Opinions & Ideas

Category: Ireland Page 1 of 7

WE NEED A FULL STRENGTH TEAM ON THE PITCH AS BREXIT REACHES THE ENDGAME

It is increasingly likely that, unless things change, on 1 January 2021,  we will have a no deal Brexit. The only agreement between the EU and the UK would then be the already ratified Withdrawal Agreement.

 There are only 50 working days left in which to make a broader agreement. The consequences of  a failure to do so  for Ireland will be as profound, and even as  long lasting, that those of Covid 19.

A failure to reach an EU/UK Agreement would mean a deep rift between the UK and Ireland.

 It would mean heightened tensions within Northern Ireland, disruptions to century’s old business relations, and a succession of high profile and prolonged court cases between the EU and the UK dragging on for years.

 Issues, on which agreement could easily have been settled in amicable give and take negotiations, will be used as hostages or for leverage on other issues. The economic and political damage would be incalculable.

We must do everything we can to avoid this.

Changing the EU Trade Commissioner in such circumstances would be dangerous.  Trying to change horses in mid stream is always difficult. But attempting to do so at the height of a flood, in high winds, would  be even more so.

The EU would lose an exceptionally competent Trade Commissioner when he was never more needed. An Irishman would no longer hold the Trade portfolio. The independence of the European commission, a vital ingredient in the EU’s success would have been compromised…a huge loss for all smaller EU states.

According to Michel Barnier, the EU/UK talks , which ended last week, seemed at times to be going “backwards rather than forwards”.

The impasse has been reached for three reasons.

THE MEANING OF SOVEREIGNTY

Firstly, the two sides have set themselves incompatible objectives.

The EU side wants a “wide ranging economic partnership” between the UK and the EU with ”a level playing field for open and fair competition”. The UK also agreed to this objective in the joint political declaration  made with the EU at the time of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Since it agreed to this, the UK has had a General Election, and it has changed its mind. Now it is insisting, in the uncompromising words of it chief negotiator, on

 “sovereign control over our laws, our borders, and our waters”.

This formula fails to take account of the fact that any Agreement the UK might make with the EU (or with anyone else) on standards for goods, services or food stuffs necessarily involves a diminution of sovereign control.

Even being in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) involves accepting its rulings which are a diminution of “sovereign control”. This is why Donald Trump does not like the WTO and is trying to undermine it.

The Withdrawal Agreement from the EU (WA), which the UK has already ratified,  also involves a diminution of sovereign control by Westminster over the laws that will apply in Northern Ireland (NI) and thus within the UK.

 The WA obliges the UK to apply EU laws on tariffs and standards to goods entering NI from Britain, ie. going from one part of the UK to another.

This obligation is one of the reasons given by a group of UK parliamentarians, including Ian Duncan Smith, David Trimble, Bill Cash, Owen Patterson and Sammy Wilson, for wanting the UK to withdraw from the Withdrawal Agreement, even though most of them voted for it last year!

Sovereignty is a metaphysical concept, not a practical policy.

Attempting to apply it literally would make structured, and predictable, international cooperation between states impossible. That is not understood by many in the UK Conservative Party.

THE METHOD OF NEGOTIATION

The second difficulty is one of negotiating method. The legal and political timetables do not gel.

The UK wants to discuss the legal texts of a possible Free Trade Agreement first, and leave the controversial issues, like level playing field competition and fisheries, over until the endgame in October.

The EU side wants serious engagement to start on these controversial issues straight away .

Any resolution of these controversial issues will require complex legal drafting, which cannot be left to the last minute. After all, these legal texts will have to be approved by The EU and UK Parliaments before the end of this year.

There can be no ambiguities or late night sloppy drafting.

The problem is that the UK negotiator cannot yet get instructions, on the compromises he might make , from Boris Johnson. Boris Johnson is preoccupied instead with Covid 19, and with keeping the likes of Ian Duncan Smith and Co. onside.  He is a last minute type of guy. 

TRADE RELATIONS WITH OTHER BLOCS

The Third difficulty is  that of making provision for with the Trade Agreements the UK wants to make in future with other countries like the US, Japan and New Zealand. Freedom to make such deals was presented to UK voters as one of the benefits of Brexit.

The underlying problem here is that the UK government has yet to make up its mind on whether it will continue with the EU’s strict precautionary policy on food safety, or adopt the  more permissive approach favoured by the US.

Similar policy choices will have to be made by the UK on chemicals, energy efficiency displays, and geographical indicators.

The more the UK diverges from existing EU standards on these issues, the more intrusive will have to be the controls on goods coming into  Northern Ireland from Britain, and the more acute will be the distress in Unionist circles in NI.

Issues that are uncontroversial in themselves will assume vast symbolic significance, and threaten the peace of our island.

The UK is likely be forced to make side deals with the US on issues like hormone treated beef, GMOs  and chlorinated chicken. The US questions the scientific basis for the existing EU restrictions, and has won a WTO case on beef on that basis.  It would probably win on chlorinated chicken too.

 If the UK conceded to the US on hormones and chlorination, this would create control problems at the border between the UK and the EU, wherever that border is in Ireland.

Either UK officials would enforce EU rules on hormones and chlorination on entry of beef or chicken to this island, or there would be a huge international court case.

All this shows that, in the absence of some sort of Partnership Agreement between the EU and the UK, relations could spiral out of control.

Ireland , and the EU, needs its best team on the pitch to ensure that this  does not happen!

