The Union with Northern Ireland: A Dead End for Brexit
As another crisis looms in Northern Ireland, Peter Ramsay argues that the Protocol has to go, but that Brexiters who defend the Union with Northern Ireland, such as Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill, are evading the real problem for Brexit.
Back in 2019, in order to “Get Brexit done”, Boris Johnson agreed to the Northern Ireland Protocol. This avoided a “hard” border in Ireland by leaving Northern Ireland in the EU’s Single Market and imposing a customs border in the Irish Sea. It has created numerous short-term economic problems and is having dramatic political effects. The Protocol has emboldened Irish nationalists to believe that the reunification of Ireland may be in their grasp, while supporters of Northern Ireland’s Union with Britain fear that they are seeing the writing on the wall. Unionist anxieties are now at fever pitch, with Loyalist paramilitaries orchestrating street violence and the Brexit-supporting Unionists crying betrayal by the Tories.
British democrats who fought to leave the EU have good reasons to want to be rid of the Protocol. It is an undemocratic diplomatic manoeuvre that leaves the people of Northern Ireland with no say in the management of their economy. It is also a mechanism through which the EU, by having significant influence over the terms of trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, hopes to keep the whole UK economy closely aligned to the Single Market and limit the UK’s post-Brexit economic policy options.
However, there are two very different routes we could take to getting rid of the Protocol. One is to defend the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland against the Protocol; the other is to end the Protocol by ending the Union. These two options mark profoundly different conceptions of what Brexit is about: of the problems that gave rise to it and the opportunities that Brexit offers. The Unionist route is based on a conservative approach to the question of national sovereignty. The same conservative approach also underpins the Euroscepticism that has dominated Brexit so far. It is an approach that evades the real problems that the British people must solve if we are to realise the potential of Brexit. As the crisis unfolds in Northern Ireland over the coming weeks, it is important that British democrats are not misled by it.
Conservative Eurosceptics have always sought to reassure themselves that the weakened national sovereignty which Britain experienced as an EU member-state was an external limitation, imposed by the Brussels bureaucracy. From this point of view, the problem could be solved by leaving the EU. But Eurosceptics have the causal relation the wrong way round. The much more uncomfortable truth is that the loss of national sovereignty arises from internal political weaknesses within the member states, weaknesses that lead them to participate in the EU. The critical weakness is the failure of domestic political representation. A void has opened up between the electorates of member states and the political class that rules over them, leaving the electorate resentful and depoliticised, and the political class lacking in authority. Britain has now left the EU, but the political void is anything but closed.
Within the UK, the failure of political representation and the limits of governmental authority have always been particularly acute in Northern Ireland. While it was not this specific problem that led to Brexit, the Union remains one of the weakest components of the British state. And, like conservative Euroscepticism, Unionism avoids the fundamental problem of weak sovereignty by blaming malign external forces rather than facing up to the problem of political authority that is internal to the state (let alone trying to solve it).
This evasive quality, shared by Unionism and Euroscepticism alike, is exemplified in a recent article from a new convert to the Unionist cause, the editor of Spiked, Brendan O’Neill. Both Spiked and O’Neill have been militant defenders of Brexit and promoters of democracy. Reacting to the current unrest, and echoing Unionist objections to the Protocol being foisted on them, O’Neill declares that “Right now, for everyone who believes in democracy, defending the Union is the thing to do.”
His response to the Protocol is characteristic of the conservative Eurosceptic: blame the problem on the EU and its supporters rather than think through the internal weakness in the British state that led us here. This evasion results in an argument for the Union that relies on transparently false and contradictory claims. But worse, O’Neill’s Unionism ultimately neuters Brexit’s democratic potential, identifying Brexit Britain with a reactionary and wholly regrettable aspect of the nation’s history, one which can only be a burden on its future.
O’Neill blames Brussels and Dublin for the recent violence, arguing that they and their Protocol are responsible for creating what he calls a “new and strange and unstable Northern Ireland”. This is a bizarre claim. Anyone who knows anything about Northern Ireland knows that there is nothing “new” about it being “strange” or “unstable”. Abnormal instability has been built into Northern Ireland from its inception, precisely because of the weak political authority of the British state in Ireland.
