Saturday, 29 December 2018

Northern Ireland is no one's backstop

The treatment of Northern Ireland in the context of the negotiations between the EU and the UK has shown the inconsistency of the EU’s position with regard to nationalism.

The EU rightly condemned Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and reunification with Russia. This was not so much because the referendum that led to this secession was held under dubious circumstances. Crimean secession would have been condemned even if the vote had been completely free and fair. The reason is that Crimea is a part of a sovereign nation state called Ukraine and parts of sovereign nation states may not legally secede without permission.

This position was reiterated with regard to Catalonia. It simply did not matter whether a majority in Catalonia wanted independence or whether they didn’t. So long as Spain refuses to allow a legal referendum on independence and refuses to recognise the right of Catalonians to create a sovereign nation state, then Catalonia will remain legally a part of Spain.

There are similar examples all over the world. The right of a sovereign nation state to maintain its territorial integrity is insurmountable so long as it does not oppress or attack the people living in part of its territory. It was only because Serbia attacked the people in Kosovo that international opinion was willing to make an exception and grant the right of Kosovo to become independent.

International opinion has also favoured the right of colonies to become independent, but it is important to recognise what is and what is not a colony. Argentina was a Spanish colony. Catalonia is not a Spanish colony. If you really can’t see the difference, you might benefit from a pair of glasses. If Catalonia were to be described as a colony, then half of Europe would have a colonial relationship to the other half.  

The peculiar thing about Northern Ireland then is that the EU is unwilling to treat it in the same way as it treated Catalonia and Crimea. Northern Ireland is not a colony. Some Irish nationalists, thereby making the case for Ulster unionism, still speak of the people of Northern Ireland as settlers having been planted there. But if we treat everyone whose ancestors moved somewhere in the fifteenth century as illegitimate colonists then we are liable to end up thinking that virtually the whole population of the United States of America has no right to live where they do.

Northern Ireland is an integral part of the sovereign nation state called the United Kingdom. The Republic of Ireland has no more legitimate claim to a part of that nation state than Russia has a claim to Crimea. It simply does not matter that Crimea was once a part of Russia. Nor does it matter if the majority of the population of Crimea think of themselves as Russian, speak Russian and would like to secede from Ukraine. Crimean secession would be illegal even if all these things were true. It is for this reason that nearly the whole world continues to protest against Russia’s annexation of the territory of a neighbouring state.

But this argument obviously ought to apply equally to Northern Ireland. When the 26 counties chose to secede from the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland remained. It indeed has never left the United Kingdom. Secession doesn’t give you the right to claim someone else’s territory, otherwise the Confederacy if it had won would have had the right to claim New York. For this reason the Republic of Ireland has no more claim on the territory of the United Kingdom than does Russia with regard to the territory of Ukraine. Indeed it has less for Northern Ireland was never part of a sovereign nation state called the Republic of Ireland.

There are various treaties that exist between the UK and Ireland, which allow both the people of Northern Ireland and the people of the Republic to hold votes regarding Northern Ireland’s status, but the UK as a sovereign nation state can choose to renounce or renegotiate any treaty that it pleases. Lots of historical treaties have become obsolete, have been broken, or simply no longer apply.  The UK therefore could decide that such treaties that currently exist between itself and Ireland were obtained by coercion as a result of terrorism and were therefore inconsistent with the British Government’s longstanding policy of not appeasing terrorists.

It could also argue that the Irish Government has used the existence of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement to hinder British foreign policy (Brexit) and that the Irish Government is using this agreement to further its policy of gradually annexing Northern Ireland.

The purpose of the Irish backstop is to put Northern Ireland into the Republic’s sphere of influence and to show that while the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland is seamless the border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain may become real. Checks may be required. British goods and citizens may in effect be moving from the non-EU to the EU when they travel from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Could such a border exist between Catalonia and the rest of Spain? Obviously not. Spain would not accept it, because it would encourage Catalan secession. Would any other sovereign nation state in the EU accept such a regulatory border? No. This is the sort of thing that a sovereign nation state goes to war to prevent happening. If you don’t fight for your territorial integrity, what do you fight for?

