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  • Peter Ramsay

The Irish Border: A Reply to O’Brennan

Our proposal to drop the backstop in the Brexit negotiations over Ireland (see Proposal #6 Irish Border) has elicited some predictably intemperate and inaccurate responses. Leading the charge, John O’Brennan, Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration at Maynooth University, took to Twitter to complain that our argument was ”bizarrely ill-informed” and demonstrated ”how British elites understand little or nothing about Ireland (and don't want to waste time trying to gain understanding)”. Professor O’Brennan then fired off a series of tweets that demonstrated how ill-informed he was about what we were actually arguing and how he wasn’t going to waste time trying to gain any understanding of it.

The Professor’s remarks exemplify the low standards of what pass for ”expert” argument in the Brexit debate. They also include some familiar false and unjustified insinuations about our motives that require a very clear response.

O’Brennan was most exercised by our claim that the EU, the Irish government and British Remainers have effectively been exploiting the threat of violence from diehard Republican groups to argue that nothing can change on the Irish border. And he begins with a misleading account of our argument on this point:

”This claim is both bizarre and truly offensive. The EU and successive governments in Dublin have worked ceaselessly with all parties in NI to bring violence to an end. To suggest now the emergence of an unholy alliance between Dublin/Brussels and NI Rep groups is grotesque.”

O'Brennan calls the claim bizarre and offensive but he does not explain why it is false. We did not use the word ”alliance”. What we did say was that persistent references to vague, possible threats of violence have been deployed by opponents of Brexit with a view to minimizing change. That the EU and Dublin governments ”have worked ceaselessly to bring violence to an end” is true, but at no point did we accuse them of deliberately fomenting violence. We accused of them of relying on the possibility of dissident republican violence as leverage, and therefore ”effectively” recruiting those groups to their cause.

If anything is ”offensive” and ”grotesque”, it is the blatantly false representation of our position that O’Brennan immediately follows up with:

”The piece demonstrates in spades the Brexit ideologues obsession with sovereignty. The conception of sovereignty presented is one that is static, unchanging, suggestive of ethnic homogeneity and something that belongs in the nineteenth century.”

At no point do we make the slightest suggestion that sovereignty involves ”ethnic homogeneity”. On the contrary, if O’Brennan had bothered to read our proposal on Ireland in the context of our other proposals on the same webpage, he would have come across a proposal written by the same authors that Britain should unilaterally offer British citizenship to resident EU nationals. We point out in that proposal that we support this not only because it is fair, but also because such a policy would give the lie to Remainers’ caricature of Leavers and Brexit as nativist. Perhaps reading arguments in their context is an unfamiliar activity to Professor O’Brennan. He is nevertheless quick to make wholly unsupported insinuations of racial motivation on the part of those he disagrees with.

O’Brennan continues with another entirely unjustified insinuation:

”The authors seem regretful that the UK govt hasn't already sent soldiers back to Northern Ireland, having demonstrated an appetite for 'bloody adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan'. Are they seriously suggesting militarism (in the name of exercising sovereignty) as solution?”

He offers no textual support as to why we seem to him to be regretful about the lack of a military solution. This is because there is none. We are not regretful about this. We are opposed to militarist solutions, as our reference to Britain’s ”bloody adventures” in Iraq and Afghanistan makes clear to anyone who is not being deliberately obtuse.

However we are also opposed to democratic decisions being blackmailed by powerful politicians using the threat of criminal violence by others. Our point was that although Britain’s political class was willing enough to engage in violence against the people of distant countries, it is not willing even to ”face down”, as we put it, the slightest hint of violence closer to home to ensure that a democratic decision over the constitutional future of the UK can be implemented. ”Face down” does not mean a wholesale return of troops to the streets of Northern Ireland, nor does it imply it. What it means is that although the British elite is comfortable with doing violence across the world, it cannot countenance the simple act of insisting from the start that a democratic decision should be respected and that threats of criminal violence in opposition to it should be resisted. That is usually routine UK government policy.

