Campaigning against the Leave case in 2016, the then Home Secretary Theresa May confirmed her assessment that a decision to leave the European Union by UK voters would ineluctably mean the restoration of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland six counties devolved region. She was right. In case anyone has forgotten what a border checkpoint means and its potential to implode they should watch the new Samuel Maoz film Foxtrot’s depiction of the Israeli-Palestinian border in northern Israel.
The negotiation with the EU and debate about leaving has centred on the failure of Prime Minister May’s colleagues then and since, to understand the place of Northern Ireland in the UK. Some senior Cabinet ministers seemed not to know that the UK had a land border with an independent EU state. The ignorance is alarming, but not surprising, in the imperialist-nostalgic mind-set of Brexiteers.
Ireland in England
Gladstone, Campbell-Bannerman, Asquith, Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Churchill and every Prime Minister since Harold Wilson has had to make ample space for Northern Irish politics in their Cabinet and parliamentary time. Entering office in 1997, the team around Tony Blair were stunned at the amount of diary time devoted to Northern Ireland by his predecessor John Major and Blair’s incumbency proved no different. Churchill’s dismay at the octopus tentacle effect of Northern Ireland will be as appreciated by May as it was by Gladstone, despite the separation of 150 years: he regretted “the power which Ireland has, both Nationalist and Orange, to lay their hands upon the vital strings of British life and politics.” Churchill also memorably remarked in Parliament in 1922 that although the “whole map of Europe has been changed,” in Northern Ireland nothing changed: “we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once more.”
So much has been written about Northern Ireland, the backstop, the alleged malice of Republic of Ireland politicians, and the perfidious behaviour of scheming Brussels politicians that this article confines itself to three points.
The Border and the Backstop
First, borders. The customs union creates a demarcation between those who are members and those who are not. Member states share a common tariff enforced at a common border.
Brexit ends this arrangement because Brexit politicians want to set new tariffs after leaving the EU. This necessitates border controls and check points. Such arrangements will reverse the seamless travel of persons and goods across the 300 mile plus Northern Ireland border with the Republic. The backstop should delay the implementation of border controls, but not their eventual arrival. A no-deal crash out guarantees a physical border immediately.
The backstop provides a transition period in which the UK as a whole remains in the customs union and single market while a new EU-UK trade agreement is established. The need for a backstop is anticipated in the Joint Report of the Negotiators of the European Union and the United Kingdom Government in December 2017 as follows: “it consequently seems essential for the UK to commit to ensuring that a hard border on the island of Ireland is avoided, including by ensuring no emergence of regulatory divergence from those rules of the internal market and the Customs Union which are (or may be in the future) necessary for meaningful North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement.”
The document continues with Option C: “in the absence of agreed solutions, the UK will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.” This temporary customs arrangement (TCA) is in the Withdrawal Agreement and it is this clause which PM May, Attorney General Cox and Brexit Secretary Barclay are seeking to refashion in Brussels for the 12 March vote in Parliament.
It is striking how little has changed from the initial analysis of the customs union. Practically, there is one solution only to avoiding a hard border – “either NI or the UK as a whole stay in the customs and the single market for goods.” Because of Parliamentarians’ ignorance of how the EU works and of Northern Irish politics (including the 1998 Agreement ratified in separate referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) the significance of the TCA dawned on them slowly. Since then it has been central to Brexit.
The DUP and pivotal power
Second, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Brexit has been a windfall for the DUP to maintain and defend Northern Irish sovereignty and integration with Britain as part of the UK. The party is a product of the Free Presbyterian Church founded in 1951 by the charismatic and dominant Reverend Dr Ian Paisley Sr. (Many key members including leader Arlene Foster and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson defected to the DUP from the Ulster Unionists after 1998.) It has deep roots in working class unionism.
The DUP’s salience in Westminster after 2017 was badly needed for its own survival. The party did poorly in the 2017 elections and its majority status in Northern Ireland is precarious. It is thriving only because of its political success in London. It has brought in money to the province as a condition of its support for the May government.
It is the DUP voice only which is heard from Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations because their ten votes prop up the May government. On Brexit it is a partial representative: it was the only one of the five parties in Northern Ireland to campaign for Brexit where the vote was 56% to remain, 44% to leave. However, the vote followed the usual nationalist-unionist divide: 88% of nationalists voted remain compared with only 34% of unionists thus giving the DUP a basis for being a representative voice. Amongst NI members of parliament, the 7 Sinn Fein members abstain, there is one Ulster Unionist (Lady Sylvia Hermon a Remainer) and then the 10 DUP MPs.
Foster is totally in control of the DUP despite facing the mind-numbingly tedious Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) enquiry which reads more like a Myles na Gopaleen farce than a scandal from which heads will roll. Foster is dominant despite being a Church of Ireland member in a Presbyterian dominated party, and representing a constituency in Stormont, Fermanagh-South Tyrone which voted 58.6% to remain and 41.4% to Leave.
