Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement would effectively create a customs border between the UK and Northern Ireland in the Irish Sea. The left should see this as a positive outcome. Even if by some miracle a clean Brexit (“no deal”) could still be achieved, the customs border should still be located there. This is not simply because it avoids the risk of a “hard border” inciting fringe Republican violence. Rather, it is because this aspect of the Withdrawal Agreement will support Irish reunification, which the left has always historically supported.
Admittedly, the 44 percent of Northern Irish voters who voted Leave might well feel short-changed by effectively being left within the EU customs union. Northern Ireland is part of the British state and, other things being equal, would be entitled to be treated as such. However, other things are not equal. Risking some over-simplification, the population is for the most part divided into two communities: the Unionist (Protestant) community, which identifies with Britain, and the nationalist (Catholic) community, which identifies with Ireland. Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement undoubtedly advantages the nationalist cause insofar as it allows Northern Ireland to remain more aligned with the Republic than with the rest of the UK.
The main justification for supporting this measure is that both history and geography are on the side of a united Ireland and a customs border running between Great Britain and the island of Ireland would be a step in the right direction. The historical argument for unification is powerfully made by Peter Ramsay on The Full Brexit (see Analysis #40 – The Flaw in the Crown: Why Popular Sovereignty in Britain means Reunification in Ireland). However, Ramsay should be more enthusiastic about the half-way house of the Withdrawal Agreement.
As Ramsay notes, Northern Ireland is an artificial creation, carved out of the historical province of Ulster (three counties of which are in the Republic) for the sole purpose of gerrymandering a Unionist majority. There can be no defence of the North as a “legitimate” part of the UK, and the left has historically supported Irish reunification. Of course, if the North were to join the Republic, it would re-join the EU. But we might hope that, some time in the future, the Republic of Ireland will itself leave the EU. However unlikely this looks at the moment, it is worth remembering that the Irish initially voted against both the Nice Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty, being sent back to vote again each time.
Those who have bullishly supported a customs border between the North and Republic, dismissing geography and (the rest of) history in favour of the legal settlement which keeps Northern Ireland part of the UK, have tended to keep their arguments pragmatic, emphasising the availability of technological solutions which could make unnecessary a noticeable physical security presence at the land border. Surprisingly, this approach is not confined to the right. Will Podmore’s book, Brexit: The Road to Freedom, a very useful text in parts, devotes only a few pages to the Irish border, which rehearse these arguments. But even if a “hard” border could be avoided technologically, entrenching and policing the division of the island of Island does not seem to me a good socialist project. Nor could it entirely eliminate the possibility of paramilitary Republican action.
The betrayal of the democratic vote of 2016 by Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party (and now the DUP) has meant that the Conservatives are the only parliamentary party committed to Leave. This is an uncomfortable situation for left-wing Leavers. However, arrangements which perpetuated the division of Ireland, bolstered by the DUP, should have caused even greater discomfort. The current proposed arrangements for Northern Ireland will now tend to facilitate, rather than obstruct, reunifying Ireland. The status quo of an unobtrusive border between north and south will be preserved, and the north and south will now also be collectively distinct from the UK mainland in their customs regimes. This can only bring the two parts of the island closer together, so it is not surprising that many Unionists are reportedly switching their allegiance from Leave to Remain in an effort to prevent this happening. These customs arrangements should therefore be greeted as an unexpected bonus in Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement, and make voting Conservative in the forthcoming general election – the only way to ensure Brexit is implemented – that bit more palatable.
Nigel Hewlett is a retired Senior Lecturer in Linguistics.