Take the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) through which Northern Ireland has been ruled for the past 23 years. It is one of the most unusual arrangements for running a territory ever devised. The UK retains formal control but has repudiated any selfish interest in the territory and allowed that the people of Northern Ireland may decide to leave. In return, the Republic of Ireland abandoned its previous claim to sovereignty and became a partner in intergovernmental arrangements to create cross-border, all-island policies and institutions. As one of the Agreement’s supporters put it, Northern Ireland became “a political space that is claimed by nobody”. Within Northern Ireland itself, the rule of the party with the most seats in a particular elected body, which is the democratic norm in the rest of the UK, was replaced with institutionalised power-sharing across a sectarian divide, creating an executive made up of people who do not agree over which state should be sovereign in the territory. Unlike the democratic majoritarianism of “normal” politics in the rest of the UK, the GFA both institutionalises a deep sectarian divide and, at the same time, can only work on the basis of a high degree of consensus on policy matters. It has proved to be a sclerotic form of government vulnerable to repeated crisis and instability.
The GFA’s “constructive ambiguity” over sovereignty, and the dependence of its institutions on consensus, was always going to be in tension with the explicit assertion of British sovereignty that was entailed in Brexit. O’Neill is correct to argue that since 2016 the EU has exploited the border problem in an effort to neuter Brexit. But his fantasy of a “normal” Northern Ireland that existed before the destabilising Protocol blinds him to the constitutional weakness within the UK that the EU was able to exploit.
This leads him into contradiction when faced with the Protocol. On the one hand, he asserts that “The proposition of Brexit was simple: in an all-kingdom vote it was decided that the UK would no longer be a member of the European Union.” A trade border in the Irish Sea is, therefore, illegitimate and undemocratic. However, in railing against the EU’s arrogance, he concedes that Northern Ireland is “a part of the world in which sovereignty is a live, difficult and contested question”, tacitly admitting that in Northern Ireland the “proposition of Brexit” was anything but “simple”. The contradiction is obvious as soon as you think about the GFA, through which Northern Ireland is actually ruled. But O’Neill’s article does not even mention the Agreement.
The GFA was not imposed on Britain by the EU. Britain granted Dublin the role it enjoys under the GFA, and in so doing gave a hostage to fortune. With Brexit, the Dublin government has exercised the leverage that Britain granted to it. The consequence for O’Neill is that his attempts to seize the constitutional high ground fall flat. He argues that
“Everyone who thought Northern Ireland could be quietly cut off from the UK and that everything would be fine – whether that’s Boris or Brussels, the Taoiseach or the pro-Remain commentariat – has behaved with staggering naivety. Will the current violence wake them up?”
But this merely reflects back, rather than overcomes, the identical arguments of Remainers and Irish establishment commentators, who argued that Brexiteers were naïve to imagine that Brexit would not interfere with North-South connections established by the GFA, and that this interference would in turn lead to recidivist violence by Republicans.
The problem is that both views rest on valid interpretations of the deliberately ambiguous GFA. O’Neill’s Unionist view stresses Britain’s legal sovereignty under the GFA and invokes the UK wide majority for leaving the EU; the Dublin/Remainer view stresses the political agreement that underlies the legal treaty and invokes the Remain majority in Northern Ireland itself. And it is this unresolvable constitutional ambiguity that finds both sides resorting to threats in order to decide the matter. Both the Remainers’ argument and O’Neill’s rely on the threat of violence by unrepresentative drug-dealing paramilitaries (so-called dissident Republicans for the Remainers, Loyalists for O’Neill) to coerce the political process.
This parallel should give democrats pause for thought. A militant defence of the Union from the undemocratic Protocol turns out to rely on arguments that are not only patently false and contradictory, but as morally bankrupt from the democratic point of view as those of the Remainers and the Dublin government. Why is this?
O’Neill’s failure to mention the GFA is revealing here. The GFA’s decidedly “strange” constitutional arrangement—in which British rule in Northern Ireland depends on the collaboration of a “foreign” government, and of political parties opposed to its rule—was Britain’s solution in the 1990s to managing a province wracked by the previous 25 years of “The Troubles”. During that time, Britain had been forced to rely on the army to control a nationalist insurrection against British rule. That insurrection was in turn the result of Britain having previously outsourced its political authority to a sectarian Unionist majority that it had gerrymandered when it created Northern Ireland through partition a century ago. For the first 50 years of Northern Ireland’s existence, the Unionists systematically denied equal rights to Catholic nationalists and excluded them from a state that was ruled by permanent emergency powers. Once you start to take all this into account, the problem that O’Neill’s bluster evades becomes clear. First, the GFA is the result of the fundamentally undemocratic character of Northern Ireland; second, Britain has no solution for running Northern Ireland without the GFA; and, third, the GFA now means the Protocol.