Under Foster’s leadership and May’s weakness, the DUP has made itself the most important force in British politics. The DUP heartland is unwaveringly for Brexit, embracing the opportunity to erode the closer Northern Ireland-Republic ties fostered by the 1998 Agreement. Northern nationalists do not like the DUP believing the party gave no consideration to protecting their Irish identity inside the EU. Foster dismisses views from colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Party, such as Mike Nesbitt and indeed her own DUP colleague Peter Robinson, that things are changing and may include movement toward island-wide integration (other than to state that she would leave Northern Ireland if change occurs).
In a choice between such integration versus a frontier, the option is unequivocal – build a barrier. They see this moment as a means to fortify the border created in the Government of Ireland Act in May 1921 (a border intended to be revised when a special Boundary Commission published new recommendations; in the event, the Commission’s draft report recommending moving two counties to the Republic was leaked in 1925 and the scheme binned).
The Good Friday Agreement is an international treaty between two sovereign states, both belonging to a common entity, the European Union. The Agreement heralded a remarkable era of dramatically reduced sectarian violence. Undoubtedly the 1998 Agreement has not eroded community hostility or facilitated greater acceptance of each side – and the steady exodus of the most talented young people from Northern Ireland doesn’t help this process – but it did change the political landscape internally and cross-nationally fundamentally. It is ridiculous to ditch it so casually, particularly when identifiable forces will seek to exploit the opportunities to challenge civil and public order that the erection of a Brexit border will provide.
The Northern Ireland continuity
Third, Northern Ireland in British Politics. The two-year anniversary of the breakdown in devolution politics in Northern Ireland has just passed. This means it is two years since the Northern Ireland Executive shared between the DUP and Sinn Fein collapsed over the RHI enquiry, same sex marriage and disputes about the Irish language and addressing legacies of the Troubles. This dangerous political vacuum – unlikely to be filled in the short to medium term – intensifies the potential disorder consequences of the new Brexit border.
Such a disregard of emerging dangers returns to Churchill’s “vital strings.” The place of Northern Ireland in the Brexit referendum has been ill-served by the politicians appointed to the Northern Ireland Secretary of State office. A former MEP, Theresa Villiers was both an ardent Leaver and Northern Ireland Secretary of State in June 2016. She evinced no contradiction between these roles, asserting that, “I don’t think anyone should assume that border checks should be introduced as a result of a UK exit.” Pressed about movement of goods and the EU’s rules on animal health and food safety she bluffed and blustered. Such a stance ignored veterinary certification, checks, infrastructure, customs documents, road stations and the apparatus of a border. Villiers told the BBC she wanted “to take back control over our country and making our laws and controlling our borders,” but seemed unable to grasp that this agenda implies a hard border. Her credulous disclaimers helped other Brexiteers – such as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson to sidestep further queries by referencing back to her claims. Either Brexiteers want an international border (the reason for leaving) or don’t understand the complexity. Such gaps in knowledge echo the ambiguity of language in Finnegan’s Wake rather than the precision of expression in Dubliners.
Villiers’ unwillingness to grasp complexity and her empty assurances legitimized the Leave campaign’s lack of policy on the border issue. Considered concerns and important questions expressed by former Prime Ministers such as Blair or Major were belittled and dismissed. Of David Cameron’s many egregious decisions during the campaign, the one to permit ardent Leavers to continue in ministerial post while they campaigned stands out: in the case of Northern Ireland this decision reinforced the fragile understanding and casualness of London views of the province during the campaign.
Theresa Villiers departed Belfast after the disastrous 2017 election. We now have Karen Bradley as Secretary of State. Rather than hiding, and seeking to remedy the depths of her political and historical ignorance about Northern Ireland, Bradley opted to lay them bare publicly in an interview. This action no doubt reveals much about her level of competence as a politician with an uncertain future, but it also reveals that being ignorant about Northern Ireland still doesn’t matter in a British Prime Minister’s choice about whom to send there as a Cabinet level Secretary of State. But the price is very high – recent poll results recording that close to 90% of Leavers polled believe a return to violence in Northern Ireland is a price worth paying for Brexit is just utterly, utterly frightening.
There have been warnings about threatened violence from analysts of both communities. Loyalist paramilitaries will respond if Northern Ireland has a special status distinct from the UK in the EU; nationalists warn that any sort of hard border will become a target. History suggests that such mutterings should not be dismissed lightly.
Misunderstanding and ignorance of each other’s country will grow with Brexit. Few English people know much about Ireland – and why should they? Irish history is not taught in school. It is remote from their daily lives and two decades of stability has induced indifference. The EU was a forum for such knowledge to grow between the two countries but that is now lost.
One interest for whom Northern Ireland is not remote is the Irish-American community. Many American politicians including such luminaries as House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Senator George Mitchell and Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have had cause for full engagement with UK politics about Northern Ireland. Such an interest will quickly reactivate once the Brexit border reverses the two decades old trajectory to civil peace adroitly negotiated under the chairmanship of Mitchell.
However, while voters can perhaps afford to be complacent, the political class should be more alert. It is a fortunate Prime Minister who has not had to direct his or her civil servants urgently to produce potted histories and explanations of the “dreary steeples.”
Desmond King is Andrew W Mellon Professor of American Government at the University of Oxford and Professorial Fellow of Nuffield College.