Wednesday 7 February 2024

Is this the reward for IRA terrorism?


How should we respond to a Michelle O'Neill of Sinn Féin becoming First Minister of Northern Ireland? On the one hand we should be pleased that Sinn Féin is primarily nowadays involved in politics rather than bombing, but on the other it makes us confront the consequences of the Belfast Agreement that brought about that peace.

The British government has for more than one hundred years treated Northern Ireland in a way that no other European country treats its territory. There are any number of border changes that followed both the First and Second World Wars that are considered permanent in Europe even though they are in principle no different from the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Germany does not seriously seek to reunite the territory that it lost to Poland in 1945, nor does Austria seriously seek to reunite North and South Tyrol, which were split at around the same time as Ireland was partitioned.

When modern day Hungary was formed Hungarians found themselves in other states, there is no serious movement to reunite them with Hungary.

It is a general principle in post war thinking that boundaries are sacrosanct, which is one reason there was such widespread revulsion at Russia’s attempt to rewrite the borders of Ukraine. It matters not one little bit if Russian speakers outnumber Ukrainian speakers in in Crimea or the Donbas, nor indeed does it matter if they wish to be part of Russia, these places are still part of Ukrainian territory. This argument applies everywhere in Europe except Northern Ireland.

When Ireland fought to leave the United Kingdom after the First World War it lacked both the popular support and military means to take what became Northern Ireland with it, for which reason Ireland was partitioned. If Ireland had the right to secede from the UK, then Northern Ireland obviously had the right to secede from Ireland or not join with it in leaving.

There is nothing especially unusual about an island being partitioned. Hispaniola has two states. Borneo has three.

The moral case for Northern Ireland being part of the UK is no different from any of the other border changes in Europe that resulted from conflict in the twentieth century. To suppose that it is unjust that Northern Ireland is British is to suppose that it is unjust that Silesia is part of Poland rather being reunited with Germany.

If you think that the island of Great Britain can be partitioned as both Welsh and Scottish Nationalists argue, then there is no logical reason why the island of Ireland cannot be partitioned also. There is nothing intrinsic about an island that implies that the territory of one part ought to belong to another. The fact that you share an island gives you no territorial claim over someone else’s territory. If it did Haiti could annex the Dominican Republic and Indonesia could annex Papua New Guinea.

There was no sovereign nation state called Ireland prior to independence so it can hardly claim to have lost something that belonged to it. Ireland prior to independence was legally part of the United Kingdom and what became Northern Ireland was British territory. It was Ireland that took British territory when it left rather than the other way round.

The UK has a better claim on Ireland than Ireland has on Northern Ireland after all Ireland was British territory until it rebelled while our troops were fighting on the Somme.

The United Kingdom should have said to Ireland, Northern Ireland is permanently UK territory if you want to annex it you will have to win a war against British armed forces in order to do so and by the way we have nuclear weapons.

But the UK has never treated Northern Ireland as an integral part of our territory, nor indeed do we treat Scotland and Wales as integral parts. Each can leave by means of a referendum as can Northern Ireland.

No one else thinks in this way. Whatever the injustice of former Mexican territory now belonging to the United States, any attempt by Mexico to annex that territory would be treated by the United States as an act of war. If the Mexican Republican Army carried out terrorist attacks in New Mexico, the United States would not make a deal with Mexico called the Santa Fe Agreement offering New Mexicans the chance to reunite with Old Mexicans by means of a referendum.

Americans like Biden are hypocrites for applying a standard to Northern Ireland that they would not apply to their own nation’s territory. The USA famously forbade secession which unquestionably had popular support by means of the bloodiest war in its history.

But the UK did not respond to terrorism in Northern Ireland and elsewhere like every other country in the world would have. Instead our government chose to make a deal with Sinn Féin, the IRA and the Irish government to make the future of Northern Ireland depend on a referendum.

In a way this puts Northern Ireland in a no different situation than Scotland or Wales or indeed England. Each could in theory leave by means of a referendum and if they left, they could in theory decide to join another country.   

Again, no other country in the world runs its affairs in this way. It makes the territorial integrity of the UK contingent in a way quite different to any other state in the world. No other country in Europe would allow a part to leave by means of a referendum including Ireland.