No-one is going to impose a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The British are not going to do it, nor are the Irish, nor are the EU. But the Irish Republic has used this non-issue to further its irredentist and quite illegitimate claim to Northern Ireland and it has done so with the backing of the EU. This alone must be grounds for the UK Government reviewing the Belfast Agreement. It is quite intolerable that, backed by terrorist threats, the Irish Government seeks to move towards a position where it can call for a referendum on Irish unification. This is no better than Russia using military force to win a referendum in order to justify its claim to Crimea.

It is time for the UK, just like Spain and Ukraine and indeed the vast majority of states in the world, to assert that our territory is indivisible. Secession and annexation is no more legitimate a foreign policy goal in Ireland than it is Ukraine. The Republic of Ireland has no more claim to the territory of another sovereign nation state than does Haiti have a claim to the Dominican Republic.  The mere fact that you share an island does not allow you to steal another person’s home.

The EU’s hypocrisy on this issue is dangerous for stability in Europe. In attempting to punish Britain by furthering the aims of Irish nationalism it will encourage such nationalism elsewhere in Europe. Why shouldn’t Russia seek to reunify what was once “All the Russias” including parts of what is now the EU such as Poland and the Baltic States. If reunification is a morally worthy goal for Ireland, why not for Austria, Russia or dare I say it, Germany. No doubt Austrian, German and Russian nationalists would be delighted to go back to their 1914 borders.


  1. I am grateful for this disquisiton. It leads on logically from my arguments under the previous rubric. It also provides the opportunity to correct one or two popular misapprehensions.

  2. Thank you for stating that when Ireland *chose* to leave the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland chose to remain. Ireland left the UK *knowing* that NI would not go, but still went ahead, and yet Irish nationalists refer wearingly to 'the stolen six counties under British occupation.'

    I grew up in NI, and it is difficult to describe the upset this whole issue causes when it does not need to. It has been made worse by finding out that Ireland has no plans for a border, and rather than this being about the Good Friday Agreement and wanting the UK to honour that, it is about protecting the EU Single Market. A good deal for the UK is a good deal for NI, even if (in my view) that means leaving without a deal. I support the aims of the GFA but it has been destroyed by the way Ireland and the EU have misused it, and I just cannot see how it can survive in its current form.

    1. Ireland did not "choose" to become part of the UK but was conquered by England and colonised. NI did not "choose" to stay in the UK but was with-held by the UK govt for a number of reasons. Had it suited them, they could have easily signed them over to the new Irish govt and that may yet happen. That is the problem when you are a small, dependent "region" of a larger state dominated by another country. If you become a nuisance and financial and/or diplomatic liability, you are expendable both politically and economically. You have little say in your own future.

    2. I didn't make any remark about how Ireland became part of the UK, I remarked on how it chose to leave the UK. NI most certainly did choose to remain in the UK. It was made abundantly clear on 28.9.12 what Ulster's (NI's)view was on Home Rule, and that stance was repeated on a number of occasions. Carson made it very clear in the HoL speeches on 14.12.21 what would happen if the Treaty was ratified by Parliament i.e. that NI would use the opt out clause. Those speeches by the other Lords make it clear they wanted Ireland as a whole to form the new, single government of (the whole of) Ireland. True to Carson's word, NI used the opt out clause within 24 hours of the Treaty taking effect on 6.12.22. NI might be expendable, but that does not change the facts of what happened in 1921/22.

    3. NI may have had the "illusion of choice" in 1922 but, make no mistake, that is all it was. Had it suited Westminster, that "choice" would have been ignored. That is the reality for the "lesser regions" of the UK.

  3. So, what you are saying is that the only legitimate way of creating new states is by armed conflict. Democracy and peaceful means are to be discouraged and even, if "necessary", violently repressed. You wish people to just accept the current boundaries of states as they are for evermore, no matter how much it disadvantages many peoples and cultures (oft times destroying them) in minority positions within them and advantages the dominant peoples and cultures.

    Sorry, but that is an imperialist agenda that seeks to set in stone the "gains" made by the "winners" of yester year and repress the "losers". I'm not a fan of that notion.

    1. Not accurate. She's saying that a negotiated vote (she refers to :"There are various treaties that exist between the UK and Ireland, which allow both the people of Northern Ireland and the people of the Republic to hold votes regarding Northern Ireland’s status, but the UK as a sovereign nation state can choose to renounce or renegotiate any treaty that it pleases") is possible. She's suggesting the UK could offer a democratic way for NI to leave the UK and join RoI. Or the UK could be intransigent on that (unlikely if polls showed a majority in NI for leaving the UK)

      What she's oppoaed to is the EU and RoI using the necessary post Brexit trade negotiations as a weapon to force in an unnecessary reduction of the cohesive UK.

