John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: Ireland Page 1 of 7

BREXIT AND THE BELFAST AGREEMENT

…….DIVERGENCE vs CONVERGENCE

Brexit is about divergence between the two parts of Ireland, between Ireland and Britain, and between Britain and Europe.

 The debate about Brexit has also contributed to increased policy divergence between the representatives of the two traditional communities in Northern Ireland. It has deepened the divide. Thankfully, the Alliance Party and its Leader, Naomi Long MEP, are providing a voice for those who want a new way forward, freed from the constraining categories of the past.

 Whereas Brexit is about divergence, the Belfast Agreement of 1998, negotiated so painstakingly between the Irish and UK governments, and between the parties in Northern Ireland, was about convergence…….  convergence between the two communities in Northern Ireland, convergence between the two parts of Ireland, and convergence between Ireland and Britain.

 It was supported at the time by both the EU and the US and endorsed by referenda in both parts of Ireland. Ireland changed its constitution by referendum in 1998 to accommodate it, no minor matter.

Brexit arose from a referendum in the UK in 2016, in which the larger populations in England and Wales were able to outvote the smaller populations in Scotland and Northern Ireland, who favoured remain.

One of the fundaments of democracy is that governance should have the consent of the governed. One of the fundaments of a successful of different nations, as the EU has shown, is respect for minorities and smaller nations.

 Brexit had the consent of the voters of England and Wales, in the 2016 Referendum, but it did not have the consent of the voters of Northern Ireland, nor of Scotland. 

It could be said that Brexit, no matter what way it may now  be implemented, will change the status of Northern Ireland, and will do so without the consent of the people living in Northern Ireland.

WHAT IS THE ESSENCE OF SOVEREIGNTY?

 In his recent letter to his fellow EU Heads of Government, Prime Minister Johnson claimed that the Irish backstop is inconsistent with the “sovereignty” of the UK as a state. 

 All international agreements impinge on sovereignty. 

But the sovereignty of a state primarily consists in a state having a monopoly on the use of force within its territory. The backstop does not diminish UK sovereignty in that understanding of sovereignty. 

By joining the EU in 1973, the UK agreed to pool other aspects of its rule making authority in some other specified areas of life, with other EU member states. It entered into a succession of EU Treaties on that basis.

 While  it was always open  in international law to the UK , to renounce these Treaty commitments, as it is now doing,  the UK was, and is, obliged to take proper account of the effect of the effect of such a decision on its fellow member states of the EU.

After all, these other EU states, including Ireland, acted  in good faith on the basis that these shared Treaty commitments would continue to be honoured by the UK.  Ireland acted on that legitimate assumption when it changed its constitution to facilitate the Belfast Agreement it made with the UK in 1998. 

As it is the UK that is taking the initiative to renounce the EU Treaties it has with Ireland and other EU states, it is for the UK to take the primary responsibility for finding a way to reconcile that initiative with other Treaty commitments of the UK , notably  its legal Agreement made in Belfast in 1998.That is how international relations work and why renouncing Treaty commitments is a rare occurrence. 

Unfortunately, the UK never faced up to that responsibility.

 And it was the EU side that had to come up with a proposal to do this, the so called Irish backstop.

 The EU would never have had to do this if the UK had faced up openly to its responsibilities under the Belfast Agreement, when it started to promote the idea of Brexit . That was a deep failure of statecraft on the part of the UK, and of the UK alone.

THE IMPORTANCE OF RULES IN INTERNATIONAL COMMERCE

Adhering to Treaty commitments is usually in a state’s self interest. 

This is because, in international commerce, rules are important. That is a commercial and political reality.

 Without shared rules or understandings, commerce would be impossible.

 The EU is an engine for

  •  making rules democratically,
  •  enforcing them consistently and
  •  interpreting them uniformly.

 I do not think these realities of international commerce were explained to the UK electorate by their leaders over the last 40 years, which is why the English and Welsh electorate fell for the Brexit delusion.. 

WHAT IS  PRIME MINISTER JOHNSON OFFERING ON THE UNIQUE CHALLENGES FACING IRELAND AS A RESULT OF BREXIT?

Mr Johnson’s letter to his fellow EU leaders said

“ Ireland is the UK’s closest neighbour, with whom we will continue to share uniquely deep ties, a land border, the Common Travel Area, and much else besides. We remain, as we have always been, committed to working with Ireland on the peace process, and to furthering Northern Ireland’s security and prosperity. We recognise the unique challenges the outcome of the referendum poses for Ireland, and want to find solutions to the border which work for all.”

He continued

“ I want to re-emphasis the commitment of this Government to peace in Northern Ireland. The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, as well as being an agreement between the UK and Ireland, is a historic agreement between two traditions in Northern Ireland, and we are unconditionally committed to the spirit and letter of our obligations under it in all circumstances – whether there is a deal with the EU or not.”

These are fine words. But they lack specific content. 

So far Mr Johnson’s government has not spelled  out , in detail and on paper

+ what  these “unique challenges” are,

+ how it believes these can be met and

+ what his government  is prepared to do to that end.

Any ideas the UK may now  have are being held back as a negotiating tactic. 

That is NOT a good faith approach to international relations.

THE KEY PARAGRAPH IN PRIME MINISTER JOHNSON’S LETTER

Later in his letter, Mr Johnson says 

“When the UK leaves the EU and after any transition period, we will leave the single market and the customs union. Although we will remain committed to world-class environment, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.”

This is the most revealing paragraph of the entire letter.

The whole point of Brexit, according to Mr Johnson, is to “diverge” from EU standards on environment, product and labour standards.

 This  would mean, in the absence of a backstop, Northern Ireland’s environment, product, and labour standards  will continuously, and progressively over time, diverge further and further away from those of Ireland (as a member of the EU). 

 Although it has been promoting Brexit for three years now, the UK government has yet to say which EU standards it wants to diverge from, and why it wishes to do so.

Divergence, for its own sake, is what the UK   now seems to want, according to Mr Johnson. That was not the approach of the May government. 

The more regulatory divergence there is between the two parts of Ireland, the more border controls or other barriers there will have to be. The more the UK rules diverge, the bigger the barriers will have to be.

 On day one, relatively few border controls may be necessary. But, by day one thousand and one, after the deliberate divergence had been done by the UK, far more border controls will be necessary.

Nobody knows what rules this, or a future UK, government will change and in what direction. That is why the issue of the impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland HAS to be settled upfront, in the Withdrawal Treaty. Hence the backstop.

Given that the Good Friday Agreement is all about convergence (not divergence) between the two parts of Ireland, and between Britain and Ireland, there is a head on contradiction between  Mr Johnson’s proclaimed commitment to the Belfast Agreement , and his commitment that the UK progressively and intentionally diverging from EU standards.

That is the core problem, and Mr Johnson’s letter makes this clear, “divergence” is the whole point of Brexit and  according to Mr Johnson this divergence is “central to our future (British) democracy”. 

Prime Minister Johnson said

“ the backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. The historic compromise in Northern Ireland is based upon a carefully negotiated balance between both traditions in Northern Ireland, grounded in agreement, consent, and respect for minority rights”

He is right to say that the Belfast Agreement is a carefully negotiated balance.

 But it is Brexit ,of its very nature,  that upsets that balance. 

Brexit, as Mr Johnson’s letter says, is about divergence. 

If there is to be divergence between jurisdictions, there must be border controls or barriers of some kind between those jurisdictions.

Mr Johnson’s letter refers to

 “respect for minority rights” and to “consent”

 The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, but their wishes are to ignored because a majority in the wider UK voted for Brexit..

 The people of Northern Ireland have not “consented” to Brexit, or to the new barriers, controls, and costly bureaucracy that flow from it.

Mr Johnson says

“The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement neither depends upon nor requires a particular customs or regulatory regime.“

It is true that the Agreement does not say this in terms.

 But, at the time the Agreement was negotiated, both the UK and Ireland were in the same customs and regulatory regime.

 That was taken for granted, and did not have to made explicit in the Agreement.

 If Brexit was a possibility in 1998, it would have been a UK responsibility to have brought  up the compatibility of the Agreement with a possible UK EU departure. 

There is no evidence that either the UK government, or the Conservative official opposition, raised this possibility in 1998.

Prime Minister Johnson goes on

“The broader commitments in the Agreement, including to parity of esteem, partnership, democracy and to peaceful means of resolving differences, can be met if we explore solutions other than the backstop.”

This is a strangely vague and dreamy sentiment for the champion of Brexit  to express, when we are barely a month away from the 31 October deadline. There is no solid proposal, just possibilities and explorations. Not enough at this stage from a responsible sovereign government.

I now need to pose the following question.

DOES MR JOHNSON WANT TO BREAK UP THE EU SINGLE MARKET?

Mr Johnson’s letter says

“This Government will not put in place infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We would be happy to accept a legally binding commitment to this effect and hope that the EU would do likewise.”

This reads to me like a straightforward attempt by a UK Prime Minister to destroy the EU Single Market. 

