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 Daily Telegraph - - Saturday Comment - JULIET SA­MUEL

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

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