We are where we are. Our politics is determined by our history. The UK uniquely feels the need to give its parts the right to leave.

Polling suggests that the majority of people in Northern Ireland wish to remain in the UK. Indeed, support for remaining in the UK is higher in Northern Ireland than Scotland and possibly Wales. The main difference is that only Northern Ireland has another state Ireland agitating to annex it. This meant that Northern Ireland was treated differently after Brexit to every other part of the UK.

The UK government ought to have said to Ireland and the EU there is an international border between Ireland and Northern Ireland if that causes you a difficulty then it’s your problem not ours. We should have been willing to leave the EU without a deal to prevent a border down the Irish Sea, but we were not willing partly I think because we have always viewed Northern Ireland as different and only contingently part of the UK.

In the end it is up to people in Northern Ireland to determine their future, after all voters in Northern Ireland chose to ratify the Belfast Agreement and perhaps it was worth it to make peace. But in that case, there needs to be more clarity on the conditions regarding a border poll.

All we really have is the condition that if the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland thinks it likely that a majority would vote for Irish unity then there should be a referendum. But there are a variety of problems with this.

Sinn Féin is still the political wing of the IRA. The IRA has not ceased to exist. But then any border poll would have to take place with an implied threat. If you vote the wrong way, we might begin our bombing campaign again.

This is exactly the tactic that the Irish government used to justify there being no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit. If you try to put up a border there will be a return to the Troubles. Well, the implication must be that this would be still more be the case in a border poll.

After a border poll in 1973 the IRA did not choose to give up the armed struggle.

But this puts Northern Ireland in the same position as Crimea when it voted to join Russia with the Russian army present. It makes a legitimate democratic vote impossible.

If a majority of the voters now wished Northern Ireland to remain in the UK, the Secretary of State might agree with Sinn Féin’s optimism and choose to have a poll this year. What would happen to the Belfast Agreement if Northern Ireland overwhelmingly voted again to stay in the UK?

Would Sinn Féin and the Irish government accept that the people have spoken and accept that Northern Ireland was permanently part of the UK. No of course not, Sinn Féin just like the SNP would immediately campaign for another referendum.

But this makes the contest unfair. If a border poll results in a united Ireland, then everyone will have to accept that this is permanent, but if it doesn’t Sinn Féin can keep on having referendums until one day it wins. “We only have to get lucky once”.

The British government pays Northern Ireland each year a considerable sum of money, without which the Northern Ireland economy could not function. If Northern Ireland were to unite with Ireland, then that sum would have to be paid by Ireland. But why should the British government pay money to Northern Ireland if Sinn Féin’s First Minister wants it to leave?

If Michelle O'Neill wants Northern Ireland to leave, she should first arrange it so that Northern Ireland ceases to receive any money from the British government by living within its means. After all you cannot say you want to leave your job and expect it to still pay your wages.

If Ireland wants Northern Ireland not just theoretically but actually then it has to be willing to pay for it, well when Ireland covers the budget deficit in Northern Ireland in full, we might first consider that Ireland is ready and willing to take on the task of managing Northern Ireland and that Irish voters are willing for their taxes to pay for British citizens in Northern Ireland. If they are unwilling to do so now, how can we trust that they would really be willing in the future.

Has Ireland thought of the consequences of having in percentage terms more foreigners living in its borders than any other European country. Would they get some sort of special status and rights like other minorities in Europe or would they just have to do what they were told?

The British government must take seriously the territorial integrity of the UK and make clear to those that threaten it in Ireland that it is unreasonable to expect there to be friendly relations between a country that has just annexed UK territory ultimately because of a terrorist campaign. Ireland in that case apart from the British citizens who would remain there could hardly be treated as an ally still less as a friend. Why then should the Kingdom of Great Britain which would result from the loss of Northern Ireland maintain a Common Travel Area between Ireland and Great Britain.

If Troubles arose because of forced reunification, it would be tempting for Britain to have nothing whatsoever to do with it apart from to offer refuge to our own people. It would be Ireland’s problem and up to Irish forces to deal with it.

For that reason, we might be grateful that there was no longer free movement between our two islands. For it would be better then for us to have as little to do with Ireland as possible.

If you want it you pay for it and if it blows up in your face you deal with the Troubles not us.

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