O’Brennan then sets off on some pure fantasy about what we think about the Good Friday Agreement:

”The authors misunderstand the nature of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. It was an agreement to disagree about ’end states’ and relationship between sovereignty & such ’end states’. Its very success lay in managing ambiguity about sovereignty through post-sovereign institutions.”

We say very little about the Good Friday Agreement. We don’t disagree with O’Brennan’s summary of it. We probably also agree that Brexit creates difficulty for managing ”ambiguity” about sovereignty. It is not obvious to us, however, why that difficulty cannot be overcome, unless that is parties to the Agreement do not want to overcome it. While O’Brennan falsely accuses us of maintaining a ”conception of sovereignty” that is ”static” and ”unchanging”, he fails to notice that his preferred post-sovereign institutions appear to be too rigid to cope with any change in the relations between the two sovereign states involved in the GFA, not even with an assertion of sovereignty that involves some normal installations on a border that has always existed, even under the Agreement. If this is right, and the GFA cannot cope then, in this respect, the GFA seems much like the European Union – rigid, inflexible and unresponsive in its endless kicking of the can down the road.

If the British government had asserted its sovereignty from the start and insisted that the referendum result would necessitate some sort of customs border, then sensible negotiations could have been conducted between the parties. As others have pointed out, the backstop makes sensible negotiation impossible because the EU lacks sufficient interest in them.

O’Brennan’s fantasy about our ”obsessions” continues in the next tweet:

”the ontological confusion about sovereignty extends to the authors understanding of the EU. Brexiters are obsessed with the idea of ’zero-sum’ relationships, i.e that EU membership automatically traduces national sovereignty when it can/does enhance national sovereignty.”

Here O’Brennan confirms the general rule (subject to exceptions for full-time philosophers) that when an academic starts using the word ”ontological”, the purest bullshit is on its way. There is no explanation of why he thinks we have this obsession with zero-sum games. He appears to be unfamiliar with my co-author Chris Bickerton’s well-regarded theory of European integration as a process of the self-limitation of sovereignty by the EU’s member states, a theory which offers a critique of conventional Eurosceptic thinking. O’Brennan might profit from reading it. An introductory version of it can be found on the Analysis page of The Full Brexit. Sorry Prof – more reading.

O’Brennan’s next tweet reads:

”There is real congruence between the ’constructive ambiguity’ which defines both the EU as a system of governance and the Good Friday Agreement. Brexiters seem to hate both models because it infringes British sovereignty when actually it enhances it in both cases.”

As noted above, we agree with the first sentence. He is also right that many Brexiteers regard post-sovereign arrangements as ”infringing” British sovereignty. However, if he had bothered to read anything by us he would have known that we have a different -- and, we would argue, more historically and politically accurate -- view of post-sovereign arrangements. We do not see them as external infringements but as voluntary limitations of sovereignty adopted by the governing classes of the member states to avoid democratic accountability to their own populations.

Next O’Brennan brings on his local experience as authority and again misrepresents us by implication:

”Unlike the authors, I've spent a lot of time in NI over past 2 years. Fears about a return to violence are real & have not been manufactured as part of a dastardly (twin) EU-Dublin plot to foil Brexit. We in IRE are dealing with existential consequences of Brexit as best we can.”

At no point did we suggest that fears about violence are not ”real”. The fears are real, although we did question the potency of the threat. Nor did we say anything about an ”EU-Dublin plot to foil Brexit”, although it is no secret that Barnier and Vardkar are working closely together to achieve the EU’s ends. What we did say was that fears of violence were being exploited by the EU and its supporters, and O’Brennan seems to confirm this when he says ”We in IRE are dealing with existential consequences of Brexit as best we can.”

O’Brennan’s next point is revealing:

”If the authors paid the slightest attention to statements of Irish govt over last 2 years, most recently yesterday by the Taoiseach and Iar-Thaoiseach, they would see that protecting the UK-Irish relationship is a top priority for Dublin.”

