The Irish question now threatens to grind Brexit to a halt. The next EU summit is coming in a few weeks, and for the Brits and the EU to proceed to the next phase of Brexit negotiations, Ireland must confirm with EU negotiators that “sufficient progress” has been made on the question of a border being erected between the six counties of Northern Ireland, and the rest of the island. Ireland has indicated it may not do so, and it has suggested in a working paper that to avoid the introduction of a border, Northern Ireland should remain in the EU customs union even as the rest of Great Britain exits. That is, the customs border would be in the Irish sea, and Northern Irish people would be subject to a customs check when traveling from their home to another part of their own country, such as London. This is currently a political impossibility, as most people recognize. It’s also fundamentally ignores Ireland’s interests, which most people don’t realize.
Brexit is a serious difficulty for Ireland and potentially a calamity. The United Kingdom is Ireland’s most important trading partner. And its exit from the single market and the customs union jeopardizes many economic interests in Ireland. To take just one iconic example, Guinness beer often crosses the now-invisible border twice before it reaches drinkers in the Isles. Ingredients from everywhere in Ireland arrive in Dublin; there, the water, barley, and hops are added; finally, the beer is trucked north to Belfast for bottling. Supposedly if you add Baileys Irish cream to the mix, parent company Diageo must deal with 18,000 border crossings. Some think tanks suggest that trade flows between Ireland and the U.K. could decrease by as much as 20 percent after Brexit. That’s a significant hit to the United Kingdom, but it’s a disaster for Ireland. Ireland gets 90 percent of its oil and gas from the United Kingdom and sells roughly half its beef to it.
Beyond that, Ireland and the United Kingdom have been allies within the European Union. They’ve presented an important Western European check on EU protectionism and political centralization. Now Ireland will be forced to slum it with the unpopular and less powerful nations such as Hungary and Poland.
The Irish government’s current position, echoed by the leading media figures of that nation and many Remainers in the U.K. who are looking for an opportunity to harrumph, is characteristic of nearly all the Republic’s historical attempts to address the issue of the six counties. It runs to the place of highest moral dudgeon, takes a completely bass-ackwards approach to the law, and attaches all this to an entirely feigned credulity about British promises that everyone knows London does not have the power to keep. In this way, it avoids almost all the hard, dreary work of statesmanship. And as usual, you can be sure it will dissolve in the end into futile whelping for the assistance of powerful outsiders. Ireland’s national interest will be harmed. The only question is whether the Irish government will ever once intelligently fight for it.
Parsing the Good Friday Agreement
Irish complaints about Brexit often feature the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which effected peace in Northern Ireland. People argue, implausibly, that the Strand 2 of the agreement assumes that both countries will remain in the European Union, and therefore the agreement obliges them to do so. And so, with Brexit, the dastardly English are jeopardizing the peace.
The not-so-subtle implication is that if the United Kingdom doesn’t do what the Irish do with public votes that displease Brussels — abrogate the results and vote until you get the answer you want — then perhaps the boys in West Belfast and the Bogside might get up to some unpleasantness. Perhaps a few Democratic Unionist Party voters might meet an unfortunate end. This is not only morally repulsive; it’s incorrect. The Good Friday Agreement is not so fragile, and the Republican community in Northern Ireland is not so hot-tempered, or so wicked, as commentators imply. They’re also not so young as they were in the 1970s and 1980s.
Perhaps the most articulate unpaid member of the Continuity Project Fear, Fintan O’Toole, wrote yesterday in the Irish Times:
Time after time, the lead EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made it clear that “the unique situation on the island of Ireland requires specific solutions”. But in any case, one would expect Britain to be just as insistent. It has grave responsibilities to its own citizens in Northern Ireland and to the Belfast agreement, by which it is legally and morally bound.
But even if the Good Friday Agreement, in some implicit way, assumes that the countries of the Isles will remain in the European Union, it is quite explicit about how political unification of Ireland would proceed: through a border poll. How in the world have Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Irish commentators come to think that they are being more faithful to the GFA, by effecting what they occasionally dare to call “Irish economic unity,” through means never even contemplated by the GFA, much less authorized by a majority of people in the six counties? By what right would the Irish government say that the economy of Northern Ireland should be regulated by the EU, because of its geographic and economic ties to the Irish Republic, even while Northern Ireland remains in the United Kingdom, a country that is no longer a member of the European Union?
