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AN ULSTER LOYALIST TELLS HIS STORY

Billy Hutchinson is the leader of the small Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and represents it on Belfast City Council. He was, for a time, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.  He has recently written an autobiography entitled “My Life in Loyalism”, published by Merrion Press.

Billy Hutchinson  played an important part, while in prison in the 1980’s and later on, in encouraging the Loyalist paramilitaries towards political accommodation, instead of violence. 

 Brexit creates a new, and potentially difficult, relationship between  Ulster Loyalism and the rest of Ireland.  So understanding Loyalism is more important than ever. This book is timely.

 Hutchinson contributed to the peace process.  As the leader of the UVF prisoners in Long Kesh, through   his contacts with Pat Thompson, his IRA counterpart,   he helped get  Catholic and Protestant clergy involved in exploring political ways forward.

 The UVF had been founded in 1965, and was a violent response to the  IRA threat in the late 1960’s. It  was one of a proliferation of Loyalist paramilitary groups. It was a rival of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). The UVF was the more disciplined than the UDA and operated through a cell structure, whereas the UDA tended to hold  public parades, and provide an umbrella under which several  Loyalist groups could shelter.

 The PUP, formed in 1975, became the vehicle the UVF used to move into politics and away from violence .

Billy Hutchinson had been born in 1955. He was a native of the Shankill Road and intensely proud of his locality. His father was a NI Labour supporter, with numerous Catholic friends, but his mother was a more traditional unionist.

 Billy was first drawn onto political activity through soccer.

 He was a supporter of Linfield FC. To get to Linfield’s ground at Windsor Park, Shankill supporters of  the club   had to cross the Falls Road  and walk past the nationalist Unity Flats. This fortnightly procession of Linfield supporters, before and after home games, became an occasion for mutual provocations between the two communities. 

This became especially acute when the sectarian temperature rose in the late 1960’s.

Hutchinson, then a tall teenager, older looking than his years, took a leading role in managing these confrontations.  He saw himself as defending his locality. He also saw the Civil Rights movement as a front for the IRA, and the IRA as attempting to force unionists into a united Ireland.

As he admits, the crude view of the UVF was that, if they killed enough Catholics, the Catholic community would pressurize the IRA to stop. 

This sort of thinking also had echoes in more “respectable “  unionism. Former Home Affairs Minister, Bill Craig, told a Vanguard rally in 1972, to 

“build up the dossiers on the men and women who are a menace to this country, because if the politicians fail, it may be our job to liquidate the enemy”. 

Of course, the IRA was equally brutal and indiscriminate. For example, Protestant families were being forced to abandon their homes in the New Barnsley estate when Catholics were forced out in other parts of the city.

Hutchinson and his friends felt that the RUC and the British Army were not protecting the Loyalist community from IRA intimidation. 

 Still a teenager, he  became an armed bodyguard for the UVF leader Gusty Spence. He also undertook offensive operations, and gave weapons training, while also holding down a day job.

 This book gives an insight into the life, and the infighting, within Loyalist paramilitarism.

 Many people were shot on the basis of suspicions, often unfounded.

 Hutchinson is a teetotaller, but much of the social life of Loyalism took place in pubs and clubhouses. 

The reader is introduced to many unusual characters. One was a Catholic, Jimmy McKenna, whose brother Arthur had been killed by the IRA. Jimmy was determined to get revenge. So he offered his services to the UVF. After some hesitation they accepted him.  He proved very useful because of his knowledge of republican areas. McKenna was eventually found to be working for the security forces.

 Although there was much indiscriminate violence, there was also some political thinking taking place among Loyalists as early as the 1970’s.

 For example, in January 1974, the UVF gave cautious support of a proposal by Desmond Boal, a former Unionist and DUP MP, for a federal Ireland , with autonomy for Northern Ireland . Boal had worked on the idea with Sean McBride, a former Irish Minister for External Affairs.

  At the time, Hutchinson did not dismiss it, but asked a reasonable question. How could concessions to republicans be considered, while the IRA was still in existence, and people were being killed?

THE AMORALITY OF ARMED STRUGGLE

 Then, at only 19 years of age, in late 1974, the law caught up with Billy Hutchinson. He was convicted of the murder of two Catholics, Michael Loughran and Edward Morgan. 

