LONDON – On Brexit day – March 29, 2019 – the HMS Buccaneer Britanniawill set sail in search of the riches of the “Anglosphere.” But there is a hitch: Someone has forgotten to raise the anchor, which remains planted firmly in Ireland.
This isn’t surprising. Of all the Euroskeptic Conservative politicians I know, not one has ever mentioned Northern Ireland, let alone the sovereign country to the south of it. The only thing on the Brexiteers’ minds is the quest for parliamentary sovereignty and liberation from the supranational “superstate” in Brussels.
This blinkered view may simply reflect ignorance. Even an erstwhile “Remainer” like Karen Bradley, the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, recently confessed that, “[…] when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland.” In other words, until very recently, she has been incurious about one of the central issues of nineteenth- and twentieth-century British history.
Conservative politicians who find themselves in such a position would do well to know that conflicts over the “Irish question” have resulted in more than 3,600 violent deaths. They might also benefit from knowing that successive Conservative prime ministers, from Edward Heath to Margaret Thatcher to John Major, struggled and failed to resolve the issue before it was put to rest by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
In addition to military decommissioning, the Good Friday Agreement brought together antagonistic communities by mandating smooth trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, under the aegis of the EU customs union. The fact that 55.8 per cent of Northern Irish voters backed “Remain” in the 2016 referendum partly reflects this astonishing achievement.
Anyone with an ounce of foresight should have known that the status of Northern Ireland would become a stubborn conundrum at the center of the Brexit negotiations. In fact, the problem is so intractable that conspiracy-minded Brexiteers now suspect EU negotiators of using it to delay or stymie Buccaneer Britannia’s glorious departure.
Ironically, many in the EU also think that a plot is afoot. The EU has long insisted that a legally binding divorce settlement must be concluded before there can be any discussion of future UK-EU relations. But now Britain is suspected of exploiting the Irish question to insinuate a detailed “political declaration” about future relations into the formal exit agreement.
The key problem is the so-called Irish backstop, which would prevent the establishment of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the absence of a wider deal on the future of UK-EU relations. In December 2017, all parties concurred that such a backstop was necessary to preserve the peace under the Good Friday Agreement. But there has been disagreement over the translation of this into legally binding language. Failing an agreement, “the territory of Northern Ireland would be part of the customs territory of the European Union.”
For its part, the UK government insisted that it can address the border issue by remaining in close alignment with EU customs rules and deploying customs-monitoring technologies that have yet to be invented – which is to say, by magic. Yet the Irish government has insisted that every detail of the backstop be nailed down and included in the legally binding withdrawal treaty.
But this preliminary agreement immediately posed a problem for May, whose majority in the House of Commons depends on ten Democratic Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland. And, because her own party and the cabinet are divided on the kind of Brexit they want, the Irish Republic and the rest of the EU are in the position of spectators to a colossal act of national self-harm. If the province were to remain in the EU’s customs and regulatory orbit, there would have to be a border in the Irish Sea. That would jeopardize not just the workings of the UK’s internal customs union, but also the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Worse, the fudging language invited a “we, too” riposte from Scottish nationalists, who rightly argued that if special arrangements were going to be made for Northern Ireland’s Remain majority, then the Scots, who also voted to remain, should be offered a similar deal. Failing that, they would demand a rerun of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. This time, however, Scottish nationalists would not have to worry about the Unionist argument that independence implies a de facto withdrawal from the EU.
The EU rejected British offers to remaintemporarily in the customs union after Brexit, because that would allow the UK to enjoy the benefits of tariff-free trade without having to permit the free movement of EU citizens. On this occasion, the EU once again suspected the UK of using Northern Ireland as a Trojan horse to gain an unfair advantage, and the Brexiteers accused May of capitulating to the extortionist gangsters in Brussels. May’s “Brexit secretary,” David Davis, immediately resigned, and he was soon followed out the door by then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (who needed a moment to consider his own prospects of replacing May).
Negotiators have since been exploring the surreal idea of a “backstop to the backstop” in the event that the first backstop ends up being “time-limited” instead of “all-weather,” to use their deadly jargon. Emphasis has now shifted to how the entire UK can remain in the customs union, with the proviso that “one day” it might be able to escape. But the basic point remains: Predominantly English Brexiteers have given no serious thought to the Irish question, nor even to the likelihood that crashing out of the EU might take the UK back to the dark ages. Many of them would rather lose Northern Ireland and Scotland than forgo Brexit.
Instead, they have been busy constructing a fanciful world of limitless possibility, based on a national mythology featuring Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, the British Raj, and standing “alone” in 1940. Psychologically, some of them seem to be reliving an imaginary war with our closest neighbors and trading partners.
Most sensible people live in the present. And wherever one looks, from Trump’s trade wars to Russia and Moldova vowing to block Britain’s post-Brexit accession to the World Trade Organization, reality is ineluctably crushing Brexiteers’ fantasies of English importance.
The writer’s books include Small Wars, Faraway Places: The Genesis of the Modern World, Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism, The Third Reich: A New History, and The Best and the Worst of Times: The World As It Is (forthcoming). He is CEO of the global political risk consultancy Sea Change Partners.