Ireland and Brexit

EU's chief Brexit negotiator Barnier and Britain's Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Davis attend a meeting in BrusselsThe UK’s Brexit negotiation team has been so fecklessly incompetent that their EU-27 counterparts thought this was a pretence and must be a trap.

The July photograph of the British team (on the right) sitting at the negotiation table without any briefing papers in front of them, while the EU team (on the left) all have a stack of paperwork, looks emblematic of the UK government’s lack of preparation. (According to British diplomats, David Davis’s papers were still in his bag at the time the photo was taken.)

The recent confirmation that the UK government will be paying the EU fifty billion or so, pretty much what the EU initially said the UK would have to pay to finalise the UK’s liabilities before Brexit, had Brexiteers Iain Duncan Smith and Nigel Farage squealing loudly that this was too much, that Theresa May and David Davis should have taken a harder line and refused to pay anything.

But with regard to the fifty billion bill, the only difference between a competent team of Brexit negotiators and the current crowd, is that a competent team would have realised last year that the UK had no choice about discharging our liabilities to the EU if the Brexit date was set before the end of the 2014-2020 budget period: would have taken that into consideration when deciding just when to invoke Article 50: and would have come to the table in Brussels prepared to dicker over exact amounts, not wasting time arguing that nothing at all should be paid. As far as we can tell, Theresa May and David Davis did none of these things.

Of course, a competent Prime Minister with a solid if small majority, wouldn’t have called a General Election after invoking Article 50, thus wasting three months of negotiation time – and losing her majority to be dependent on the DUP.

As a reminder: after June 2017, the Tories have 315 seats and are the largest single party: because Sinn Féin (7 seats) don’t sit in the Commons, and the Speaker doesn’t vote, an effective majority for the government is 322 and a formal majority is 325: the DUP have 10 seats. If all MPs of all other parties vote together, they muster 311 votes. So the DUP, the unionist and Brexiteer party in Northern Ireland, literally hold the balance of power in Parliament.

The issue about paying the EU billions to discharge the UK’s budget liabilities wasn’t even worth arguing about: the UK’s only leverage was to refuse to pay it and suffer hard Brexit, which would be catastrophic for the UK but only moderately damaging for EU-27.

Hugh Orde, former Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, on the Irish Border and BrexitThough some news reports described the problem of the Irish border as “unexpected”, the Irish border and the end of the Good Friday Agreement, was always going to be hugely difficult, and with the DUP in a confidence-and-supply arrangement to prop up the Tories, has probably become unresolvable by the current government.

I had initially here written a few hundred words summarising the history of Ireland in relationship to Britain, but Waterford Whispers points out that the UK public would most likely only believe it if it was written on the side of a bus. That’s probably true.

So, while it’s tempting to outline how the government of Confederate Ireland (1642-1649) was bloodily smashed by Oliver Cromwell and estates owned by Irish Catholics were then confiscated and redistributed to Protestant incomers, how the Penal Laws, enacted by the Protestant-dominated Parliament of Ireland that resulted from the land confiscations, ensured that Irish Catholics should become poor, be uneducated, banned from public office, and denied the right to serve in the army (a potential career path for even the poorest/most uneducated of men), and how “Irish jokes” which portray Irish people as stupid and ignorant, arise from the need of the English and the Irish Protestants to believe that it was okay to keep Irish Catholics poor and uneducated because they were naturally stupid: how after the Parliaments of Ireland and Britain were merged in 1801, while people in Ireland were starving during the Great Famine (1845-1852) in Westminster MPs debated on whether it would be right to provide food to the starving. But that would make this a very long blog post.

Even dealing with the 20th century only, there is the rebellion put down in 1916, two wars immediately after WWI ended and Sinn Féin won the general election in Ireland by a landslide and proclaimed the Irish Declaration of Independence in January 1919: the treaty accepted by the majority of the Dáil for the Partition of Ireland: and the formation of the Irish Free State, later the Republic of Ireland, and the separation of the six counties of Northern Ireland, which in 1922 and thereafter is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Although the Troubles are dated in British history as beginning 5th October 1968, the cause was systematic gerrymandering for decades to ensure that Catholics in Northern Ireland were cooped ip in slums so that in local authority areas where Catholics were numerically in the majority, Protestants had a majority on the local government councils.

Thank you for your attention: let us move on to the present day.

The important part of this is not so much the historical facts, as the situation which has its origins in the 17th century: Northern Irish Protestants have traditionally and practically always held political privilege in the six counties, and the government at Westminster, whether English, English/Scottish, or English/Scottish/Protestant Irish, has always had more political power and military clout than the people of Ireland.

What happens when a privileged group see their privilege at risk? Angry backlash against the disprivileged.

One difficulty the UK government has, setting out to negotiate the Irish border: they are accustomed, not for decades but for centuries, to the presumption that in dealings between the government of Westminster and the people of Ireland, it is Westminster who makes the decisions and has the final say.