As he puts it;

“ Even though the evidence was pointing toward my involvement in the shooting, I tried to maintain an air of defiance,”

and  disingenuously added 

 “Loughran and Morgan had been identified as active republicans. How accurate the information was, I don’t know”. 

This amoral detachment about the ending of two young lives is chilling. 

 But this sort of amorality is intrinsic to all “armed struggle”. 

 If one does not want that form of psychological and moral deformation to occur, one should not start armed struggles at all, especially if other potential remedies had  not been exhausted.  One should never retrospectively justify or glorify such killings.  That applies equally to the events of 1916, 1919, and 1970. It applies as much to Kilmichael , as it does  to Greysteel  or  Narrow Water .

Billy Hutchinson spent a long period in jail in Long Kesh for his crime, from 1975 until 1990. 

PRISON LIFE

He gives an interesting account of prison life. 

Gusty Spence was the commander of the UVF prisoners and military discipline was maintained among them. A similar regime applied among the IRA prisoners. 

Hutchinson maintained a high level of fitness while in gaol, running 15 miles a day inside the perimeter of his compound.

 He had left school at 14 years of age but, while in prison , he passed his O levels and A levels, and got a degree in town planning,  a useful qualification for someone who is now a member of Belfast City Council!

After his release in 1990, he was involved with Gusty Spence and others, in the peace process which  led to the announcement, in October 1994,  by the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) , of a ceasefire. This acknowledged the hurt suffered by victims  of Loyalist violence, something the IRA has yet  to do fully. 

THE DEMOCRATIC ROOTS OF LOYALISM

One of the principles set out by the CLMC in this announcement was that 

  “there must be no dilution of the democratic procedure through which the rights of self determination of the people of Northern Ireland are guaranteed”.

 This vital issue of democratic procedure will take on a new relevance after Brexit. 

 Under the  Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Treaty, many  of the laws to be applied  the Northern Ireland will emanate from the EU, but without  a democratic procedure involving  elected representatives  of  the people of Northern Ireland . That will call out for a remedy.

In his treatment of the peace process, Billy Hutchinson gives much praise to the late  Irish American businessman, Bill Flynn, for his support for Loyalists on their journey. 

On the other hand, he is dismissive of Ian Paisley, quoting his late father as saying that Paisley “would fight to the last drop of everyone else’s blood”. 

Billy is self consciously a socialist in his political opinions, although this seems to signify as much a badge of identity as it does a precise political programme. 

He may not have won a large number of votes in recent elections, but Hutchinson represents a strand of Unionism that is open to change. 

The aftermath of Brexit will increase the importance of  understanding  the thinking of  people like him.  

While he acknowledges the help of Dr Mulvenna in preparing this autobiography, the text is very much his own, and will be of interest to future historians. So it is unfortunate that the book contains no index.

Latest development in Brexit Talks

VALERY GISCARD D’ESTAING

Valery Giscard D’Estaing, who died last Wednesday, can truly be said to be the architect of the constitutional arrangements under which the EU works to this day.

He was President of the Convention of the Future of Europe, a very large and diverse body, which produced a draft EU Constitution of immense detail . 95% of the content of the present  EU Treaties are drawn from this draft Constitution.

 It was thanks  to his personal leadership and natural authority that consensus, on inherently contentious matters, was achieved.

 I observed his  political skills at work , as one of the nine member Praesidium of the Convention which agreed the drafts he presented.

TOM O’DONNELL RIP

I was shocked and deeply saddened to learn in the last few hours of the death of my close friend, Tom O’Donnell, former Minister, MEP and TD.

Tom was a man of great warmth and conviction. He retained a youthful enthusiasm for all the causes in which he was involved, right up to end of his life. He never wavered.

To his wife Helen and his son Tomas, and all the O’Donnell family including his nephew Kieran O’Donnell TD, I extend my deepest sympathy.

Tom O’Donnell was born in Limerick on 30 August 1926 and was the eldest of eight children of Patrick and Josephine O’Donnell of Bulgaden, Kilmallock .