Although there are differences of opinion in London over the Protocol, there is little chance of the Johnson government actually ditching it. Doing so would not only seriously antagonise both the EU and the Biden administration in Washington, but it would reverse the direction of the political strategy that Britain has pursued in Northern Ireland ever since the old Orange state provoked the nationalist rebellion in the late 1960s. From the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, British governments of both parties have consistently tried to solve the problem of their limited political authority in Ireland by involving the Irish government in the running of Northern Ireland and creating internal power-sharing arrangements that allow Whitehall to step back. The 2019 Protocol may have come into being as a result of EU scheming, and the Tory Brexiteers’ incompetence in negotiations with the EU. But it is nevertheless a further step in the same general direction of getting somebody else to take responsibility for the six counties.
Unionists like to promote the idea that the protocol is a threat to the Union, but in one significant sense the Protocol is actually characteristic of the Union. It is yet another undemocratic arrangement through which Britain makes a formal claim to sovereignty over a territory in which in which its political authority is very limited. More thoughtful Unionists grasp this and are despairing that the Unionist leadership cannot find a way to make the Protocol a success for Northern Ireland. In practice, it may turn out that there is a division of labour: Unionist intransigence acting as the background for London’s efforts to renegotiate the implementation of the Protocol with Dublin and the EU. In this way too, the current crisis, far from indicating any fundamental break with the Union, is characteristic of its recent political life: fears of violence by local actors setting the stage for external forces to negotiate.
The key point is that there is no way back to the old forms of British rule in Northern Ireland. And who (apart perhaps from the most sectarian of Loyalists) would want to go back? The only way to get rid of the undemocratic scam that is the Northern Ireland Protocol is to reunify Ireland.
O’Neill is an unusual Unionist because, as he points out, he personally “has long wanted to see a United Ireland”. But he writes that he does not want the kind of united Ireland that would arise in current circumstances. His reason is that such a united Ireland “would be little more than an outpost of the EU Empire, undermining British democracy and keeping Brexit Britain in check on behalf of the Brussels elites.” No doubt there is a frisson to be enjoyed in reversing the roles of the EU—which, of course, is not really an Empire and has never occupied Ireland—and plucky little Britain—which of course was really an Empire and did colonise Ireland. But if you believe in national self-determination then it is for the Irish people, and nobody else, to decide whether Ireland should be in or out of the EU.
In any case, his perspective reveals that while he may be new to Unionism, O’Neill’s view of Irish unity is as ignorant as the most provincial of the old Orangemen. O’Neill cries “No Surrender” to the “EU Empire”, just as his Unionist forbears inveighed against “Rome Rule”: neither showing the slightest grasp of the nature of the political interaction between British democracy and Irish self-determination. The Europhile Dublin establishment is horrified by the advancing prospect of reunification. It threatens doom for the Republic’s declining dominant parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Reunification means the addition of millions of new voters from the North with no loyalty to either of them. It would be a huge boost for Sinn Fein, already the major opposition party in the Republic, although there is no guarantee that Sinn Fein would control the political effects of reunification. The constitution of the Republic is a product of partition. Reunification will transform both the politics of the entire island of Ireland, and its relations with other countries, not least Britain and the EU.
It is not a new united Ireland that would be a restraint on Brexit Britain’s sovereignty. On the contrary, it is the Union with Northern Ireland that plays that role, because the Union entails the Protocol, or something like it, in order to draw in the external forces that Britain needs to prop up its institutions in the province. And that will always be a restraint on Britain’s sovereignty.
Brexit was a major victory for democracy in Britain and in Europe as a whole. It has provided a golden opportunity for its supporters to spread its effects by bringing to an end the undemocratic institution of partition in Ireland; a golden opportunity to show the condescending cosmopolitans what a sovereign people can do. The conservative Eurosceptics would not only neuter this potential, but in O’Neill’s fully reactionary version, Brexit Britain is identified with the most backward and undemocratic aspects of Britain’s imperial past.
The Empire is dead and gone, and good riddance. To build a new British nation, we should get behind our Irish neighbours, and help them to bring the empire’s final vestige to an end by joining the campaign for a border poll. Then we will be on our way to the full Brexit.
Peter Ramsay is Professor of Law at the London School of Economics, and a co-founder of The Full Brexit.