I thought it was Leavers who were supposed to be stupid and gullible. O'Brennan seems very happy to take a politician’s words at face value. If those words had any substance, Leo Varadkar would have been much more cautious about his endorsement of Michel Barnier’s refusal to negotiate over the border – a refusal that runs the risk of an acrimonious no-deal Brexit with very serious potential consequences for Anglo-Irish relations.

A return to exhibiting his ignorance of our position follows:

”Like most fanatical Brexiters, authors fail to engage in any way with the European Union as a rules-based international order, where protection of the regulatory standards of the SM (mostly driven by UK from within EU) is paramount. They ignore that which is most vital in talks.”

It’s more reading again, Prof – several of the pieces on The Full Brexit deal with the rules based international order which we understand as a very effective way of limiting the capacity of national electorates to assert their interests through democratic accountability. It is a key reason that we oppose the European Union. As to regulatory alignment in Ireland after a full Brexit - that would plainly require a special deal to cover Northern Ireland, a deal that requires a willingness to negotiate which the EU has not shown.

Next up, an ad hominem attack on some other authors whom we cite because they don’t share O’Brennan’s politics, followed by routine Remainer abuse comparing us to Trump without a shred of justification. Then he exposes his carelessness as a reader by claiming that:

”The authors argue ’the UK government should take the backstop off the table’. They conveniently forget Theresa May SIGNED the Dec Joint Agreement on behalf of UK. To resile from it now would shred UK's global reputation as a trusted interlocutor. So much for ’Global Britain’.”

As will be clear if you read the piece, we have not forgotten Theresa May’s disastrous agreement to the backstop: far from it. If he had stopped to think about what he had read, O’Brennan might have noticed the fact that our paper is for the most part a critique of the British government for its incapacity to exercise its sovereignty. Agreeing to the backstop is for us an example of this. What will shred the UK’s global reputation is it meekly heading back into the Single Market because it lacked the political capacity to exercise its sovereignty in Northern Ireland.

But for O’Brennan, it is our very proposal that the solution is a reassertion of sovereignty that is the problem:

”if the authors cannot understand the implications of their urging UK government to ’exercise its sovereignty in Northern Ireland’ then they have clearly learned nothing about the history of the island of Ireland.”

At last O'Brennan has offered an argument that actually engages we what we wrote. Assertions of British sovereignty in Ireland have in the past resulted in violence. But his point is a contemporary twist on an old British prejudice about Ireland that I was brought up with. The problem with Ireland, I was told, is that the country is stuck in and with its past. However any reassertion of British sovereignty over the border today would occur in a very different historical context from the past.

The GFA arose because by the 1990s the contending sides in the old struggle over Ireland were exhausted. After a quarter of a century of fighting, Britain could not defeat the Provisional IRA, but neither could the IRA drive Britain out. The wider world of national liberation struggles was winding down with deals in South Africa and Palestine. Britain did a deal with the Republic and the republicans. In return for the Republic dropping its claim on the North and the republicans ending the war, Britain gave up its colonial claim and made its continued sovereignty subject to the consent of the North’s population. In practice, the GFA may prove to be impossibly rigid and inflexible, but it was only possible because the old struggle had ended.

The Irish people, like the British people, can make their history anew if they wish to, and they will have an easier time of it outside the rigid and destructive grip of the EU.

And finally O’Brennan is at a loss:

”It is truly incomprehensible to me how any academic signing their name to the ‘Full Brexit’ manifesto can describe themselves as left wing. The obsession with a narrowly defined sovereignty is very antithesis of left internationalism.”

Maybe it is incomprehensible to O’Brennan. But then it appears that unfamiliar arguments do present a particular challenge to the Professor, although he is quick to judgment nevertheless. He implies that we support a ”narrowly defined sovereignty” but knows nothing of our view of sovereignty. For his information, we take our stand not with the Nazi Carl Schmitt, who did indeed wrongly think that sovereignty was intimately related to ”ethnic homogeneity”. We take our stand with Schmitt’s opponent, the German Social Democrat Franz Neumann, who understood that sovereignty was essential to political freedom, because without sovereignty there will be no civil liberty, no political accountability, no democracy. And that is exactly what is borne out by the post-sovereign arrangements of the European Union.

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