He seems to want the EU to legally bind itself not to enforce its rules at its borders.

He   thus seems to want some sort of “no man’s land” in the vicinity of the Irish border where no controls or checks would apply.

 This is an open invitation to criminal and subversive organisations, who have financed themselves in the past by smuggling.

 Given that one such, smuggling financed , criminal organisation attempted to murder one of his predecessors as Conservative leader, one would be forgiven for thinking that Boris Johnson has not studied the history of his party closely enough.

Controls on the goods and services ,that may cross its borders, are essential to the EU Single Market. 

Such controls are especially necessary because

 +  the UK has decided to make trade deals, with different rates of tariffs, or different quality standards for goods and services to the ones applied by EU, once it has left, and

+  Prime Minister Johnson has said the UK will deliberately  and increasingly diverge from EU environmental , product, and labour standards.

 The EU will not be able to continue to lead the world in, for example, setting higher standards to protect the climate, and the privacy of the data of its citizens, if it were to allow its nearest neighbour, and recently departed member, to undercut its standards with impunity.

The requirements to be fulfilled by Ireland, as part of the EU Customs territory, at its borders and its ports, are set out in immense detail in the EU Customs Code. The Code was adopted in October 1992 by Council Regulation 2913/92

 It requires the uniform application of the Code across the entire EU territory.

The fact that Mr Johnson has invited the EU not to enforce its own rules, raises the suspicion that he would like to the EU to dissolve itself altogether !

John Bruton, former Taoiseach, former EU Ambassador and former vice President of the EPP, speaking at a cross party hearing, organised by Naomi Long MEP, in the European Parliament  on 25 September at 11 am

AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY THAT PUTS THE IRISH BACKSTOP IN CONTEXT.

I have just finished reading Seamus Mallon’s autobiography, entitled a “Shared Home Place”.

Boris Johnson, or one of his advisors, ought to read it if they wish to get an insight into the concerns that underlie the Irish backstop. 

They will learn that Brexit, and the Irish peace, are not events in themselves, but processes that will go on for years, and will either deepen or reduce division over generations to come.

 This is not a one off problem to be solved, but a choice between two courses of action that are fundamentally inimical to one another.

As the title of his book implies, Seamus Mallon makes the case that Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, must come to terms with the fact that they must share their home place with a million or so people (unionists) who see themselves as British, and who do not have, and will never have, an exclusively Irish identity.

The early part of the book deals with the author’s experience growing up, peacefully, as a member of a Catholic minority in the predominantly Protestant town of Market hill in Armagh.

 It then moves to the beginnings of the troubles, and the exclusive way in which local government operated to the benefit of the unionist majority, without regard to the wishes of the nationalist minority.

After a stint in local government, Seamus Mallon later was a member of the 1974 power sharing administration, led by the Unionist Brian Faulkner, and established on the basis of the Sunningdale Agreement between the Irish Taoiseach of the day, Liam Cosgrave and his counterpart, Edward Heath. 

This power sharing Administration was brought down by the Ulster Workers strikers, who objected to the whole idea of power sharing between the  two communities. 

Mallon believes the IRA also felt deeply threatened by power sharing, which may explain why Sinn Fein, despite all the efforts made by others to accommodate them, has so far been unable to work the Good Friday institutions even to this day.

Mallon was SDLP spokesman on Justice in the 1980’s and he made a point of attending all the funerals of victims of politically motivated violence in his area, which was an important, but very difficult, demonstration of his profound sense of fairness and,  of his opposition to all violence. 

The book is very explicit about the murderous collusion between the security forces and Loyalist paramilitaries. He names names.

Mallon deals with the Hume/Adams talks, and makes clear that John Hume did not bring his party along with him in this solo endeavour, a failure that had deep long term consequences. 

As Mallon puts it,

 “peace was being brought about in a way that was bypassing democratic procedures”.

He is critical of Sinn Fein having been allowed into government in Northern Ireland without the IRA first  getting rid of their weapons. 

As he puts it, the IRA, continuing to hold weapons, after the Good Friday Agreement had been ratified in both parts of Ireland, was

“a challenge to the sovereignty of the Irish people”.

This was also my opinion at the time, both as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael. 

There are some principles that should not be blurred.

 It took the IRA 11 years to eventually put their arms beyond use, and Mallon says that this

 “led to huge mistrust and misunderstanding”.

 Mallon believes the British and Irish governments should have called the IRA’s bluff much earlier, and claims that it was the Americans who eventually forced the issue of decommissioning.

He gives a good account of the dramatic conclusion to the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, and of Tony Blair’s letter to David Trimble, promising that the process of decommissioning should start “straight away”, a promise Mallon says 

“Blair was either unwilling or unable to keep”.

Mallon understood Trimble’s problem, praises his courage, and believes he was ill used by Tony Blair.

But the artificially prolonged focus on decommissioning kept Sinn Fein as the centre of attention, and thus helped them to supplant the SDLP as the voice of Northern Nationalism. This was an error of historic proportions.

Mallon believes that the Trimble/Mallon( UUP/SDLP) power sharing Administrations  under the Good Friday Agreement achieved more that the Paisley/ McGuinness (DUP/SF) Administrations did.

Mallon opposes political violence in all circumstances. 

As he says

“It is a universal lesson that political violence obliterates not only its victims, but all possibility of rational discourse about future political options”

I agree.

 The 1916 to 1923 period in Ireland also taught us that lesson too!

In the latter part of the book, Seamus Mallon talks about the prospects of a united Ireland. 

The Good Friday Agreement allows for referenda to decide the question. It posits a 50% + one vote as being sufficient to bring a united Ireland about. This is a deficiency in the Agreement.

 A united Ireland, imposed on that narrow basis, would be highly unstable. There would be a minority opposed to it that would simply not give up. 

As Mallon puts it

“I believe that if nationalists cannot, over a period of time, persuade a significant number of unionists to accept an Irish unitary state, then that kind of unity is not an option”

I agree.

The Irish and UK governments could find common ground here.

 But the two communities in Northern Ireland must first start talking to one another about what they really need and what they could concede to one another.

 There is no point blaming the politicians.  If the voters chose parties to represent them that are intransigent, then the voters themselves are ultimately responsible for the outcome.

This is something that Boris Johnson has to contemplate as he seeks a way to deal with the Irish backstop.

PRIME MINISTER JOHNSON’S LETTER TO COUNCIL PRESIDENT TUSK

 

This letter is important because it sets out the thinking of the new UK Government. 

 It should be taken seriously and analysed.

It contains a number of internal contradictions which should be, politely but persistently, probed by EU negotiators.

I hope to explore some of these in this note.

WHAT IS THE ESSENCE OF SOVEREIGNTY?

Some of the terms used in the letter need to be defined.

For example, Mr Johnson claims the Irish backstop is inconsistent with the “sovereignty” of the UK as a state. 

All international agreements impinge on sovereignty. 

But the ultimate sovereignty of a state concerns the states monopoly on the use of force within its territory. 

UK sovereignty in Britain and Northern Ireland is not interfered with by the backstop, in that basic understanding of state sovereignty.

WHAT IS JOHNSON OFFERING ON THE UNIQUES CHALLENGES FACING IRELAND?

Mr Johnson’s letter says

“ Ireland is the UK’s closest neighbour, with whom we will continue to share uniquely deep ties, a land border, the Common Travel Area, and much else besides. We remain, as we have always been, committed to working with Ireland on the peace process, and to furthering Northern Ireland’s security and prosperity. We recognise the unique challenges the outcome of the referendum poses for Ireland, and want to find solutions to the border which work for all.”

It continues

“ I want to re-emphasis the commitment of this Government to peace in Northern Ireland. The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, as well as being an agreement between the UK and Ireland, is a historic agreement between two traditions in Northern Ireland, and we are unconditionally committed to the spirit and letter of our obligations under it in all circumstances – whether there is a deal with the EU or not.”

Boris Johnson recognises what he calls the “unique challenges” Brexit poses for Ireland.

It would be useful to ask him to set out in his own words 

  • what he thinks these “unique challenges” are, and to ask him to set out his own words
  • how he believes these can be met and
  • how his government might contribute to this.

I have the sense that neither he, nor his fellow Brexit advocates, have ever undertaken such a mental exercise.

Again, he says he is “unconditionally” committed to the “letter and the spirit “of the UK’s obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. 

It would be useful to ask Prime Minister Johnson to put in his own words what he considers these obligations to be, particularly as regards the “spirit “of the Agreement.

DIVERGENCE IS CENTRAL TO BREXIT, CONVERGENCE IS CENTRAL TO BELFAST AGREEMENT

Later in his letter, Mr Johnson says 

“When the UK leaves the EU and after any transition period, we will leave the single market and the customs union. Although we will remain committed to world-class environment, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.”

This is the most revealing paragraph of the entire letter.

The whole point of Brexit, according to Mr Johnson, is to “diverge” from EU standards on environment, product and labour standards.

 This means Northern Ireland’s environment, product, and labour standards diverging from those of Ireland (as a member of the EU).