The arrangement would not only subject Northern Irish people to border checks within their own country. It would also divide the sovereignty of their state. It would deprive them of any democratic connection (let alone recourse) to the laws governing their business and trade. It would leave the United Kingdom paying the outsized bill for policing, peacekeeping, and social services for the economically backward region, while Ireland would begin reaping the benefits of a half-unity it effected in a way that the GFA did not envision. Do they really want to create this level of Irish unity by directly undermining the political interests of Northern Ireland’s unionist community?
Ignoring Northern Irish Protestants
The Irish could attain to this staggering level of pretense only by deliberately ignoring Northern Irish unionist views. Modern Ireland — the media never forget to attach that qualifier — prides itself on being tolerant and ever more free of the old prejudices and Catholic sectarianism that (purportedly) disfigured its national life. But, as is usually the case, modern tolerance never extends in a meaningful way to the one group of people whom history demands you tolerate, the one group who can be accommodated only by mortifying your own interests.
In Ireland’s case, it is the group that the Good Friday Agreement destines to one day share membership in Ireland: Ulster’s Protestants. Dublin’s media class, having moved into the place of the old ascendancy, maintain all the old ascendancy’s prejudices against Ulster’s Presbyterians and all the same basic contempt for their ambitions. But this bundle of prejudices and stereotypes, which would formerly have been recognized as sectarianism, is repackaged and legitimated as mere political disagreement. It’s not that they’re Prods but that they’re conservatives.
On the other hand, the proposal of keeping the six counties in the customs union has some merits, if you like buccaneering offshore capitalism. Northern Ireland’s economy is far too dependent on the public sector for its own health, particularly if the United Kingdom and Ireland envision the a day Nothern Irish people decide on on union with the other 26 counties of their island. In the current Irish proposal, so long as Northern Ireland retained full access to the British market, retaining a customs union with the EU would suddenly make Northern Ireland a place of opportunity, a legal and economic nexus between the European Union and the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland may have voted against Brexit, but it did not vote to have its political sovereignty divided.
But politically, it is impossible. Continental European powers would hate this arrangement as a kind of smuggler’s loophole. And it won’t fly in Ulster, either. Northern Ireland may have voted against Brexit, but it did not vote to have its political sovereignty divided. And such an arrangement obviously violates the Good Friday Agreement, which also guarantees against Irish unity, even as ersatz one, absent a border poll.
Arlene Foster, the leader of the Ulster’s Democratic Unionist Party, has informed the members of the EU that such a separation of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom is unacceptable. And her party, thanks to Tory hubris, is now in a position to bring down Theresa May’s government. And let’s be frank: EU negotiators, if they believed this arrangement were a real possibility, would be wise to hesitate in okaying it, given what it would suggest to separatists in Catalonia, Flanders, and Northern Italy.
Denying the Reality of Brexit
Ultimately, Ireland is wasting its time helping the EU shift blame for a future Irish calamity rather than working against one. The United Kingdom’s position, reiterated constantly, is that they don’t want a hard border in Ireland, and they are willing to come to a special customs relationship with Ireland. They say they cannot go any further until they know what kind of trading relationship is really on offer from the EU, but that they are getting on with the will of the people.
Ireland’s position is that the United Kingdom is the one forcing this situation on everyone, and it should be responsible for the solution. In fact, earlier this year, Ireland rather dramatically pulled personnel off a team that was looking into legal and technical solutions. They heavy implication is that if United Kingdom wants no border, it can achieve that by remaining in the customs union or the single market. Or even by not carrying out Brexit at all.
Who is to blame? The British who wish for no borders but insist on leaving the European Union? Or the European Union members who wish for no borders but will insist on something less than the free-trade status quo if Britain leaves?