 He came from a family with strong political traditions, constitutional nationalist on his father’s side  and  old Sinn Fein on his mothers’ side . Her brother Dick O’Donnell was a Cumann na Gaedhael TD until 1932.

Tom was educated in Cappamore NS, Crescent College, and CBS Charleville. 

He obtained his BA in UCD. He taught in a number of post primary schools in Dublin before returning to Limerick to pursue a political career.  He was active in Muintir na Tire and Macra na Feirme.

Tom O’Donnell was nominated to contest the 1961 General Election on behalf of Fine Gael and was elected to the Dail in October of that year. He was re elected in the 1965 Election doubling his previous vote. In 1969, he headed the poll.

 Again re elected in 1973, he was appointed Minister for the Gaeltacht in the government led by Liam Cosgrave.

He was an outstanding success in this role. He inspired great affection among the people of the Gaeltacht and brought unprecedented attention,at the highest  level,  to them and their needs. He acquired a mastery of the language and conducted all the official business of his Department in Irish.

In the previous 50 years, the Gaeltacht had lost half its population. 

Tom O’Donnell’s  motto as Minister was that   ” without people there would be no Gaeltacht,”. 

So he prioritized bringing employment to the Gaeltacht.  During Tom O’Donnell’s  term of office employment in the Gaeltacht doubled and the infrastructure was dramatically improved, 

In 1979, he was elected to the European Parliament  and served as the spokesman on regional policy for the Christian Democrat Group (now EPP).  He cooperated with John Hume, also an MEP, on a report on  coordinated regional investment  by the EU in both parts of Ireland.

He also served on the transport committee of the European Parliament and was active throughout his career in promoting Shannon Airport.

He stood for the Dail in the 1981 General Election, helping Fine Gael to win two seats in the constituency. He helped the party to hold those two seats in both the General Elections of 1982.

He was re elected to the European Parliament in 1984 and helped bring in his running mate Tom Raftery. 

He retired from politics in 1989.

Tom told me that the “most important and happiest event” in his life was in 1984 when he married his wife Helen. Like Tom, Helen has a deep interest in politics and was active in Young Fine Gael . Tom was very proud when Helen was named Limerick person of the year in 2013 in recognition of her work for tourism.

TRUST ON GOVERNMENTS VARIES WIDELY ACROSS THE WORLD. SOME DEMOCRACIES TRUSTED, OTHERS ARE NOT

Democracy rests on trust. So do all other forms of government to some degree. 

I came across the 2020 Edelman Trust Report. It contains some startling and worrying findings.

 It can be found here

It  is worth reading in full.

If the world is to cope with Covid and the economic situation, it needs leadership that people are prepared to trust. 

The Trust Report tells a truly alarming story for those of us who believe in liberal democracy. 

The average level of trust in government in the world is only 49%, but the alarming thing is that there is more trust in government in some autocratic states than there is in democratic ones. 

Against a global average of 49% trust in government, 90% of Chinese and  78% of Saudi Arabians told Edelman that they trust their government.  In Europe the trust in national governments ranges from a high of 59% in Netherlands to 45% in Germany, 41% in Ireland , 36% in the UK,  35% in France, 33% in Russia, down to a mere 30%. Interestingly in India, also a democracy, trust in government is 81%.  Interestingly 61% of Irish people trust the EU, which is well ahead of the level of trust in their national government,

The Survey results suggest that income inequality contributes more to a loss of trust than does insufficient economic growth. But levels on income inequality in India and China are quite high so that is not a sufficient explanation.

There is a slightly higher level of trust in institutions among those with more education. 

But it is not just government that is distrusted in western countries. On average overall, 49% of global respondents say they trust the media, but trust in the media is only 37% in Ireland and France. Yet 80% of the Chinese trust their media!  Given that the Chinese trust their government so much, perhaps it is not surprising that they also trust their government controlled media.

Business is trusted somewhat more than either governments or media are- 58% as against 49%. But again there are stark contrasts. 

82% of Indians and Chinese people trust business, as against only 35% of Russians, 48% of Germans and Irish, and 57% of Italians.

It would be worthwhile to dig more deeply into Edelman’s findings!

SIGNPOSTS TO A NEW AND VERY DIFFERENT EUROPE

Last week’s video conference Summit of EU Heads of Government was important.