FROM WHICH EU STANDARDS DOES UK WISH TO DIVERGE?

Although it has been promoting Brexit for three years now, the UK government has yet to say which EU standards it wants to diverge from, and why it wishes to do so.

Divergence, for its own sake, is what the UK wants, according to Mr Johnson.

Given that the Good Friday Agreement is all about convergence (not divergence) between the two parts of Ireland, and between Britain and Ireland, there is a head on contradiction between these two parts of Mr Johnson’s letter.

On the detail of the backstop, he says

“By requiring continued membership of the customs union and applying many single market rules in Northern Ireland, it presents the whole of the UK with the choice of remaining in a customs union and aligned with those rules, or of seeing Northern Ireland gradually detached from the UK economy across a very broad range of areas. Both of those outcomes are unacceptable to the British Government.”

This point has some validity in its own terms.

 If no alternative solution is found, and the backstop comes into effect, new EU rules, in the making of which the UK will not have had a hand, with apply either to the whole of the UK or to Northern Ireland.

So far the UK has been unable to come up with a credible alternative to the backstop, that would allow Brexit to go ahead, but also to avoid progressive divergence in regulations between the two parts of Ireland. 

That is the core problem, and Mr Johnson’s letter makes clear that “divergence” is the whole point of Brexit and “central to our future democracy”. It is important the UK public understand what their government is committing itself to.

IT IS BREXIT, NOT THE BACKSTOP, THAT UPSETS THE BALANCE

MrJohnson also claims that 

“ the backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. The historic compromise in Northern Ireland is based upon a carefully negotiated balance between both traditions in Northern Ireland, grounded in agreement, consent, and respect for minority rights”

He is right to say that the Belfast Agreement is a carefully negotiated balance.

But Brexit, of its very nature, upsets that balance. Brexit, as Mr Johnson’s letter says, is about divergence. 

If there is to be divergence between jurisdictions, there must be border controls between those jurisdictions.

Brexit upsets the balance by forcing a choice between

  • having the divergence/border between North and South in Ireland (thereby favouring the  “unionist” position) or 
  • having the divergence/border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (thereby favouring the “nationalist” position).

Brexit alone is responsible for forcing such a choice. And Brexit is a UK initiative, not something forced upon it,

The only way to preserve the “balance”, to which Mr Johnson says he is committed, would be to disaggregate the regulations into categories, and have half the controls North/ South and half on an East/ West basis within the UK. This would be clumsy and would take years to negotiate. But so also is Brexit.

MINORITY RIGHTS AND BREXIT

Mr Johnson’s letter refers to

 “respect for minority rights”.

 The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, but their wishes are to ignored because a majority in the wider UK voted for Brexit. 

Brexit, as promoted by Mr Johnson, is a radical rejection of this minority rights aspect of the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Johnson says

“The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement neither depends upon nor requires a particular customs or regulatory regime.“

It is true that the Agreement does not say this in terms.

But, at the time the Agreement was negotiated, both the UK and Ireland were in the same customs and regulatory regime. That was taken for granted, and did not have to made explicit in the Agreement.

He goes on

“The broader commitments in the Agreement, including to parity of esteem, partnership, democracy and to peaceful means of resolving differences, can be met if we explore solutions other than the backstop.”

This is a strange sentence.

 It says the commitments “can” be met if we “explore” other solutions.

An exploration by its nature is uncertain, and the use of this term contradicts the confident statement that solutions “can” be found. In any event, Mr Johnson ought to have come up with the solution himself by now.

DOES MR JOHNSON WANT TO BREAK UP THE EU SINGLE MARKET?

Mr Johnson goes on

“This Government will not put in place infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We would be happy to accept a legally binding commitment to this effect and hope that the EU would do likewise.”

This reads to me like a straightforward attempt by a UK Prime Minister to destroy the EU Single Market. 

Controls on what goods and services may cross its borders are essential to the EU Single Market.  This is especially the case if the UK decides to make trade deals, with different rates of tariffs to the ones applied by EU. 

Given that “divergence” from EU rules is what Mr Johnson says Brexit is all about, inviting the EU not to enforce its own rules, raises the suspicion that, like his fan President Trump, Boris Johnson would like to dissolve the EU!

DO TORY LEADERSHIP CONTENDERS UNDERSTAND WHY THERE IS AN IRISH BACKSTOP?

The Backstop is not just about the border. It is not a technical matter. It is not just about what happens at 200 crossing points.

It is about the people of Northern Ireland, and giving all of them (not just a majority) the freedom to be who they are, and a sense of belonging.

But the present debate in the UK Conservative Party about replacing the backstop, seems to assume that it is all about technical fixes and invisible border posts , and that some yet to be discovered combination of IT and lasers would remove the need for physical customs posts, and that would then solve the entire problem. That is a mistake.

The backstop is about far more than this.  It is a recognition of the fact that, in Northern Ireland there is a population some of whom feet they have exclusively British identity and allegiance, some of whom feel they have an exclusively Irish identity and allegiance, and some of whom combine these allegiances comfortably enough.

The backstop is a recognition of this fundamental divide, which has led to so much suffering in the past, and an attempt to sustain the arrangements that ended that suffering.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 transcended these divisions through provisions for intense North/ South and East/West cooperation, that would allow all three groups, described above, to feel fully at home in Northern Ireland under any present, or future , constitutional arrangements.

This was easy to envisage as long as both parts of Ireland remained in the EU, because EU rules facilitated and underpinned free and easy cooperation both North/South and East/West.

In such a context, territorial “sovereignty” became less of an issue, because it was overlaid by structures of free cooperation enshrined in EU law.

Brexit changes all that in a radical way. It brings territorial sovereignty back into the centre of stage in a way that threatens the Belfast Agreement settlement in a deeply fundamental way. I believe that Theresa May came to understand this, and that that explains her acceptance of the backstop.

Most of those contending to take her place in the Conservative Party leadership do not seem to do so.

In the agreement of March 2019, the EU side has given the UK very strong assurance of its good faith in seeking to find an alternative to the backstop.

But that will only work if the UK side really understand why the backstop was put there in the first place.

I do not believe that the contenders for Conservative Party leadership have taken this on board.

WHAT SHOULD THE EU DO AFTER BREXIT?

WHAT SHOULD IRELAND’S POLICY BE?

 The terms of Brexit are vital for Ireland.  But so also is how Ireland locates itself in the EU AFTER Brexit. President Macron has written to the Taoiseach setting out his post Brexit agenda. The Finnish government has just published an 125 page report on the implications for Finland and the EU of the changing global order. Ireland should do the same.

 Brexit could change Ireland’s geostrategic position.

SECURITY

If the US guarantee of Europe’s security through NATO were to be diminished, and/or if the UK were to become estranged from its continental European allies, Ireland would be in the geostrategic frontline.

 The UK/European/US security alliance has provided security for Ireland since 1945, at modest cost.

It will be in Ireland’s interests that this security alliance survive Brexit. A clash on security policy between the UK, and the continental members of the EU, would hit Ireland, particularly its communications, energy and cyber security.

FIVE THREATS

Stresses in European security will be caused five global forces. These are

  + A richer, but older, human race, reluctant to change, and nostalgic for a past that never really existed. The EU and the UK are part of an ageing continent, with declining population, but close to Africa which is a young and potentially dynamic.

  + The increasing vulnerability of globalization and the of norms that underpin it. The WTO is at risk.

  + Climate change and intensifying competition for scarce material resources, not just energy but water, phosphates and rare earths.

  + Distrust of political leadership, and of experts could lead to a paralysis in necessary decision making in the EU and other multinational institutions.

  + The economic rise of China and India and their associated political ambitions, and declining interest of the US in guaranteeing Europe’s defence.

 All these forces will leave Europe, and Ireland, increasingly vulnerable to outside pressures.

EASIER TO MEET THEM TOGETHER THAN SEPARATELY

Meeting them will not be the responsibility of the EU alone. Member states themselves have far more spending power than the EU has. They spend 40% of GDP whereas the EU only spends 1%. Cooperation with the UK, especially after Brexit, will help.

 If European countries want to have maximum impact on most of these huge challenges , they will need to act together, and in good time .While the absence of the UK from the EU will be a handicap,  fractious and prolonged arguments among EU states themselves could be an even greater one.

 Irish policy should be that, by acting within or through the EU, rather than on their own, EU states can do more, at less cost.

 But will that approach get the unanimous agreement among all 27 EU members? If not, smaller groups of EU states may decide to go ahead on their own, using Title IV of the Treaty, which allows for this. To the extent that a member state then declines to take part in a Title IV activity, it may find itself in an EU “slow lane”. Ireland should avoid being in any EU slow lane. Brexit has made us geographically peripheral, so we should avoid being politically so too.

TREATY CHANGE SHOULD NOT BE RULED OUT

 That said, the EU may only act within the limits of the powers given to it in the Treaties.  If necessary, pragmatic, case by case, amendments to the EU Treaty, to enhance EU competences, should be made. That would, on balance, be better than an EU of first and second class members.