This is not the case in the negotiations with the EU for the Irish border post-Brexit.

Each EU-27 government has the power of veto over a deal made between the EU and the UK post-Brexit. The Republic of Ireland, as a EU member, has the power of veto over any proposals the UK may make: and Ireland, not the UK, has the support of the EU negotiators in Brussels. The UK cannot dictate to Ireland how matters will be arranged: and this is the first time I am aware of, certainly in the past four centuries, that this has been so.

Contrary to Daniel Hannan’s blithe ignorance (expressed on Twitter, November 2015), as several people pointed out to him at the time, there had been a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland after 1922. Since 1998, that border effectively vanished: anyone in Northern Ireland or in the Republic of Ireland could travel, work, and live as they chose, either side of the border. The Good Friday Agreement was fundamentally dependent on the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland both being part of the EU: no customs or regulatory framework needed to make that transparent border work while the islands of Britain and Ireland were both entirely within the framework of the EU.

For the geographically challenged: the island of Great Britain (nations England, Scotland, and Wales) lies just to the west of mainland Europe. The island of Ireland (mostly the country which is te Republic of Ireland, but also the nation of Northern Ireland) lies to the west of Great Britain. By geographic necessity, all road transport of goods to or from the Republic of Ireland to mainland Europe, passes across the island of Britain, using two short ferry hops or one short ferry and the Chunnel. Using ferry transport to entirely bypass the island of Britain would vastly increase both the time and cost of the transport. Hard Brexit would hit the UK hardest and catastrophically, but hit Ireland probably worse than any other EU-27 country. Ireland would still have the support of the EU, which the UK would not: but geographically, this would put all Irish trade within the EU in a very difficult position.

Road transport, exports and imports, is going to be massively slowed by Brexit: this is the case even if a deal achieves soft Brexit. If the UK departs in a hard-Brexit huff and adopts WTO rules, there has to be a hard border immediately, from 30th March 2019, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and road/ferry transport from the Republic of Ireland crossing the UK to reach the EU would be consequently delayed. Northern Ireland voted by majority against Brexit; the Republic of Ireland had no say at all.

There has been much made recently in the UK of the point that the current Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, leads a governmen that might fall: what this misses is that anyone who might form a government in the Republic of Ireland is naturally going to support their country’s interests, not the UK’s: Laura Kuenssberg’s view was typical; though in a showy display of ignorance, Iain Duncan Smith managed to confuse the Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, with the Irish President, who is the elected head of state and has less power than the Queen. The ignorance of Irish politics by UK politicians has not gone unnoticed in the Republic of ireland. Officials from the UK’s Foreign Office have asked the Irish government to ignore any public utterances from the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson.

The best possible deal for the Republic would be to have Northern Ireland effectively remain part of the EU (however that’s legislatively managed) with a hard border for Northern Ireland/the Republic of Ireland on mainland UK, with some special fast-track arrangement for road transport from the Republic of Ireland crossing mainland-UK to go to the rest of the EU.

This would still be awkward. But if a deal that would preserve the Good Friday Agreement more or less intact, a deal that works for the Republic of Ireland, is one that the EU negotiation tean would accept, and thus force the UK government to accept it too.

But the UK government is only able to maintain a majority in Parliament because of the DUP, and the DUP say they’ll vote against the government on this deal: the DUP want no part of any deal that leaves Northern Ireland separated from the rest of the UK and effectively, like the Republic, still within the EU. It’s probable they see this as a first step to a united Ireland, and it’s possible they’re right. (There is also, of course, the question of the dark money received by the DUP and spent on pro-Leave advertising before the referendum: the Electoral Commission is still unable to publish any information on where this money came from.)

If the DUP are prepared to bring down the UK government over their acceptance of such a deal, if Labour and MPs of all other parties are willing to make the government lose a vote of no-confidence and trigger a general election, they can. After June 2017, the Tories simply don’t have the numbers to withstand such a rebellion.

But, I think it likely that Jeremy Corbyn, who supports soft Brexit and who may be happy to support a first step towards a united Ireland, might whip Labour to support the Tories on agreeing the deal.

Assuming, that is, Corbyn doesn’t want a general election before March 2019 – that he wants Theresa May’s Conservative government to be entirely responsible for Brexit: that he wants to trigger a general election which he has good reason to suppose Labour can win, only after March 2019.

This isn’t just an unresolvable problem because Theresa May’s government is dependent on ten DUP MPs: it could be an unresolvable problem because (as David Allen Green noted in a recent thread on Twitter) the wording of the EU referendum specified “United Kingdom” to leave the EU. If Northern Ireland is to be allowed a special Brexit deal, why not Scotland? Why not Gibraltar?

Meanwhile, for the removal of all doubt, Donald Tusk confirms that the Irish government will have a formal veto on any Brexit deal made for the Irish border.

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