BREXIT

The leaders received a report on the meeting of EU Presidents Von der Leyen, Michel and Sassoli with the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

They noted his decision not to seek any extension of the transition period.

Significantly, the EU leaders decided to make no change to the negotiation mandate given to the Commission for its negotiation with the UK on a future relationship with the EU. There had been suggestions in the UK media that the EU should loosen the mandate to facilitate the talks.

If a “No Deal” is to be avoided, the UK will now need to do some creative thinking about how it can give legally enforceable commitments to meet the concerns highlighted by the EU side on issues like

  • guaranteeing fair competition, if the UK is to have access to the EU Single Market, especially on state to business and quality and environmental standards
  • access for EU travelers to UK fishing grounds, if there is to be access for UK fish exporters to the EU consumer market for fish
  • human rights guarantees, if the UK is to have access to police cooperation with the  matters like the EU Arrest warrant
  • an overall partnership structure to govern the future EU/UK relationship.

If there is a “No Deal”, the relationship between the UK and its neighbours could deteriorate quite dramatically. There will be bitterness on both sides. This will not be confined to economics, but will affect every aspect of life.

POST COVID 19 ECONOMIC RECOVERY PROGRAMME FOR EUROPE

The post Covid 19 economic recovery proposals put forward by the European Commission are really ambitious.

For the first time, the EU itself will be borrowing substantial sums on its own account and passing the money on to member states.

Detailed allocations of funds for each country have been suggested. These allocations are based on an analysis of which countries, regions, and economic sectors that have been hardest hit by Covid 19.

It is interesting to note that there are wide differences in the economic impact of Covid 19 within countries. For example two regions of Italy are much worse hit than the rest of the country.

The analysis of need, on the basis of which the Commission proposed allocations have been prepared, takes no account of the impact of Brexit. Even if there is an EU/UK Deal, Brexit will do a lot of additional economic damage from 1 January 2021 onwards. The allocations will have to be revisited at that stage.

If fully implemented, it is estimated that the Commission proposals could, by 2024, add 2% to the overall GDP of the EU.

Member states will design their own programmes for spending the money.

There will be equity supports for viable companies.

It is important that the money be spent in ways that will enhance the sustainability and efficiency of the EU economy.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, the Commission has developed expertise in identifying what works and what does not work.

The judgement as to what is a “viable” business, that should get help, will not be an easy one. Objective criteria should be used. Some will be disappointed. There will be controversy and accusations of favouritism.

Eventually, borrowed funds will have to be repaid, or rolled over into new borrowing.

Interest rates will not always be as low as they are today, especially if the global economy recovers and there is an increased demand for funds in other parts of the world. So rolling over debts may not be wise.

Keynesian economics is not easy to implement in democracies.

Keynesianism encourages governments to run deficits and borrow, when times are hard. But that requires them to run budget surpluses and to pay down debt, when times are good.

 Politically, the first part is easy, but the second part is really difficult.

In good times, the expectations of the electorate of what governments should provide are very high and rise incessantly. There is no  electoral appetite for using the good times to pay off debts. We need to keep that in mind.

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!

SEAMUS MALLON RIP

Seamus said the necessary thing, rather than the convenient thing

I wish to add mine to the many, deeply deserved, tributes to the life of service to peaceful constitutional politics of Seamus Mallon.

A man with a deep and well understood sense of his own Irish nationalist identity, he made more effort than any other nationalist, living or dead, to understand the unionist identity of his neighbours, and to address their worries.

 He never stayed within his political comfort zone.

 He said the necessary thing, rather than the convenient thing.

 As his autobiography, “A Shared Home Place” shows, every day of his public life, he made the effort to reach out across the sectarian divide.

 For example, as a public representative, he attended the funeral of every unionist victim of (so called “republican”) violence in Armagh. 

He did so because he believed this was his duty as a representative of all the people in his electorate, notwithstanding the personal toll this must have imposed on him.

Seamus Mallon was a truly great man. 

Hopefully though, he will NOT prove to be unique.

 Ireland, and Northern Ireland, never  in recent history, has greater need of more Seamus Mallons.   