  After Brexit , Ireland must concern itself with the worries of ALL its 27 EU partners, even if these are not of immediate concern to Ireland. The more Ireland does this, the more will those states be willing to support Ireland when Ireland has a problem.

 Ireland should be proactive on all the continents big problems, and should seek solutions to its own problems within the context of a wider EU interest, rather than just look for exceptions. It should avoid alignment with sub groups of states within the EU, who could be seen as divisive or negative .

COMPLETE THE UNION

 Ireland should be positive in support of Banking Union, Energy Union and the completion of the EU Single Market in services. This will sometimes involve standing up to France and Germany, but it will enlarge opportunities for all.

 We will not always get our way, and when trade offs have to be made, these should be explained fully  to the public and the Oireachtas . Ireland should learn from the UK’s mistake on Brexit, of failing  to educate its electorate on the compromises it would have to make.

MAINTAIN THE RULE OF LAW

Populism in central Europe must be confronted. Maintaining the rule of law, and an independent judiciary, are vital to the survival of the EU. EU rules are meaningless if they are not enforced by impartial courts.

The EU is the most advanced multinational, democratic, rule making body in the world. It can be made even more democratic. One way to do this would be through the direct election, by the voters of the EU, of the President of the European Commission. Another is through the Citizen’s panels advocated by President Macron.

The further enlargement of the EU should be supported on a case by case basis. It is important to the consolidation of democracy, in countries like Serbia and North Macedonia. But democratic standards must continue to be insisted upon AFTER a country has joined the EU, as well as when it is applying.

AVOID PROTECTIONISM

Ireland is the EU country with proportionately the greatest amount of US investment. If stresses arise between the US and the EU, these will be felt disproportionately in Ireland. Some of President Macron’s ideas could cause difficulty here. Skillful Irish diplomacy and foresight will be required.

As well as the terms of Brexit, these are the issues that must be discussed during the forthcoming European Elections.  The EU has strong institutions which have proven their worth. But it is the people who operate the institutions that will make the difference. That is why the choices voters will  make in choosing MEPs are so important.

NO DEAL AND THE UNION….DO BREXIT SUPPORTERS KNOW WHERE THEY ARE GOING?

We seem to be sliding inexorably toward a “No Deal” Brexit.

Mrs May’s decision to prioritize a deal with the Brexiteers in her own party, over a possible deal with the Opposition, and the time limits imposed on all of us by Article 50, make a No Deal much more likely than it was a week ago.

The EU is a rule based organisation, and it cannot afford to break its own rules if it wants to maintain its moral and political authority. The technical fixes, advocated by the Tory Brexiteers, cannot be worked through between now and 29 March.

At this late stage, Mrs May can afford to gamble, because, politically, she has little left to lose.

The EU cannot do so.

Its credibility is vital to its trade agreements with the rest of the world. Its internal cohesion depends on consistent application of common rules.
Where will a No Deal leave Ireland?

On the 1 April, the UK will be a non EU country. By law, the EU will have to treat it as such.

Ireland has opted to stay in the EU, and will have to continue to apply EU law, including the EU Customs Code, in all its dealings with non EU states, including the UK and Northern Ireland. That is a clear general principle.
The detail of how this might be applied at Irish ports and land boundaries, on traffic arriving from the UK, should now be clarified in minute detail.
There is no negotiating advantage now in withholding this information at this late stage, in light of Mrs. May’s choice to prioritize a deal with the Conservative Brexiteers over a deal with Labour.

In an article last month, the UK journalist Quentin Peel quoted a recent opinion survey in Northern Ireland on how people might vote in a referendum on leaving the UK adjoining a United Ireland.

I have to say I found the results he highlights to be quite surprising.
The opinion poll, conducted in early December by the Belfast-based pollster Lucid Talk, asked respondents how they would vote in a border poll in three different circumstances:

  • If there were a “no deal” Brexit crash-out of the EU: 55 %  said they would either certainly or probably vote for a united Ireland, against 42 % certainly or probably opting to stay in the UK.
  • If there were a Brexit based on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement: the outcome would be wide open, with 48 % opting to stay in the Union, and 48 % wanting Irish unification.
  • Only if Brexit doesn’t happen, and the UK stays an EU member, is there a clear majority for remaining part of the UK: 60 % in favour, against 29 per cent for a united Ireland.

On the whole, the vote splits clearly on ethno/religious lines:

80 % of self described unionists would opt for the UK even with a no-deal Brexit.

93 % of nationalist/republicans would opt for Irish reunification.

What makes the difference in the poll is the crucial swing vote of the “neutrals”, who are neither self described unionists nor self described nationalist/republicans.

  • If there is no deal, ONLY 14 % of these “neutrals” would vote to remain in the UK!
  • If there is Brexit on May’s terms, that rises to 29 % choosing to remain in the UK.
  • Only if the UK as a whole opts to stay in the EU, do 58 % of the “neutrals” (Alliance, Greens, etc) vote in favour of the Union.

This poll should be read by the MPs of the Conservative Party who stress their support for the “Union” as one of their reasons for opposing the Irish Backstop.
According to a study by University College London, support for the Union of Northern Ireland with Britain is given by many Conservative MPs as the reason for their opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement, and their willingness to contemplate a “No Deal” Brexit. This is perverse.

If this poll is to be believed, in the name of support for the Union, these Conservative MPs are opening the way to a No Deal Brexit, the very outcome that would make a breakup of the Union most likely.

By backing Brexit at all costs, including a no-deal Brexit, the Democratic Unionist Party has enhanced the likelihood of a border poll that would end the Union. This is not a wise course for a “unionist” party to have followed. It plays into the hands of Sinn Fein.

This DUP approach shows how the politics of identity can lead sensible people to adopt policies that lead to the very outcome that they do not want.

The poll data also raises questions about how the vast UK Exchequer subsidy towards public services in Northern Ireland could be met from the much smaller Irish Exchequer, in the event of a United Ireland being chosen by voters in a referendum in Northern Ireland. The implications for tax, and for public services and pay, in both parts of Ireland would be substantial.

There is also the question of how Loyalists, who passionately support the Union and who have a record of violence, might react to a referendum decision that did not go the way they wanted, and how the Garda Siochana and the Irish Army could  cope with this.

Neither of these points is addressed by those, who refuse to take their seats where they could do some good, and who are instead constantly demanding a border poll. As Brexit shows, making a big decision on the basis on the basis of a 58/48% vote can have dire consequences.

Mrs May, by prioritizing Conservative Party unity over a cross party approach, is leading these two islands into constitutional and emotional territory that has not been mapped, and that is highly dangerous.

The problem is Brexit itself, not the backstop.

Brexit, of its nature, means hard barriers between the UK and the EU.

This is because it means the UK having different standards, and, sooner or later, different trade arrangements and tariffs than the EU.  

Whether these barriers are at the geographic boundary, or a few miles away, makes little difference.

These new barriers will bring delays, extra bureaucracy, and eventually bankruptcies, in their wake.

This is what Brexit means, and was always going to mean. Taking back control, by its nature, means more controls

The UK Government says it wants to impose these controls for two reasons.

The first is to be able to control immigration to the UK from the EU.

The truth is that the bulk of the immigration to the UK is not from the EU, but from outside it. EU immigration to the UK will fall off anyway because the population of the EU countries, from whom immigrants have come to the UK, is set to decline.

The second is to be able to make its own trade deals with non EU countries.

This argument is unconvincing. On leaving the EU the UK will lose the trade agreements it ALREADY HAS with the EU, and through the EU, with other countries.

In fact, leaving the EU will mean the UK losing trade agreements with countries that account for 70% of all UK trade. It will need a lot of new agreement to make up for this sudden and dramatic loss!

The backstop would reduce the effect of this, but not remove it altogether, especially if the UK opts for a different VAT regime to the EU.

No Deal

If there is no deal, and no backstop, the European Commission said in a paper published in November, that ;

“Member States, including national authorities, will play a key role in implementing and enforcing EU law vis-à-vis the United Kingdom as a third country. This includes performing the necessary border checks and controls and processing the necessary authorisations and licences.”

The paper does not exempt any of the EU Member State from this requirement.

Indeed if the EU Customs Union and Single Market were to deliberately fail to control any of its borders, it would soon cease to exist, as a Customs Union and a Single Market.

This would not be in Ireland’s interest, to put it mildly.

THE 1918 ELECTION IN MEATH, EAMONN DUGGAN, AND THE FIRST DAIL

Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at an event marking the centenary of the 1918 General Election and the meeting of the First Dail,  in St Nicholas Primary School Longwood , Co Meath on Monday 7 January 2019 at 8pm.

 

 

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FROM WAR STRAIGHT INTO AN ELECTION

The background to this Election was the end of the Great War on 11 November 1918. A General Election, for the entire UK of Great Britain and Ireland, was called ten days later.

The UK Prime Minister, Lloyd George, had called the Election very quickly, after active hostilities ceased, to exploit the good feelings, and relief that the War had finally been brought to a victorious conclusion by the Allies.

