the ‘goodness’ of social democracy; that historical perspective seems to have been forgotten. There does not appear to be a narrative with voices/ leaders attached that can swing this trajectory onto a new and inclusive horizon. The disarray within mainstram ‘social democratic’ parties / movements is patent.

  5. David Kennedy -

    Whether there is any truth in Boris/Cummings wanting to dump the North I think all these multiple articles across the globe peddling this idea must really be hitting home with Unionists/Loyalists/Middle Ground.

    Eventually percentages of these will come across to supporting a UI and small percentages is all that will be needed for it to happen looking at recent Lucid Talk polls. Interesting times and Lenin got it right.

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