JOHN HUME RIP

John Hume was the pivotal figure of the twentieth century in the development of thinking about Ireland’s future.

 He reframed the problem from being one about who held sovereignty over land, to being one about people, and how they related to one another.

 Thus reframed, the issue became one to which violence and coercion became completely irrelevant. This was the intellectual basis of the peace process.

The issue was no longer one about winning or losing, but about sharing or choosing not to share.  

In practical terms, he won the argument. That is why we have peace today. 

BREXIT….HEADING FOR THE CLIFF EDGE

Last Friday Michel Barnier gave a stark warning about the lack of progress in the Brexit negotiation. 

But this week Boris Johnson has come back to work. 

Perhaps it was unrealistic for Michel Barnier to have expected the UK to  have engaged seriously with the trade offs and concessions, essential to a long term Agreement  , while the UK Prime Minister was ill.

Brexit is Boris’ big thing. He made it. Other Tory Ministers have no leeway to make Brexit decisions without his personal imprimatur. He has purged from his party of all significant figures who might advocate a different vision of  Brexit. 

The point of Michel Barnier’s intervention is that, now that Boris is back at work, he will need to  give a clear strategic lead to the UK negotiating team.  If he fails to do that, we will end up, on 1 January 2021, with No Deal and an incipient trade war between the UK and the EU.  Ireland  will be in the front line.

 The scars left by Covid 19 will eventually heal, but those left by a wilfully bad Brexit,  whether brought  about deliberately or by inattention, may never heal. 

This is because a bad Brexit will be a deliberate political act, whereas Covid 19 is just a reminder of our shared human vulnerability.  

Boris Johnson signed up to a Withdrawal Treaty with the EU, which  legally committed the UK to customs, sanitary, and phytosanitary controls between Britain and Northern Ireland, so as to avoid controls between North and South in Ireland.

 So far, Michel Barnier says he has detected no evidence that the UK is making serious preparations do this.  An attempt by the UK to back out of these ratified legal commitments would be seen as a sign of profound bad faith. 

Michel Barnier said that negotiating by video link was “surreal”, but that the deadlines to be met are very real.

 The first deadline is the end of June.  This is the last date at which an extension of the negotiating period beyond the end of December might be agreed by both sides. While the EU side would almost certainly agree to an extension, there is no sign that the UK will agree. Tory politicians repeatedly say they will not extend. 

This tight deadline would be fine, if the UK was engaging seriously, and purposefully, in the negotiation.

 But, according to Michel Barnier, the UK has not yet even produced a full version of a draft Agreement,that would reflect their expectations. The EU side produced its full draft weeks ago.  Without full texts it is hard to begin real negotiation. So far the UK has only produced texts of selected  bits of  the proposed Treaty.

 But the UK  insist that Barnier keep these bits of  draft UK text secret, and not share them with the 27 Member States. Giving Barnier texts that he cannot share with those on whose behalf he is negotiating, is just wasting his time. It seems to me the UK negotiators are adopting this strange tactic because they have no clear political direction from their own side.  They do not know whether these bits of text are even acceptable in the UK!

In the political declaration, that accompanied the Withdrawal Agreement, Boris Johnson agreed his government would use its best endeavours to reach agreement on fisheries by the end of July. Such an agreement would be vital if the UK fishing industry were to be able to continue to export its surplus fish to the EU. Apparently there has not been serious engagement from the British side on this matter. 

The other issue on which Barnier detected a lack of engagement by the UK was the so called “level playing field” question.

 The EU wants binding guarantees that the UK will not, through state subsidies, or through lax environmental or labour rules, give its exporters an artificial advantage over EU (and Irish) competitors.

 The “level playing field” is becoming a difficult issue within the EU itself.

 In the response to the Covid 19 economic downturn, some of the wealthier EU states (like Germany) are giving generous cash/liquidity supports to the industries in their own countries. 

 On the other hand, EU states with weaker budgetary positions (Italy, Spain and perhaps even Ireland) cannot compete with this.

 It is understandable that temporary help may be given to prevent firms going bust in the wake of the Covid 19 disruption.  But what is temporary at the beginning, can easily become indefinite. And what is indefinite can become permanent. Subsidies are addictive.

 The reason we have a COMMON Agricultural policy in the EU is that, when the Common Market was created 60 years ago, nobody wanted rich countries to be able to give their farmers an advantage over farmers in countries whose governments could not afford the same level of help. The same consideration applies to industry. Subsidies should be equal, or should not be given at all.

 State aid must be regulated, inside the EU, if a level playing field is to be preserved. To make a convincing case for a level playing field between the EU and the UK, the EU side will need to show it is doing so internally. This will be a test for President Von der Leyen, as a German Commissioner.

Which way will Boris Johnson turn on the terms of a deal with the EU?

I think it is unlikely he will look for an extension of the Transition period beyond the end of this year. 

He wants a hard Brexit, a clean break as he would misleadingly call it,  but he knows it will be very painful.

 He will probably reckon that the pain of a hard Brexit ,or no Deal, Brexit at the end of December, will be concealed by the even greater and more immediate pain of the Covid 19 Slump. Brexit will not be blamed for the pain. But if Brexit is postponed until January 2022, the Brexit pain will be much more visible to voters.

The Conservative Party has become the Brexit Party. It is driven by a narrative around re establishing British identity, and is quite insensitive to economic or trade arguments. It wants Brexit done quickly because it fears the British people might change their minds. That is why there is such a mad rush. It is not rational. It is imperative!

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.

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