This tactic worked. Lloyd George’s coalition of Tories and some Liberals won a landslide in Britain. The landslide went the other way in Ireland.

The War was a particular factor in the Irish election because of the conscription crisis of early 1918.

Conscription had applied on the island of Britain, but not the island of Ireland, from 1916.

The big German breakthrough of early 1918 created a panic in the UK government. Manpower was running short, and the Americans were slow arriving at the front. So, unsurprisingly, Lloyd George was under political pressure, in Scotland, Wales and England, to raise troops numbers by extending the same conscription to Ireland, as applied to them.

In March 1918 he announced his intention to do so, which caused a convulsion in Ireland.

Until this announcement, the Irish Party had been holding its own politically.  It had defeated Sinn Fein in by elections to in South Armagh, East Tyrone and Waterford City early in 1918.  Then Lloyd George’s threat of conscription changed all that.

It drove Irish Party voters into the arms of Sinn Fein in the second half of 1918. It forced the Irish Party to temporarily abandon Parliament in protest, thereby seeming to validate Sinn Fein’s long held policy of abstention. But then the war ended, and the threat of conscription disappeared.

 If the election had been held over until the Spring of 1919, and anger had cooled about the conscription threat, the Election result in Ireland might not have been so dramatic.

WHO COULD BEST REPRESENT IRELAND IN VERSAILLES?

At the time of the December 1918 Election, a Peace Conference was soon to be convened by the victors of the Great War in Versailles.

In Ireland in anticipation of the Peace Conference, great expectations had been raised by speeches by President Woodrow Wilson, containing strong declarations in favour of the principle of national self determination. The concept of self determination acquired a quasi religious status in some quarters. It was the core message of Sinn Fein in the election, and of its candidates here in South Meath, Eamon Duggan.

But, as President Wilson was to discover, when he got down to work in Versailles, this concept of national self determination was difficult to apply when people, with fundamentally different identities and national allegiances, lived together in the same geographic area, as was, and is still, the case in Ulster, and in many other parts of Europe, to this day.

What happens if people, who live together in the same area, self determine two contradictory outcomes?

It was not until the Sunningdale and Good Friday Agreements, of 1973 and 1998 respectively,  that an attempt was made to answer that question and a partial answer provided.

THE CAMPAIGN

In South Meath, the Sinn Fein campaign got off to a flying start. Eamon Duggan was selected early on, and was already actively campaigning while the Irish Party was still trying to find a candidate.

He launched his campaign here in Longwood at a meeting presided over by Laurence Giles, and addressed by the local PP, Father Rooney and by a JH Dixon BL.

Meanwhile, the Irish Party (or United Irish League) held its convention in the Courthouse in Dunshaughlin, attended by its outgoing MP, David Sheehy, who was an uncle of the late Conor Cruise O Brien, to select their candidate. Sheehy had been unopposed in the previous three General Elections.

The Dunshaughlin Convention was presided over by Fr Dillon, the PP of Duleek, who later went on to serve on the Irish Party campaign committee for South Meath.

It seems there was reluctance on Sheehy’s part to stand again, and there was also perhaps a wish by some of the delegates to find a younger candidate.

The convention resolved to select Lorcan Sherlock, the city Sheriff in Dublin, as its candidate and sent him a telegram inviting him to stand. He had obviously not been notified in advance, he refused to stand, and a week or more of campaign time as lost.

So a new Irish Party meeting had to be convened a week later in Kilmessan, which did not come up with a candidate either. The Kilmessan meeting asked the Party Leader, John Dillon to name a candidate for them, and he came up with Thomas Peter O Donoghue, who had no prior connection with Meath. He was from Kerry and was a native Irish speaker. But he proved to be an active campaigner in the short time available.

While the Irish Party was making up its mind, Eamon Duggan had already held successful meetings in Trim, Longwood and Kilmessan.

Duggan’s meeting in Trim, in front of the courthouse, where many election meeting have been held since, was attended by 300 people and presided over by Martin O Dwyer from Dunboyne.

In North Meath, the Irish Party had no similar difficulties getting a candidate and their candidate, Dr Cusack, was in the field early.

His opponent was Liam Mellowes of Sinn Fein.

Dr Cusack came from a Longford family.

Mellowes, like Eamon Duggan, had taken part in the 1916 Rebellion. He had been reared in England and his father had served in the British Army. Eamon Duggan’s father had served in the RIC.

In South Meath , O Donoghue’s nomination papers were signed by Thomas Halligan of Rathfeigh, Patrick Mulvaney of Ballinlogh, Dunshaughlin,  Father Dillon of Duleek, and Laurence Delany of Rathfeigh.

Duggan’s nominators were all from Trim and included Bernard Reilly of Market Street and Andrew Daly. The two opposing candidates shook hands and chatted cordially when handing in their papers.

On a national level, the campaign was lively and some intimidation and impersonation took place.

Irish Party meetings were broken up in Cahir, Rathmines, Bohar in Louth, Jonesboro Co Armagh, Moate Co Westmeath, Clones, Gorey, and Castleblaney.  Some Candidates who had initially agreed to stand for the Irish Party backed out in face of this activity.

During the campaign itself, the PP of Kiltimagh, Dr O Hara, told John Dillon of

“young roughs going around the roads  at night saying they will burn down any house that will vote for Dillon and threatening to destroy cattle”.

On polling day, Republican “peace patrols” stood outside polling stations, and it is claimed they discouraged thousands of Irish Party supporters from going to vote.` In contrast, a large procession of voters from Ross and Ballinacree was led by their local curate into to the polling station in Oldcastle to vote for Liam Mellowes.

The Irish Party candidate in North Meath, Dr Cusack, had to abandon a public meeting in the Market Square in Navan because of barracking from a hostile crowd.

A fight broke out in Rathkenny, where rival after Mass meetings were taking place, and an Irish Party supporter, Councillor Michael Monaghan was injured. On that occasion the Sinn Fein meeting was chaired by Larry Rowan and the Irish Party one by Cormac Rowe.

On the other hand, Eamon Duggan and his Irish Party competitor TP O Donoghue each addressed meetings at the fair in Athboy in peaceful conditions, notwithstanding Athboy’s reputation as a strong Sinn Fein area.

I myself knew a man, a 1916 veteran, who was reputed to have voted 40 times for Eamon Duggan and Sinn Fein, in the names of different people. I suspect this is an exaggeration.

THE  RESULTS

At national level, Sinn Fein got 46.9% of the votes cast, Unionists got 28.5% and the Irish Parliamentary Party got 21.7%.

Here in South Meath, Eamon Duggan of Sinn Fein got 70% of the vote and his Irish Party opponent, T P O Donoghue got 30%.

In North Meath, the result was slightly closer, Liam Mellowes of Sinn Fein won 65% to Dr Cusack’s 35%.

For its overall  46.9%, Sinn Fein won 73 seats, Unionists won 26 (including one in Dublin), and the Irish Party, with 21.7%,  won only 6 seats……a poor outcome for a substantial vote.

These percentages do, however, understate the Sinn Fein support, because 25 seats were uncontested and won by Sinn Fein candidates unopposed. Some were uncontested because the Irish Party, in the short time available, could not find a candidate willing to stand in the heated atmosphere that had been generated.

Indeed the Irish Party has come under a lot of pressure not to contest the election at all, from former supporters like the Bishop of Raphoe. To his  credit, the Irish Party Leader, John Dillon, told the bishop that “one should not abandon principles for popularity or unpopularity”

 If all these 25 seats had been contested, and Sinn Fein voters in those constituencies had had to come out to vote, Sinn Fein’s overall national vote share would have been higher, probably well above 50% of the total national poll.

The system of election, the straight vote in single member constituencies, meant that Sinn Fein won more seats, and the Irish Party proportionately fewer seats, than would have been the case under Proportional Representation.

Under PR, I guess Sinn Fein might have won 60 seats, Unionists (including Labour Unionists and Independents) 26, and the Irish Party perhaps 19. Sinn Fein would still have got a land slide, but the Irish Party would not have suffered a virtual wipe out.

It is also important to point out that, among the 26 seats won by “Unionists”, 3 were won by Labour Unionists (mainly in Belfast) and one by an independent Unionist. The subsequent disappearance of Labour Unionism shows that, in some respects the sectarian divide in urban Ulster is deeper now than it was in 1918.

It is also worth mention that Southern Unionists contested the 1918 Election as such, winning seats in Trinity College and Rathmines.  That bridge between the traditions lost its value after 1918.

Here in Meath, the Irish Party did slightly better than it did nationally.

Speculating before the count, with the help of party informants, the Meath Chronicle reckoned that, in North Meath, Sinn Fein got its best result in the Oldcastle area, winning by a margin of 7 to 1, and very well in Navan winning by 6 to 1. According to these pre count estimates, the Irish Party won in Wlikinstown and probably in Drumcondrath and Slane. We have no tallies from the actual counts.