      In other words although the EU is not suggesting it sends troops to prize NI apart from the rest of UK, it's doing everything except that. There is no mandate from the people of NI for this.

      As she points out if Russia were breaking a piece of teritory off , even with a mandate from the population being pulled away, the EU would oppose such an action.

      The EU has form on this in using political and trade agitating in Ukraine and Syria, neither of which worked out well for the local popukpopula or for peace.

  4. Northern Ireland is by no stretch of language an integral part of the United Kingdom. Its inhabitants are excluded from the two-and-a-half-party system, which is the nearest thing the UK has to a constitution. Shedloads of legislation are dumped on them by Order in Council, which excludes all debate and discussion. Power is exercised by a Secretary of State who by definition does not sit for a NI constituency (and keeps their job despite confessing blithely to less understanding of NI than a Lower Sixth Political Studies student). A colony by any other name ...

    When a workable solution is found to the problems created in NI by Whitehall and Westminster, the latter launch on the Brexit enterprise with no consideration for the disruption to people's lives in NI. Brexit has already caused unconscionable uncertainty in NI, and it hasn't even happened yet. Uncertainty in such a situation brings instability. If the Good Friday Agreement unravels, there is no reason to suppose that the repurcussions will not be felt this side of the narrow seas. Yes, the RoI will suffer adverse effects from the much larger UK's recklessness. However, like Scotland and unlike NI, the RoI at least has a functioning government, which has already been laying careful plans for the worst contingencies.

  5. The Fine Gael party led by Dr. Varadkar is the political heir of the pro-Treaty faction which, with British-supplied kit (including artillery) crushed the anti-Treaty faction from which both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are descended. FF when in power pursued anti-Republican measures with enthusiasm equal to that of FG. These included Draconian emergency legislation that excited the envy of the South African régime at the time, special Courts manned by military officers, interment without trial, and extra-judicial killing.

  6. The people of NI remain in the extra-constitutional limbo to which the British political system has condemned them. To allege that Fermanagh is as British as Finchley is like saying that an ox is a bull. Dreadful problems of deprivation, inequality, and hatred still present a long-term hazard. Nevertheless, the GFA has saved the lives of thousands of people and provided opportunities to seek a workable long-term settlement.

  7. The people there are resilient, and fully realize that British politicians know little about them and their situation and care less. They are also very ingenious - although, I confess, I hadn't realized *quite* how ingenious until Ian Paisley Jr. advised his constituents to take out Irish passports.

    Just as the threat of Brexit is already threatening the existence of individual families, it is also seriously threatening the existence of entire communities. Any politician who thinks that a no-deal Brexit would be a Good Thing should listen very carefully to what the Ulster Farmers' Union are saying.

  8. Our distinguished contemporary Unknown refers above to the Ulster Covenant, and its resolution to use any means necessary. These means included the importing and distribution of 25,000 rifles and over 2,000,000 rounds of ammunition. This action ensured that the Home Rule Crisis would be resolved by military rather than electoral means. The consequences included the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, Partition, and several rounds of what are called Troubles.

    The GFA does not provide a solution to this problem originating 109 year ago. What it does provide is an opportunity to work for one. Brexit would destroy the GFA, and remove the chance of a solution. Those who would destroy it because they have not considered the danger have been reckless in the extreme.

  9. There are dangers in letting things drift, just as there are dangers in ill-considered actions. So far, everything that HMG has done in the present crisis with respect to Northern Ireland has brought deleterious effects. Our best hope, therefore, would be for them to refrain from doing anything for the time being.

  10. To close, I'd like to ask people to reflect on two facts, and their implications in the light of subsequent events.

    At the time of the Act of Union, most Irish public opinion (with the intriguing exception of the Orange Order) supported the Union, albeit without excessive enthusiasm.

    During the Napoleonic Wars, around a third of the manpower deployed by the Crown Forces was Irish.

  11. Perhaps we could keep this discussion in perspective with one afterthought. This is a small point, but a fairly central one: the set of arrangements known as the backstop was in fact a UK proposal, accepted by the RoI faute de mieux.


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