Sunday, 12 November 2017

Norn Irony

It is becoming increasingly clear that the crunch-time of the Brexit negotiations is fast approaching and it looks like Northern Ireland will be the sticking-point. While the ultras loudly demand that we refuse to pay Brussels a penny, we know that we have to settle the bill and it is only money at the end of the day (in the spirit of the Bullingdon Club, perhaps we should just chuck cash at the EU to secure a prompt exit). A figure can be agreed, even if it requires some creative accounting for PR purposes. Similarly, the issue of citizens' rights can be resolved. The EU has long fudged freedom of movement in practice, the irony being that the UK's failure to take advantage of various restrictions and derogations helped give the misleading impression of an inviolable principle. But the one issue on which the EU is likely to remain implacable is Northern Ireland, which raises a further irony in that leave voters' demand to "take back control" was directed towards Calais not Dundalk. The reason for the EU27's insistence that the six counties be treated as an exception is its determination to protect not only the interests of a member state, the Republic, but the interests of those citizens of the North who will, care of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), remain citizens of the EU after the UK leaves.

Some Brexiteers have taken to characterising the EU27's attitude to the UK as comparable to the EU's attitude towards Greece in 2015. Leaving aside the UK's support for that attitude at the time, and the enormous difference in economic and political muscle between the two countries, this misses the key point that a majority of Greece's citizens did not want to leave the EU and would have considered such an eventuality to be an even greater calamity than the debt crisis and the subsequent austerity. That's why Tsipras and Syriza buckled. It occasioned little coverage in the UK, but the EU's stance towards Greece was not the cartoon image of a punitive, occupying power, or even of an emotionally obtuse parent disciplining an errant child, but of a supra-national culture that believed it was protecting the interests of its own people (the honest burghers) within Greece, not just in Northern Europe. The cultural gulf that has appeared in British life these last 18 months has too often been attributed to the nostalgia of leavers, but the europhilia of remainers has been equally responsible. We shouldn't be surprised to find that continental Europeans are no less "loyalist" in respect of the ideal of the EU than Britain's army of Jolyons, and that this entails a perceived duty of care to those in Northern Ireland who will continue to be legally as well as emotionally committed to the EU (I doubt Arlene Foster & co appreciate the irony of this).

To emphasise the point, protecting the rights of Irish passport holders who are natives of the North is not the same as guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens who have chosen to live in the UK but have not been naturalised. The latter can be addressed by the ceding of limited rights, which is fundamentally no different to the existing grant of rights to foreigners, such as the protection of property from arbitrary seizure by the state. Ironically, the obvious precedent here is the reciprocal rights agreed between the UK and Ireland, notably the Common Travel Area and the provisions of the 1949 Ireland Act. But these were rights that addressed citizens of the Republic as an exception within the UK. They did not recognise the exceptional status of citizens in the North who under the terms of the GFA chose to become Irish nationals and will thus remain citizens of the EU regardless of the UK's status. This right of nationality was always recognised by the Republic but the UK (unlike Ulster unionists) chose to downplay the associated claim to territorial sovereignty. When that claim was explicitly retired by referendum in 1998, the quid pro quo was the right of any native of the North to become a citizen of the South: the "recognition of both identities". This may well have only been achievable within the context of the European Union and the dismantling of the visible border.

The focus of the British debate on the status of Northern Ireland has centred on trade and the risk of recreating a "hard border". While this is clearly important, it means that the UK's political establishment has largely neglected the more emotional dimension of national identity and sovereignty, which ironically echoes the tactical error of the remain campaign in the run-up to the EU referendum in 2016. The EU27 have been clear from the outset that the onus is on the UK to propose solutions in respect of Northern Ireland. To date, this has not advanced beyond the sci-fi of a supposedly frictionless, high-tech border system, while the challenge that Brexit presents to the equal recognition of identities enshrined by the GFA (to which the EU considers itself a co-guarantor) has been ignored beyond anodynes. This has now led to Leo Varadkar floating the idea of a possible exceptional status for the North, which has predictably allowed David Davis to refuse to "compromise the integrity of the UK". In other words, frustration has got the better of the Republic, allowing Brexiteers to mount the high horse of sovereignty. That the UK has long been happy to compromise its constitutional and legal integrity in respect of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man is another irony that escapes the government.

