Monday 16 May 2022

Ditch the Northern Ireland Protocol


The boundaries of nearly every European country have changed since 1900. The exceptions are places like Spain and Portugal and the Netherlands. Everyone else has either lost or gained territory or come into existence. But all of these boundaries are fixed now and irrevocable. This is the reason why Europe is united in support of Ukraine as it fights to maintain its territorial integrity and to stop Russia changing its international borders.

The only exception to the rule in Europe that borders are unchangeable is the United Kingdom. Nowhere else in Europe is a sovereign state threatened on two fronts one internal, the other external.

It is really our own fault. Ever since the Kingdom of Great Britain was formed and then later the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, we have maintained the idea that this state was made up of places called countries. No one else in Europe thinks in this way, though they too are most commonly made up of formerly independent kingdoms and states.

It is for this reason that the UK alone thinks that each “country” has the right to choose whether it remains or leaves democratically. No one thinks that Sicily or Saxony or Silesia has this right.  

This is why the UK was willing to make peace in Northern Ireland by means of the Belfast Agreement. The response to decades of terrorism by the IRA with the goal of bringing about a united Ireland was to grant the IRA the right to that goal if it could win support in both Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland. No one else in Europe would have responded to terrorism in this way. The Spanish did not for instance allow the Basques to achieve what they could not achieve by terror by means of votes.

Britain’s attitude to Northern Ireland has from the beginning been to a place apart. The British Government was willing on a number of occasions in the past 100 years to negotiate it away. The Northern Ireland Protocol was simply the latest of these. But the root is the same. The British Government and most voters in Britain have not viewed Northern Ireland as permanent British territory.

While we were willing to send troops to Northern Ireland, it’s position within the UK was always contingent. The argument was that we defended Northern Ireland only because the majority who lived there wished to remain British. Implicit was the idea that we didn’t really want Northern Ireland. It’s just those pesky Ulster Protestants made up a majority and so we were stuck with them. If only they were more like Terry Wogan or Val Doonican we could be shot of the place.

It is this context that gave rise to the Northern Irish Protocol. It is unimaginable that any other part of the UK would have been treated in this way. No other European country would have allowed such an arrangement.

The problem began with Theresa May accepting that the Belfast Agreement meant there could be no border infrastructure between Ireland and Northern Ireland. But there is nothing in the agreement about borders and the interpretation that the border must be invisible was an Irish nationalist one.

However, once the British Government accepted that the Irish border must be invisible it made the Protocol inevitable if Britain wanted to leave the EU with a deal. Faced with stalemate and the very real prospect that the Remainer rearguard would succeed, Boris Johnson agreed to the Protocol, because the only alternative was not to leave at all. He too like his hero Winston Churchill viewed Northern Ireland as expendable. Millions of Brexiteers did too as we voted for Boris and Brexit.

The European Union has shown itself to be sympathetic to both Irish nationalism and Scottish nationalism. There is little prospect of a united Ireland anytime soon, but there is no question that the Protocol is part of a long-term strategy to weaken the bonds between Northern Ireland and Britain and to create a united Irish economy as a precursor to a single state.

But there are any number of border disputes where identities stretch across borders. The EU does not allow German speakers in South Tyrol to agitate for a border poll and reunification with Austria, nor does it think that Russian speaking parts of Ukraine ought to have the right to join Russia by means of a poll. There is not one border in mainland Europe that the EU wishes to change democratically, but there are two in the British Isles if not three if we count Wales.

The problem in the end is due to us. It is because we do not view the United Kingdom like the United States. If Alaskans wished to rejoin Russia, the United States would fight to maintain its territorial integrity, but we won’t.

While the British Government will keep saying No to Sturgeon, we won’t say No forever if support for independence remains high enough. If eventually the demographics of Northern Ireland changes enough and support for a united Ireland becomes the majority, we will do our best to bring about their desire. We may even fund it.

Perhaps it is better that we allow democracy to change borders rather than war, but if that were the case why didn’t we argue for legitimate plebiscites in Ukraine and why don’t we argue for them everywhere else in the world where there are peoples who would prefer to form their own state or to join someone else’s? The reason is that this would certainly cause chaos and would make most states impossible to administer. It would also make the European Union collapse about as quickly as Yugoslavia did.

The United Kingdom is the most unstable state in Europe. We are held together by a minimum of sentiment. Few English people would care if Northern Ireland left and not many more would care if Scotland left. What really holds us together is subsidy. Neither Northern Ireland nor Scotland can afford to leave the UK without suffering a major drop in living standards. Someone would have to make up the difference. That someone could be either Dublin in the case of Northern Ireland or Brussels in the case of Scotland but it’s hard to see how either would be willing or able to subsidise to the extent that London does at present.

Ditching the Protocol is necessary because it turns Northern Ireland into a drain that is linked to Ireland’s gutter. If it is to inevitably go, then we are merely pouring money down that drain. If on the other hand, we are serious about protecting our territorial integrity then we need to change our attitude both towards Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Is it better that the UK exists or is it better than we revert to the situation in the Middle Ages with a large England and the Celtic fringes separate and squabbling with their richer neighbour? It is unlikely that this arrangement would have been as successful for any of the four parts including England. There is a reason we united, just as there is a reason that France and Germany are no longer made up of squabbling kingdoms.

Neither the United States nor any member state of the EU would allow something like the Northern Ireland Protocol to exist within their own country. It is mere hypocrisy that they demand it exist within ours. They cannot expect the UK to remain a valued and necessary ally while doing all they can to encourage the UK to cease to be.

Ireland cannot describe itself as a partner, let alone a friend while it aims to annex our territory. There is enough instability in Easter Europe without adding to it here.