THE RETREAT OF WESTERN LIBERALISM

“The Retreat of Western Liberalism” by Edward Luce of the Financial Times is well worth reading.

It analyses the causes of the loss of trust in the modern world.

 Elites are under fire. Experts are not trusted. Business is not trusted. The media are not trusted.  The young do not trust the old, and vice versa.

 Increasingly, our societies seem to be torn, between the will of the people and the rule of the experts.

 The world has 25 fewer democracies that it had in 2000. Voters have become consumers of politics rather than active citizens. Political parties have become hollow shells.

International tension is rising, notably and dangerously, between the United States and China. Popular feelings are driving diplomacy.

 Luce claims that the secret of any nation’s diplomatic character is embedded in its popular imagination, as illustrated by British popular attitudes to the EU, and Chinese attitudes to Taiwan. 

Popular opinion in China and the US holds very different notions of fairness in international relations and trade. National pride can induce people to make foolish decisions.

 In the US and the UK, income inequality has risen dramatically, although this trend is less marked in other free market economies.

 There is no one to speak for those left behind because, according to Luce, the

 “Western Left has abandoned the politics of solidarity to embrace that of personal liberation”. 

 Individual rights trump solidarity with neighbours.

The author identifies what he call “welfare chauvinism” in Western Europe as being behind hostility to immigration.

 Europe has only 7% of the world’s population, but over 40% of the world welfare spending, and its voters are reluctant to share the welfare benefits with newcomers. 

 He says the 

“link between benefits and citizenship should be restored”.

GROWTH IN QUESTION

The strongest glue in society is economic growth. Choices can be made without anyone losing, when the economy is growing. For example it is very hard to introduce pension reforms when the economy is stagnant as President Macron is discovering..

Since the crisis of 2008, the notion that it is natural and inevitable for the economy to grow, once set free, is under deep challenge. Even negative interest rates are not enough to get firms to invest as much as they used to. Productivity per worker is suffering.

 Luce writes of the “toil index”, the number of hours an American worker must work to pay the rent, and says it has risen from 45 hours per month in 1950, to 101 hours today. I suspect the toil index has risen in most countries, as more and more people move to cities.

 Growth, purchased at the cost of a loss of security and community, is unacceptable to many, especially to those who lose their jobs.

 Luce feels that the elites in Western countries do not empathise with these popular anxieties, and this is creating a divide in society. He is right.

Growth purchased at the cost of climate damage has become unacceptable to many others.

 Indeed it is hard to see how there can be ANY overall growth in global income per head, if the rapidly growing populations of Africa and Asia are to be accommodated at an acceptable living standard, in a carbon neutral world. 

Windmills and solar power will not be enough. The intense rhetoric about climate change is not matched by realistic plans, that people might actually vote for.

That has huge implications for domestic politics in western countries.  Once the rate at which the cake is growing gets slower, the more bitter become the disagreements about how to divide it up. 

Luce says the technological advances that sustained rapid economic growth from 1870 to 1970 have run their course. They were an abnormality. The world economy hardly grew at all in the 1500 years prior to 1800.

The lack of economic growth lies behind the bitter partisanship in politics in some countries (notably the US and the UK). Luce’s critique has its greatest relevance to the United States, where he works, and to the UK, from which he originates. It is slightly less relevant to continental European countries where there is greater social security. But the underlying forces he describes work there too.

 He prescribes no readymade solutions. That is for the politicians!

THE DIFFICULTIES WITH THE NEW UK BACKSTOP PROPOSALS

There is, at last, some movement in the Brexit negotiation.

On the UK side, Boris Johnson previously insisted on the Irish backstop being scrapped. Now he is making proposals (unacceptable so far to the EU) to rewrite it.

On the EU side, there is a movement too.

 The present Agreement contains a backstop to cover the whole UK. Now the EU is apparently willing to contemplate a backstop confined to Northern Ireland (NI) alone. This is a step backward for Ireland.  An “NI only” backstop would not protect Irish trade with Britain which is more valuable than trade across the border with NI.

Why are the new UK proposals for an NI only backstop unacceptable so far to the EU?

It is hard to give a complete answer to this question because the UK has insisted that its legal text for the new backstop remain confidential. This is a pity because any such text could benefit from constructive criticism from outside the narrow confines of the UK negotiation team and the Article 50 Task Force.