That the Irish have made this move (together with their subsequent blunt indication about being "stubborn") suggests a belief among the EU27 that the UK has no intention of presenting any sort of credible plan in respect of Northern Ireland, presumably in the hope that the issue can be parked while trade negotiations get underway. This looks naive, not to mention dismissive and patronising in a manner familiar to many Europeans from prior engagements. The Brexit ultras are still insisisting that the EU needs us more than we need them and that as a result the 27 will come to the table to agree a trade deal that benefits all parties. This goes beyond naive to delusional. The EU's objective is not to secure an improvement in trade terms for anyone but to preserve the benefits of continuing member states. This isn't that difficult to achieve in respect of 26 of those states, which is why the EU isn't rushing the negotiations - it knows it has the leverage of access to the Single Market (a British initiative, ironically) and specifically the City of London's passporting rights. The one area where the EU is vulnerable is the economic integration of the Republic with Northern Ireland, hence the preference for the latter to remain within the Customs Union and ideally the Single Market. Unless this is resolved, there is unlikely to be substantive movement on trade talks, even if that has negative consequences for the economy of the Republic and other EU states.

I've previously mentioned the confusion over the nature of sovereignty that marked the British debate in the run-up to the EU referendum, which largely arises from the peculiarities of the constitution of the United Kingdom. Ireland is an acute example of the problem, combining major concessions in external sovereignty (those reciprocal rights as much as the GFA) with a formal commitment to internal sovereignty (now brought blinking into the light of day by the Tory deal with the DUP) that does its best to ignore those concessions. The obvious contradictions could be finessed within the framework of the EU, but that cover will shortly disappear and there is plenty of evidence that the DUP intends to approach the negotiations as a zero-sum game: internal sovereignty must not only trump external sovereignty, but the one must flourish at the expense of the other. It has been clear for months that the DUP's insistence that there won't be a hard border is insincere at best and a deliberate tactic of obstruction at worst. Though it will cost it the support of some in the Protestant community, the party calculates that "all true unionists" will rally to the flag and thus buttress its support at a time when Sinn Fein has been inching ahead.

Brexit offers the DUP the prospect of unionist electoral consolidation (the UUP are on their last legs), a reaffirmation of British support for the preservation of the six counties as an inalienable component of the UK (which reverses the commitment to a potential united Ireland agreed under the GFA), and a clear dividing line of economic self-interest once a hard border reorients the economy further towards the mainland or (with a bit of luck) beyond the EU. In reality, consigning the UUP to history won't change the secular demographic drift of the North towards the South. I also expect the British commitment to the future of the province to be lukewarm at best. While the media loons are often dyed-in-the-wool unionists, many British leave voters consider Ulster to be foreign and would be happy to be shot of it (many remain voters have been reconciled to Irish unification, within the framework of the EU, for two decades). The reorientation of the economy is unlikely to be a success unless Britain thrives at a rate well in excess of the EU. Given the current indicators (the UK sluggish, the EU picking up) and the probability that uncertainty over Brexit will undermine near-term investment, this seems an unlikely outcome.

If Brexit founders on the issue of Northern Ireland then the ultras and the DUP will find common cause in blaming the EU27 generally and the Republic of Ireland specifically. A hard border will then become not merely a regrettable consequence but a political inevitability. This will almost certainly lead to a revival of militant Republicanism in the border areas. The DUP will cynically hope that this either splits the nationalist camp electorally or prompts the IRA into "disciplining" operations that can be used to taint Sinn Fein. As such, this is a return to the strategies of old, indicating the degree to which the DUP is trapped within the laager of its own historic mentality. Ironically, the party's temperamental unsuitability for government (its incompetence as much as its negativity) has been offset by its critical contribution to the preservation of a Tory administration at Westminster. The final irony is that Theresa May's decision to seek a "strong and stable" mandate has made her beholden to the DUP, which may turn out to be the one condition that precludes an even half-way tolerable Brexit.


  1. Para 1 mis-states the position of ultras on the money. To quote John Redwood from twitter:

    "There is general agreement that there is no legal requirement for the UK to pay the EU anything on exit. There is no provision in the Treaty for an exit bill. No one in the referendum campaign said we would face a bill & the EU has never produced a legal base for a divorce bill."

    "Some seem to think we should nonetheless pay something to get a deal. It is most important that this is always called an ex gratia payment or gift, as the UK must not by its language and promises create some legal obligation under EU law that does not exist at the moment."

    The ultra position is that any payment should be part of the final deal, not that there shouldn't be any payment.

    1. I don't think Redwood's sophistry is representative of most ultras. The popular view among Brexiteers is that we will end up with more cash, hence the bus, so the very idea of a payment is anathema.