Sinn Fein contested seats in Belfast, never contested by nationalists. It did very badly. Sinn Fein got only 3% of the vote in Pottinger, 4% in Victoria, 9% in Woodvale, and just 1.89% in Duncairn.

Sinn Fein’s leader, Eamon de Valera was also defeated by the Irish Party’s Joe Devlin by 72% to 27% in the Falls constituency.

This is one of the most interesting results in the whole election. It shows that northern nationalists saw more value in having MPs in Parliament in London to look after their interests, than did southern nationalists, who backed the ideal of complete separation without much thought as to where, in practice, that might leave their northern fellow nationalists.

WHAT THE PARTIES PROMISED

I would like to look into the differences in policy between Sinn Fein and the Irish Party, and reflect on how far the victors were able to go in fulfilling their promises.

SINN FEIN

As I said earlier, a Peace Conference was soon to be convened by the victors of the Great War in Versailles.

Sinn Fein said it would withdraw Irish representatives from Westminster because, they said,

“the present Irish members of the English Parliament  constitute an obstacle to be removed from the path to the Peace Conference”

Eamon Duggan, speaking in Athboy, also defended abstention from Parliament as

“a denial of the moral right of England to govern us”.

Sinn Fein condemned the Irish Party for having

“contemplated the mutilation of our country by  partition”

This is a reference to the fact that John Redmond  agreed in 1916 with Edward Carson to a temporary opt out from Home Rule for some Unionist majority counties in Ulster, as a price for Carson’s support for having Home Rule introduced straight away for the rest of the country.   

This realistic compromise between Redmond and Carson did not go through, because it was vetoed by the Conservative elements in the War Cabinet. Lloyd George may also have been saying different things to different people.

The Sinn Fein manifesto did not say how they would avoid some form partition, or how they would enforce Dublin rule in Belfast or Portadown. In a sense, the Sinn Fein Manifesto did address, or deal seriously with, the existence of a Unionist minority in Ireland.

Instead it spoke of

“a unity in a national name, which has never been challenged”

Of course , it had been challenged, by Ulster Unionism as recently as 1911.

Ulster Unionism was either to be over ruled, or just ignored, as if it did not exist. Sinn Fein probably thought Ulster Unionists were just bluffing.

In one of his speeches, Eamon Duggan referred to Carson’s “threat of insurrection”, which he claimed

“everyone knew would never take place”.

The Sinn Fein manifesto also took a very fundamentalist view of sovereignty, which left no room for compromise afterwards.

It called for

“untrammelled national self determination”

and said it would oppose every candidate who does not accept this principle.

Sinn Fein added that that the right of the Irish nation to sovereign independence

“rests on immutable natural law and cannot be made subject to compromise”.

This explicit “no compromise” mandate was later to prove troublesome. Some members took it very seriously in 1922, and it helps explain the Civil War. The concept of “immutable natural law” had a particular religious provenance.

In the minds of some it excluded the sort of practical political compromise that Eamon Duggan himself, as a key negotiator of the Treaty of 1921, made in agreeing to that Treaty three years later.

But by this decision , Eamon Duggan saved thousands of lives.

As to the methods to be used to achieve its ambitious goals, Sinn Fein had a carefully phrased formula in its 1918 Manifesto.

It said it would use

“any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection  by military force or otherwise”

That can be construed as seeking an electoral mandate for war, and was so interpreted by the IRA.

But it could also be construed as  simply advocating resistance British military force (passively or otherwise), rather than initiating violence, as the IRA did at Soloheadbeg the following month.

Did the majority of the Irish people know, in December 1918, they were voting for war? It is not clear.

Reading the speeches made here in Meath during the campaign, one gets no sense that the people voting for Sinn Fein knew, or were told, they were voting for a war.

I think Sinn Fein voters probably felt they were endorsing some sabre rattling, rather than the assassinations and killings that were initiated a month later.

One thing is clear, Sinn Fein regarded the proposed form of Home Rule as inadequate.

Eamon Duggan criticised the Home Rule Act of 1914, which was already  law and was due to come into force when hostilities in Europe were formally ended, as

“a travesty of Home Rule”.

Home Rule should have meant, in his view, at the very least, the return of Grattan’s Parliament.

THE IRISH PARTY

The Irish Party manifesto was published on 11 October 1918, while the Great War was still on, but rumours were circulating of imminent German collapse and of the abdication of the Kaiser.  

It said that

“ the country must be prepared for a General Election about the end of November or the first week in December. This will be the most critical and fateful in its effect for the future of the country since the Union.”

It called for national unity on the basis of the policy that underlay the “New Departure” of 1879, which brought the physical force and constitutional traditions together to win Land Reform and other improvements.

It said it

“would not hold before the Irish people an ideal and an object which it knew to be impossible”.

Wise words.

The Irish Party committed itself to be

“an independent pledge bound party in the House of Commons taking no office under any British government and whose  dominating purpose must always be the recovery of Ireland’s national rights……and a vigorous agitation on rational lines”

It defined its objects as

“the establishment of  national self government for Ireland , including complete executive , legislative, and fiscal powers”

This went well beyond the Home Rule Act, which, as I have said, was already on the statute book and was due to come into effect automatically, once  hostilities in Europe were formally ended, as they were in 1919 at Versailles.

The reference to fiscal powers included , inter alia,  a right to charge customs duties on good coming into Ireland from Britain.

This involved withdrawing Ireland from the Anglo Irish Customs Union, which then existed, and this seems to have been a point on which both nationalist parties agreed. Both Sinn Fein and the Irish Party wanted to leave the custom union and be free to impose tariffs on British imports (and vice versa).

But the Irish Party manifesto criticised Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy which it said would

“simply hand over  the representation of Ireland  in the House of Commons to the followers of Sir Edward Carson”.

A  similar mistake is being made by the MPs , representing  the nationalist voters in the north this month.

Like Sinn Fein, the Irish Party said it would present Ireland’s case at the forthcoming Peace Conference but argued that it would have a better chance of getting a hearing from the victorious allies than Sinn Fein would.

This was realistic politics.

Germany was about to lose the War. Sinn Fein was perceived as having been allied with Germany in 1916. The reference to “our gallant allies in Europe” in the 1916 proclamation was a reference to Imperial Germany.

The Irish Party argued that sending to Versailles, Sinn Fein people, some of whom had been allied with Germany as recently as 1916, was not the best tactic.  Sinn Fein’s recent favouritism towards the defeated Germans did not enhance their chances get a hearing for Ireland from the victors, especially from President Wilson and the US delegation.

This point was underlined everywhere in South Meath by the Irish Party candidate TP O Donoghue.

He campaigned throughout the constituency in a green motor, car adorned by a green flag representing Ireland, and by the Stars and Stripes, representing the US. He was symbolically demonstrating the Irish Party’s belief that it would get a better hearing from President Wilson.

At a meeting in Slane, the Irish Party candidate in North Meath, Dr Cusack told his audience that the Irish Party had already sent its representative, TP O Connor MP to meet President Wilson.

TP O Donoghue, in his campaign, also stressed the importance and value of taking seats in Parliament.

He said that the only way to defeat Carson was for Nationalists to take their seats , and  be there to vote against objectionable proposals from Carson.

He told voters in Duleek that Parnell had never advocated abstention from Parliament. Taking seats in Parliament was “an important weapon” in the hands of the Irish people and ought not be given up, he said.

HINDSIGHT

Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, one must conclude that the Sinn Fein policy of abstention had substantial downsides.

When the Government of Ireland Act came to be introduced in 1920, providing for the permanent partition of Ireland, there were very few Irish nationalist MPs there to object to it…just six  Irish Party MPs with little influence.

The majority rule Stormont Parliament did not exist prior to 1920. It was created by this 1920 Government of Ireland Act , and, thanks to Sinn Fein abstention, there were virtually no Nationalist MPs left in Parliament to probe the dangers of this new Stormont majority rule Parliament.

A high price has also been paid for the fact that Sinn Fein, in its Manifesto, emphasised its unwillingness to compromise on what it saw as Ireland’s absolute right to  32 county self determination based on natural law.

The electorate’s support for this “no compromise” approach undoubtedly made life difficult for Eamon Duggan and the other Treaty negotiators in 1921 and contributed to the Civil War, and to much subsequent strife.

If the Irish Party’s approach, of “vigorous agitation on rational lines”, had received more electoral support, the Treaty negotiators task might have been easier.

As we cope now with the prospect of the UK leaving the EU Customs Union, it is interesting to note that one of the big differences between Home Rule and the Treaty was that the Treaty involved the Irish Free State leaving the Anglo Irish Customs Union, whereas, in deference to Ulster, the 1911/14 version of Home Rule would have kept full free trade between the two islands.

Departure from the Customs Union in 1921 turned a soft partition, into a hard partition.

The uncompromising nature of the Sinn Fein mandate, in favour of an all Ireland Republic,  in its 1918 Election manifesto, was elevated to unsustainable heights in subsequent debates, and that made life difficult, even up to the present time.

There are some similarities here to the rigid interpretation, in our neighbouring island, of the Brexit referendum mandate of 2016.

