Tuesday 8 September 2020

Stuff your backstop


The British Government has been mistaken in its response to the southern part of Ireland ever since 1921. A sovereign nation state was created, called initially the Irish Free State, but this sovereignty did not extend to Northern Ireland.  The war, cease fire and peace treaty that gave rise to the Irish Free State was no different in principle from those that gave rise to Poland. Irish independence supporters may have tried to win independence for the whole of Ireland, but they failed, part of Ireland remained British territory.

The British have always apologised for the existence of Northern Ireland rather than treat it as an integral part of our country. We have always seen it as somehow unfair that Northern Ireland is not joined with the rest of Ireland. For this reason, we have always treated Irish irredentism as somehow just and the problem of British citizens in Northern Ireland as something to wish away. No other country in the world behaves in this way towards either its people or its territory.

At various times we have engaged in negotiations to trade away Northern Ireland. Churchill wanted to make a deal with De Valera during the Second World War, Wilson in 1971 proposed a united Ireland in 15 years. At no point have the British ever really thought that Northern Ireland is ours.

This is a general problem with the British concept of sovereignty. We treat our state as contingent subject to breakup should the SNP win an election or Plaid Cymru gain support. No other European country thinks of itself in this way. France or Poland would go to war to protect an uninhabited village on the border.

The Irish don’t treat their state as contingent. Those parts of Ulster that are in the Republic do not have the choice of joining their fellows in Northern Ireland. It is immaterial if they would want to or not. They don’t and never would have the choice.

The mistake we made in 1921 was to treat the new Irish state as if it were still a part of Britain as if they were just errant cousins who could be won back by kindness. It is for this reason that we created the Common Travel Area, which allowed Irish citizens to travel to Britain and live and work here without hinderance. It is for this reason that we allowed them to vote in our elections.

What we should have done is explain carefully that independence has consequences and that we would treat them from now on as having no more rights in Britain than if they were from Japan. We should have erected a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Free State. We should not have allowed a currency union and should have treated trade with the Free State no more favourably than with any other foreign country.

We should have made absolutely clear to Ireland that we did not recognise their claims on Northern Ireland, and that being on the same island no more justifies a claim to someone else’s territory in Ireland than it does in Hispaniola or Borneo. We should have made clear that the only way the Free State could gain a United Ireland was by winning a war against the British Army.

When the Troubles began in the 1960s, we should have done all we could to eradicate any inequality in Northern Ireland, but we should have made clear to the Republic of Ireland that events in Northern Ireland were none of their business. We should have made no deals with the Republic and simply made clear to the terrorists that we would never under any circumstance give up our territory and that our only goal was to defeat them no matter how long it took.

The Belfast Agreement conceded victory to the IRA by enabling them to win their aims by means of democracy. All they had to do was to win a vote in Northern Ireland and the Republic and they would get their united Ireland. This brought about peace, but at the price of emphasising the contingent nature of the UK in a way that no other country would have allowed. It also gave the Republic leverage in the affairs of Northern Ireland. They waited patiently and then used their weapon to create the Irish Backstop.

There is an international border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The Republic may not like this, but that is what it is. That it is unmonitored is purely a consequence of the British Government allowing the Common Travel Area in 1923. One of the consequences of independence is that internal borders become international borders. But the Republic used the Belfast Agreement, a peace treaty, that said nothing about borders, to leverage a potential international border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. It was disgraceful that this was even considered.

The external border of the EU is the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This is not a problem for Britain but rather for the Republic of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland could choose to leave the EU to avoid the consequences of this EU border. It could alternatively choose to allow EU regulations to apply between the Republic and the rest of the EU. But no, Ireland was determined to take advantage of a peace treaty that Britain signed to avoid IRA bombs to further those same IRA aims.

But now just maybe Britain for the first time is going to assert our sovereignty over Northern Ireland. Maybe we are going to do what we should have done in 1921. We are going to say that there is going to be no trade border within the UK, and you can stuff your backstop.

It was always a mistake in 1921 to treat those who had achieved Irish independence as friends and family. They hated us then. They hate us in exactly the same way now. Never make a deal with an enemy and especially never make a deal with an enemy who pretends to be a friend. We must begin telling Dublin that Northern Ireland is none of your business and keep making British laws until they understand this simple point.