In a world in which Britain has already delivered its Article 50 notice of withdrawal, and is giving every indication that it will leave the customs union, it is the Irish position that denies reality. If the United Kingdom is really leaving, the primary Irish interest is in effecting the most liberal and generous trade arrangement possible between the United Kingdom and the EU. Ireland can delay the next phase of negotiations, but eventually France and Germany will pressure them to relent, to keep the whole continent from succumbing to the turbulence of economic uncertainty. And at that time, when Ireland is no longer a useful bargaining chip, Ireland will realize quickly that France and Germany do not really care about Ireland’s economic interests. In fact, France and Germany may not-so-secretly wish to see a little pain inflicted — the political classes in both countries consider the Irish to be grifters and tax cheats, co-conspirators with rapacious American tech companies.
I’ll put my cards on the table. If I were British, I would have backed Brexit because I believe that the EU threatens the democratic accountability of governance in Europe, and because I believe that the EU is rapidly devolving into a vehicle for privileging German interests above those of all others, particularly smaller nations. I think that the European project has removed too many issues from democratic input, and this trend, left unchallenged, will lead to real political instability. I sympathize with the desire for a so-called hard Brexit that would enable the United Kingdom to set its own trade and border policies. But because the vote on Brexit was so close, I think it the better part of statesmanship to opt for the so-called Norway Option, or for another arrangement that solves the border issue and mollifies Remainer sentiment in the United Kingdom.
Ireland should know the folly of helplessly depending on promises it knows damn well that London cannot keep.
On the other hand, if I were living in Ireland, I would have to oppose Brexit, on the grounds of potential economic upset. But the Irish should learn from their own history. Alex Massie intelligently pointed out in the Spectator last week that in the current negotiations, Ireland is merely asking the United Kingdom to live up to its word. But Ireland should know the folly of helplessly depending on promises it knows damn well that London cannot keep.
In 1912, the Irish nationalist John Redmond trusted that Home Rule for Ireland would include Ulster. But the Irish unionist Edward Carson knew better. He had “known for a long time that the government would not force Home Rule on Ulster,” he admitted to a Tory backbencher a year after Home Rule was passed. “So it is all play acting.” Irish negotiators later ventured to the Versailles peace conference to make their claims for Wilsonian self-determination. They found that big countries with big financial interests in London were not interested. Ireland will discover a similar deafness in France when negotiations shift to the next phase.
All the problems with the Irish border were foreseeable, say the Remainers. And they are right. But right now, it is not just foreseeable but imminent that the onus for the Irish border and the details of the trade arrangements Ireland will live under will shift to the major continental powers of Europe. Delaying those negotiations with grandstanding could make the United Kingdom crash out of the EU without a deal, the worst possible result for Ireland. Instead of putting out phony proposals for uniting Ireland while the United Kingdom foots the bill, Ireland should be working fanatically to draw up a workable customs arrangement that saves enough Irish interests, while mollifying Europe’s desire to punish Britain and rake in whatever industries and revenue it can from the Isles. The government in London is obviously overwhelmed by Brexit. And soon enough, the Irish and the British will find themselves on the same side, demanding the continuation of liberal trade arrangements. So instead of taunting them, the Irish could be supplying off-the-shelf solutions that favor Irish interests. But that would require some responsibility and a will to work.
During the financial crisis, Irish politician fought with one another to hold Germany’s coat. Ireland’s reward for its good behavior was a quadrupling of its national debt.
During the financial crisis, the Irish distinguished themselves in their fidelity and obedience to the EU. Irish politicians fought with one another to hold Germany’s coat, while Merkel bullied the Greeks into submission. What did it get them? Ireland’s reward from Germany for good behavior was a quadrupling of its national debt, a cool 200 billion euros, or 42,000 euros for every man, woman, and child. German bondholders were made whole.
But for now, the Irish are aligning with the EU. And they are making the same mistakes that they’ve made over and over again — standing on a highly moralized, vaguely sectarian irredentism and backing it up with half-baked threats. When the EU is finished with Brexit, Ireland will get its reward from the EU: a direct attack on its tax rates, an attempt to steal away its relationships with American tech and pharmaceutical companies, maybe even an attack on its dairy industry for good measure.