Electoral mandates, however big, do not relieve the politicians who get them of the duty to be realistic about what can actually be achieved afterwards.

CONCLUSION

Neither Sinn Fein nor the Irish Party fully faced up to the Ulster problem in 1918.

Neither fully faced up to the implications of the fact that, for past four centuries, two communities, with different allegiances, have lived together, geographically intermingled, in the Irish province of Ulster.

One community feels a sense of allegiance to Britain, its monarch, its historic narrative and it flag. The other feels an allegiance to Ireland and identifies itself with different historic narrative and different symbols. The two communities have different religious allegiances too, but the disagreements between them are not primarily about religious matters, they are all about national identity.

For centuries, the contest between these two identities was a zero sum game.

 Either the British identity had to win, or the Irish identity had to win.

That zero sum approach led to wars, threats of wars, or uprisings, from 1641 right up to 1998.

For the past forty years, British and Irish political leaders have been trying to find a new and different way forward.

Rather than a zero sum game, where if one identity won, the other had to lose, we sought to create conditions in which both identities could coexist comfortably together in North East Ulster, without either of them winning or losing.

Neither should feel cut off from their focus of their emotional allegiance.

The nationalists should not feel cut off from Dublin, and Unionists should not feel cut off from London or the “mainland” as they would call it.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 achieved this. Crafted between Ireland and the UK it built structures to create a comfort zone for both communities.  This was done through three interlocking structures of cooperation, namely

  1. power sharing within Northern Ireland,  
  2. cooperation between North and South and
  3. cooperation between Dublin and London.

Preserving the Belfast Agreement  is the vital task of this generation, and  succeeding in that task would be the best possible way to commemorate the 1918 Election and the First Dail, and in particular to honour the memory that  great peace maker, Eamon Duggan.

 

WHY IS THERE AN IRISH BACKSTOP?

It puzzles many people in Britain that something known as an “Irish backstop” should be at the heart of an increasingly bitter dispute. The dispute is about the Deal the UK Government has made with the EU on the terms for the UK leaving the EU.

Most people understand that, when the UK leaves the EU, the only land boundary between the UK and the EU will be the 300 mile long border in Ireland.

Some do understand that if the UK leaves the EU there will have to be border controls.

After all, leaving the EU was supposed to be about taking back “control”, and, given that countries can only exercise control in their own territory, there is a logical necessity to have controls at the border of a country’s territory,  at its ports and on its land boundary.

This is not something made up by the EU to annoy Brits, but is a logical consequence of Brexit, which is, as we all know, something Britons have chosen for themselves, and not something imposed on them by the EU.

The proposed backstop in Mrs May’s deal with the EU  involves the whole of the UK staying in a close customs arrangement with the EU.

The original idea was that the backstop would be confined to Northern Ireland, but the UK government itself preferred a backstop arrangement that would cover the whole UK, so as to minimize the controls that would otherwise have to be imposed between Britain and Northern Ireland.

The object of the entire exercise is to avoid having to have controls at the 300 crossing points between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Some in Britain think that the UK should be free to leave the EU, and that the UK and Irish governments should then just decide, between themselves, that they were simply not going to have controls on the Irish border.

That would not work because Ireland would still be in the EU, and would be breaking EU rules if it failed to control its portion of the EU land border.

Apart from being illegal, it would be impractical.

The UK, once outside the EU, would immediately go off and try to make trade deals with non EU countries. These would inevitably involve agreeing to different standards, and different tariffs, on goods coming from these non EU countries to the ones that the EU (including Ireland) would be applying to these countries.

So, if there were no controls on the Irish border, goods from these non EU with which the UK had made its own trade deals could enter the EU via Northern Ireland, without complying with EU standards or paying EU tariffs.

That would destroy the EU Single Market, which is based on common rules and tariffs, made, enforced and interpreted in the same way for all 27 EU countries (including Ireland).

TRADE DISCRIMINATION BREAKS WTO RULES

Outside of the EU, under WTO rules, the UK would also have to impose tariffs on its side of the Irish border, unless it wanted to collect NO TARIFFS AT ALL on goods coming into the UK from any country in the world!

This is because of a WTO rule which, says that, in the absence of a broad trade agreement, a country cannot discriminate between WTO member countries in the rate of tariffs it charges on goods coming from those countries (the most favoured nation rule).

So, in the absence of a trade deal with the EU, the UK must charge the same tariffs on Irish goods as it would  charge on goods coming from any WTO members, with whom it has no trade deal, which, on the day it leaves the EU without a deal, would be every WTO country!

If it attempted to discriminate unilaterally, the UK would be bound to be taken to the WTO court by some or all of the WTO countries who would not be getting the same concessions.

The UK is a trading nation. As such, it benefits from a rules based world trading system. So it would not be in the UK’s interest to start breaking WTO rules on the day it left the EU, just to solve a problem that is of its own making.

SAVING LIVES BY GIVING RESPECT TO THE TWO ALLEGIANCES IN IRELAND

The other big reason for having an “Irish” backstop”, and for avoiding a hard border, is about human beings, rather than just about commerce.

For the past four centuries two communities, with different allegiances have lived together, geographically intermingled, in the Irish province of Ulster.

One community feels a sense of allegiance to Britain, its monarch, its historic narrative and its flag. The other feels an allegiance to Ireland and identifies itself with different historic narrative and different symbols. The two communities have different religious allegiances too but the disagreements between them are not primarily about religious matters, they are all about national identity.

For centuries, the contest between these two identities was a zero sum game.  Either the British identity had to win, or the Irish identity had to win. That zero sum approach led to wars, threats of wars, or uprisings in 1641-51, 1689-1691, 1798, 1867, 1911, 1916, 1919-23, 1939, 1956-7, and 1969-1998. These conflicts caused many casualties in Ireland, and in Britain too.

British and Irish political leaders have for the last 40 years been trying to find a different way forward. Rather than a zero sum game, where if one identity won, the other had to lose, these leaders sought to create conditions in which both identities could coexist comfortably together within Northern Ireland, without either of them winning or losing.

The aim was to ensure that neither would feel cut off from their focus of their emotional allegiance. The nationalists would not feel cut off from Dublin, and Unionists would not feel cut off from London or the “mainland” as they would call it.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 achieved this. Crafted between Ireland and the UK, when both were members of the barrier free EU, it created structures to create a comfort zone for both communities.  This was done through establishing three interlocking structures of cooperation, incorporated in an over arching international Treaty, namely

  1. power sharing within Northern Ireland,  
  2. cooperation between North and South and
  3. cooperation between Dublin and London.

On the strength of this Agreement, Ireland changed its constitution to remove a  territorial claim it had on Northern Ireland.

Now, 20 years later, the UK’s decision to leave the EU puts these structures at risk, because, for the reasons I explained earlier, Brexit requires barriers to go up between the UK and Ireland, where previously there was free exchange.

This is why, at a meeting in London, long before the Referendum, I described Brexit as an” unfriendly act”  by the UK vis a vis my country.

The backstop is simply an effort to mitigate the damage. It is a second best option…… and a bad second best at that.

The only option that will not damage the structure of peace, we have so painstakingly built between Ireland and Britain, and within the island of Ireland, would be for the UK to decide to stay in the EU after all.

THE 1918 ELECTION IN IRELAND

Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at an event marking the centenary of the 1918 General Election in Ireland, in Wynn’s  Hotel, Dublin at 11 am on Saturday 15 December.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

A DECISIVE RESULT……….WHAT THE NATIONALIST PARTIES PROMISED

The background to this Election was the end of the Great War.

The UK Prime Minister had called the Election very quickly after active hostilities ceased, to exploit the good feelings, and relief that the War had finally been brought to a victorious conclusion by the Allies.

The War was a particular factor in Ireland because of the conscription crisis of early 1918.

Conscription applied on the island of Britain, but not the island of Ireland, from 1916. The big German offensive of 1918 created a panic in the UK government. Manpower was running short, and the Americans were slow arriving at the front. So, unsurprisingly, Lloyd George was under political pressure, in Scotland, Wales and England, to extend the same conscription to Ireland as applied in the other countries.

In March 1918 he announced his intention to do so, which caused a convulsion in Ireland.

Until this announcement, the Irish Party had been holding its own politically. Sinn Fein had lost by elections to the Irish Party in South Armagh, East Tyrone and Waterford City early in 1918. Lloyd George changed all that.

His conscription threat then drove Irish Party voters into the arms of Sinn Fein in the second half of 1918.  If the election had been held over until the Spring of 1919, and things had cooled down over conscription which didn’t happen anyway, the result in Ireland might not have been so dramatic.

At the time of the December 1918 Election, a Peace Conference was soon to be convened by the victors of the Great War in Versailles.

As far as Ireland was concerned, in anticipation of the Peace Conference, great expectations had been raised by speeches by President Woodrow Wilson, containing strong declarations in favour of the principle of national self determination. The concept of self determination acquired a quasi religious status in some quarters.