The only thing we have to go on is an Explanatory note published by the UK Government.

The note says the UK Government wants to uphold the Belfast Agreement of 1998. This Agreement was made in good faith by the then Irish government, on the basis of joint Irish and British membership of the EU Single Market, which had come into force only five years earlier in 1993, and had removed trade barriers between the two parts of Ireland.

 If there was at that time any possibility of the UK ever withdrawing from the Single Market, it would have been for the UK side to have brought that up in the negotiations. Neither the then UK government, nor the Tory Opposition, did so.

  If they had, there would probably have been no Belfast Agreement.

This is because the Belfast Agreement is all about convergence between North and South, as well as convergence between Ireland and Britain.  In contrast, Brexit inevitably is about divergence between North and South, AND divergence between Britain and Ireland. At a fundamental level they are incompatible. 

While everybody may now be acting in full good faith, there is also the issue for the EU of the structural reliability of the UK as a negotiating partner. 

 A Conservative government, with a parliamentary majority, signed a joint paper with the EU, committing it to protect the Belfast Agreement and to avoid border controls.  Now another Conservative government, in the same Parliament but now without a majority, wants to renege on that. 

UK public opinion sees no problem with this, but it is difficult for the EU. The EU would be setting a precedent for future negotiations, with the UK and with others. 

The latest UK proposals would align the regulatory standards for goods in NI, with EU standards. This is a welcome move, but it would mean new controls, between NI and Britain, to check compliance with EU standards. On the other hand it would remove the need for controls, for this particular purpose, at the land border in Ireland.

 But the proposals completely ignore tariffs there will be between the EU and UK. Once the transition period is over, imports from the UK will have to pay EU tariffs, which are quite high for some products, particularly agricultural ones. 

These tariffs will have to be collected at or near the land border in Ireland. The proposal to align NI and EU regulatory standards for goods does not solve that problem of tariffs on those same goods. 

The collection of these tariffs at or near the border will be highly contentious, although it will be absolutely necessary if Ireland is to remain in the EU. 

 If , in future, the UK  makes a trade agreements with a third country (say the US), and has to make concessions on either tariffs or goods standards to get these agreements, there would  then have to be additional or wider controls. These wider controls would be the land border for tariffs, and between NI and UK for standards.

 This problem would get steadily worse as time goes on. Boris Johnson has said that the UK will deliberately diverge from EU labour, environmental and product standards and will be making many concessions in his trade deals, so the scope and scale of the controls will become greater all the time.

 These will be either on the land border, or on the Irish Sea. Both go against the convergence goals of the Belfast Agreement. 

The new UK proposals envisage a system of notifications to prevent prohibited products entering the EU and for the collection of VAT. It remains to be seen if these can be rendered compatible with the EU Customs code, which envisages the tariff, tax, and quality status of goods being checked at the same place, at a customs post on the border.

 I expect the Article 50 Task force are now subjecting these UK proposals to forensic examination. They will ensure that Ireland’s status as a fully compliant part of the EU Single Market is not put in doubt and that the VAT is collected.  

The entire UK package would create dangerous new opportunities for smuggling, and smuggling is often used to finance political terrorism and mafia practices. 

The UK proposals are conditional on “Consent” in Northern Ireland to adherence to EU goods and food standards and to the Single Electricity Market.

 They would not to come into effect, without the consent of the NI Executive and Assembly. This consent would have to be renewed every four years. 

 The NI Assembly nowadays seems incapable of meeting, let alone of making decisions, so I do not think the EU being happy to delegate the future of any hard won compromise it makes with the UK to it. It would be giving a regional body, in a non EU state, a power to obviate an Agreement into which the EU would have entered in good faith every four years. We must not forget that the NI Assembly operates on the basis of a “petition of concern” whereby, a minority ( 30 out of 90)  of members in the Assembly, could block consent to deal . 

This  NI “consent” provision is to be inserted into the heart of what one hopes will to be a balanced, and hard fought, overall deal between the UK and the EU. I cannot see the EU agreeing to  all this being subject to the ongoing vagaries of NI politics. 

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