The EU has revived the Tories’ Irish unionism
History tells us there won’t be a solution to the border issue unless there’s a shift in the political landscape
The whole map of Europe has been changed,” said Winston Churchill after the end of the First World War, “but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again”.
When even supposed arch-loyalists like Jo Johnson are resigning, modern Tories will know how Churchill and his contemporaries felt. A hundred years after the Irish question threatened to tear British politics apart, it’s back, and, thanks to the almost incredible parliamentary maths generated by last year’s election, which handed the balance of power to the DUP, it’s as intractable as ever.
In its latest sabre-rattling, the DUP is furious about a letter, leaked to The
Times, in which Theresa May implies that she might after all accept the EU “backstop”, which could sever Northern Ireland from Britain. The Cabinet, meanwhile, is waiting to see what exactly Mrs May will do.
The Cabinet’s support depends upon two outstanding issues. The first is whether or not the EU can be persuaded to drop or defang the Irish backstop, which imposes a customs border inside UK territory between Belfast and London in order to avoid one between Belfast and Dublin. The UK’S mooted alternative is that the EU instead draw its customs border around the whole of the UK. But this creates the second issue: what obligations this arrangement would impose upon us and how and when we will get the hell out of them.
We should assume that the obligations will be onerous. They will involve not just adherence to EU trade policy, but ongoing regulatory alignment updated alongside EU rules, obedience to the EU in areas like environmental and labour law and possibly even migration rules. At present, the Cabinet will only countenance this vassalage arrangement if it can find a way to ensure it is temporary.
To that end, the ruse now being dreamt up is the creation of an “arbitration process” that would enable us to leave the customs union when we want. The UK’S aim, of course, is to make this process as weak and flexible as possible, whereas Brussels will want it to be powerful and rigid.
A British version would look something like this: the EU and UK agree that Britain will stay aligned with Brussels for now while solving the Irish border conundrum within the framework of a free trade deal. However, each party would retain the right to review progress and terminate the vassalage arrangement after, say, three to nine months. If and when the UK decides to do so, the EU would have to lodge any objection with a neutral arbitration panel composed of British and EU judges plus one neutral foreigner.
To win its case, the UK would have to persuade the panel that it had made a genuine effort to find a technical solution for the border. The key part though, is that even if Britain lost, the worst the panel could do would be to impose a fine or duty to compensate the EU in one way or another. In the meantime, the UK would have no obligation to wait for a judgment and could get on with leaving the customs union before the next election.
It is obvious that this arrangement would not suit Brussels (or Ireland) at all. Were EU officials to design this process, it would look very different. The arbitration panel would have the right to stop the UK leaving the EU customs union until its demands were satisfied. It could also demand that, if Britain’s operational solutions for the Irish border don’t work, the whole country offer to align its regulations and laws with the EU permanently. This is quite obviously unpalatable to most Brexiteers.
In other words, we are further than ever from a deal. And as far as the Irish border goes, history suggests we will not reach one until there is a substantial shift in the political landscape, probably only after a general election. This is true whether we manage to fudge the Irish issue or whether we leave with no deal.
I recently read a short account of how the Ireland question has contorted British politics in the past century. Drawing the Line by the historian Ivan Gibbons recounts that the Northern Irish border was only ever meant to be a temporary fudge. When it was first suggested by a Liberal MP in 1913, the idea of creating a temporary, administrative border in Ireland was considered provocative and politically unacceptable. Ten years later, it was reality.
In that time, three things happened. Irish politics became radicalised, with voters ejecting its Liberal MPS, who had failed to deliver home rule, and voting in the ardent anti-british nationalists, Sinn Fein. As a result, Ireland’s unionists, who had successfully thwarted home rule for decades, began to realise they were fighting a losing battle and that control over most of Ulster was probably the best possible outcome they could hope for. And, in Britain, voters and politicians became heartily sick and tired of the whole Irish issue. Instead of nationalism, imperialism and identity, Britain began to focus on economic and social policy. The result was the creation of a permanent international boundary on the island of Ireland, which was unthinkable in 1913. British politicians breathed a sigh of relief.
History suggests that, were the DUP not holding the balance of power in Parliament (or were Labour in charge), the UK government would pretty quickly downgrade unionism as a priority. The current Conservative Government is loath to do so, however, as a result of cynical political pressure brought to bear by the EU. In fact, Dublin and Brussels could barely have calculated a better strategy for stirring up the old unionist, patriotic heart of the Conservative Party.
What’s needed is for both sides to climb down and allow a misty compromise to settle over the border issue. In the background, political plates would need to shift. Some in Dublin still dream of unification, but its politicians have done nothing to reach out to northern unionists. Northern Ireland’s unionists hope to avoid unification, despite sectarian demographics moving against them, but they have done little to reach out to Northern Ireland’s Catholic, republican voters. And the Tories, who cared almost nothing for Ireland two years ago, have now been roused suddenly, both by parliamentary maths and by Brussels, to care very deeply about the principles at stake. In other words, the politics are moving away from compromise and towards a confrontation that no “temporary” legal fudge about arbitration panels will be able to avoid. FOLLOW Juliet Samuel on Twitter @Citysamuel; READ MORE at telegraph. co.uk/opinion
Dublin and Brussels could barely have calculated a better strategy for stirring up the party’s old patriotic heart