As President Wilson was to discover, when he got down to work in Versailles, this concept of national self determination was difficult to apply when people, with fundamentally different identities and national allegiances, lived together in the same geographic area, as was, and is, the case in Ulster, and in many other parts of Europe, to this day.

In the 1918 Election in Ireland, Sinn Fein got 46.9% of the votes cast, Unionists got 28.5% and the Irish Parliamentary Party got 21.7%.

For this Sinn Fein won 73 seats, Unionists 26 (including one in Dublin), and the Irish Party only 6 seats ( a poor showing for 21% of the vote).

These percentages do understate the Sinn Fein support, because 25 uncontested seats were won by Sinn Fein. If these had been contested, and Sinn Fein voters in those constituencies had to come out to vote, Sinn Fein’s overall national vote share would have been higher, probably well above 50%.

On the other hand, there are credible allegations that intimidation played a part in ensuring that Sinn Fein would not face a contest in these seats. Irish Party meetings were broken up in Cahir, Rathmines, Bohar in Louth, Jonesboro Co Armagh, Moate Co Westmeath, Clones, Gorey, and Castleblaney.  Candidates who had agreed to stand for the Irish Party backed out in face of this activity.

The PP of Kiltimagh, Dr O Hara, told John Dillon of

“young roughs going around the roads  at night saying they will burn down any house that will vote for Dillon and threatening to destroy cattle”.

On polling day, Republican “peace patrols” stood outside polling stations, and it is claimed they discouraged thousand of Irish Party supporters from going to vote.

I owe some of this information to research done by the late Proinsias MacAonghusa, published in the “Irish Times” many years ago.

I myself knew a man , a 1916 veteran, who was reputed to have voted 40 times for Sinn Fein, in the names of different people.

Indeed the Irish Party has come under a lot of pressure not to contest the election at all, from former supporters like the Bishop of Raphoe. To his eternal credit, the Irish Party Leader, John Dillon, told the bishop that “one should not abandon principles for popularity or unpopularity”

The system of election, the straight vote in single member constituencies, meant that Sinn Fein won more seats, and the Irish Party proportionately fewer seats, than would have been the case under Proportional Representation. Under PR, I guess Sinn Fein might have won 60 seats, Unionists (including Labour Unionists and Independents) 26, and the Irish Party perhaps 19.

Under PR, Sinn Fein would still have got a land slide, but the Irish Party would not have suffered a virtual wipe out.

It is also important to point out that, among the 26 seats won by “Unionists”, 3 were won by Labour Unionists (mainly in Belfast) and one by an independent Unionist. The disappearance of Labour Unionism shows that, in some respects the sectarian divide in urban Ulster is deeper now than it was in 1918.

It is also worth mention that Southern Unionists contested the 1918 Election as such, winning seats in Trinity and Rathmines. That bridge between the traditions lost its value after 1918.

I would like to look into the differences in policy between Sinn Fein and the Irish Party, and reflect on how far the victors were able to go in fulfilling their promises.

SINN FEIN

Sinn Fein said it would withdraw Irish representatives from Westminster because, they said,

“the present Irish members of the English Parliament  constitute an obstacle to be removed from the path to the Peace Conference”

As I said earlier, a Peace Conference was soon to be convened by the victors of the Great War in Versailles.

Sinn Fein condemned the Irish Party for having

“contemplated the mutilation of our country by  partition”

This is a reference to John Redmond having agreed  in 1916 with Edward Carson to a temporary opt out from Home Rule for some Unionist majority counties in Ulster, as a price for having Home Rule introduced straight away for the rest of the country with Carson’s consent. This deal did not go through because it was vetoed by the Conservative elements in the War Cabinet. Lloyd George may also have been saying different things to different people.

The Sinn Fein manifesto did not address the existence of a Unionist minority in Ireland. Instead it spoke of

“a unity in a national name, which has never been challenged”

This seems to ignore the challenge posed by Ulster Unionism to the 32 county concept of the nation. Ulster Unionism was just ignored, as if it did not exist. This form of blindness to the existence of the “other”  is reappearing now in the context of Brexit.

The Sinn Fein manifesto took a very fundamentalist view of sovereignty, which left no room for compromise.

It called for

“untrammelled national self determination”

and said it would oppose every candidate who does not accept this principle.

To its credit, it followed through on this commitment to oppose who did not agree with it, and contested seats in Belfast. It did very badly. Sinn Fein got 3% of the vote in Pottinger, 4% in Victoria, 9% in Woodvale and just 1.89% in Duncairn.

Sinn Fein’s leader, Eamon de Valera was also defeated by the Irish Party’s Joe Devlin by 72% to 27% in the Falls constituency.

Sinn Fein added that that the right of the Irish nation to sovereign independence

“rests on immutable natural law and cannot be made subject to compromise”.

This explicit “no compromise” mandate was later to prove troublesome. Some members took it very seriously in 1922 and it helps explain the Civil War. The concept of “immutable natural law” had a particular religious provenance.

As to the methods to be used to achieve its goals, Sinn Fein was fairly explicit.

They said they would use

“any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection  by military force or otherwise”

That can be construed as seeking a mandate for war, and it was interpreted as such by the IRA.

But the sentence could also perhaps be read advocating resistance British military force (passively or otherwise), rather than initiating violence, as the IRA did at Soloheadbeg the following month.

Did the majority of the Irish people know they were voting for war?

THE IRISH PARTY

The Irish Party manifesto was published on 11 October 1918, while the Great War was still on, but rumours were circulating of imminent German collapse and of the abdication of the Kaiser.  

It said that

“ the country must be prepared for a General Election about the end of November or the first week in December. This will be the most critical and fateful in its effect for the future of the country since the Union.”

It called for national unity on the basis of the policy that underlay the “New Departure” , which brought the physical force and constitutional traditions together to win Land Reform and other improvements.

It said it

“would not hold before the Irish people an ideal and an object which it knew to be impossible”

Events were  to bear out the wisdom of this caution.

The Irish Party committed itself to be

“an independent pledge bound party in the House of Commons taking no office under any British government and whose  dominating purpose must always be the recovery of Ireland’s national rights……and a vigorous agitation on rational lines”

It defined its objects as

“the establishment of  national self government for Ireland , including complete executive , legislative, and fiscal powers”

This went well beyond the Home Rule Act, which was already on the statute book and was due to come into effect automatically one  hostilities in Europe were formally ended as they were in 1919 at Versailles. The reference to fiscal powers included , inter alia,  a right to charge customs duties on good coming into Ireland from Britain. This involved withdrawing Ireland from the Anglo Irish Customs Union, which then existed, and this seems to have been a point on which both nationalist parties agreed.

The Irish Party criticised Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy which it said would

“simply hand over  the representation of Ireland  in the House of Commons to the followers of Sir Edward Carson”.

Perhaps a similar mistake is being made today.

Like Sinn Fein, the Irish Party said it would present Ireland’s case at the forthcoming Peace Conference but added that the chance of getting a hearing would depend on the goodwill of America and the Allied dominions. This was realistic politics.

Germany was about to lose the War and the Irish Party argued that sending to Versailles people who had been allied with Germany as recently as  1916 was not best calculated to get a hearing for Ireland from the victors.

In this respect, the Irish Party Manifesto was prescient. The Irish Party might have been more successful representatives of the Irish cause in Versailles, because they had not allied themselves with the enemies of those who had won the war, at such cost.

ASSESSMENT OF THE RIVAL MANIFESTOS

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, one must conclude that the Sinn Fein policy of abstention had substantial downsides.

When the Government of Ireland Act came to be introduced in 1920, providing for the permanent partition of Ireland, there were very few Irish nationalist MPs present to object to it…just six MPs with little influence.

It is important to remember that the majority rule Stormont Parliament was created by this 1920 Act, and, thanks to Sinn Fein abstention, there were virtually no Nationalist MPs left in Parliament to probe the dangers of this new Stormont Parliament.

A high price has also been paid for the fact that Sinn Fein, in its Manifesto, emphasised its unwillingness to compromise on what it saw as Ireland’s right to self determination based on natural law.

The electorate’s support for this “no compromise” approach undoubtedly made life difficult for the Treaty negotiators in 1921 and contributed to the Civil War and to much subsequent strife.

If the Irish Party’s approach, of “vigorous agitation on rational lines”, had received more electoral support, the Treaty negotiators task might have been easier.

As we cope now with the prospect of the UK leaving the EU Customs Union, it is interesting to note that one of the big differences between Home Rule and the Treaty was that the Treaty involved the Irish Free State leaving the Anglo Irish Customs Union, whereas, in deference to Ulster, the 1911/14 version of Home Rule would have kept full free trade between the two islands.

Departure from the Customs Union turned a soft partition into a hard partition.

The uncompromising nature of the Sinn Fein mandate of the 1918 Election was elevated to unsustainable heights in subsequent debates, and that made life difficult for years to come.

There are some similarities here to the over interpretation, in our neighbouring island of the Brexit mandate of 2016.

Electoral mandates, however big, do not relieve the politicians who get them of the duty to be realistic about what can actually be achieved afterwards.

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