Brexit meant there was always going to be a trade border somewhere between the UK and Ireland. Unless the future relationship was to be so close as to make Brexit pointless, a UK outside the Single Market and Customs Union meant that there would have to be customs and regulatory checks on trade passing between the two. Valuable time was wasted trying to find magical technological or legal solutions to the Brexit trilemma, most of which should never have been taken so seriously by so many people for so long.
The problem is that any kind of border is unacceptable to a lot of people. It doesn’t matter how visible it is, or how unobtrusive the cameras are, how discreet the border patrols are or how far from the border the searches take place. Simply knowing that the border is there is bad enough. As Matthew O’Toole tried to explain to tone deaf English people, before and after the referendum, this is about identity.
We might wish for a world in which more of Northern Ireland’s people shared a collective identity, but that is not is the world we live in. Nations are imagined communities, to use an old truism. The people of Northern Ireland have, over time, constructed separate psychological spaces for their identities. And part of the reason for enduring political instability is that neither monolithic identity can win. Both are inherently insecure.
People who feel Irish live in the island of Ireland, but not the state called Ireland. People who feel British live in the British state, but not on the island of Great Britain.
The Good Friday Agreement was an inspired and elegant fudge which enabled people with both identities to feel part of the country they believed they belonged to. The Common Travel Area along with the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union enabled people to travel freely for work, trade or leisure. Once the peace process ended the need for security checks it was possible to abolish the border completely. As Matthew O’Toole said, this enabled people to forget the border even existed.
The agreement is fastidious in keeping Northern Ireland within the UK until a majority votes otherwise. But it is expansive when describing the right of people there to be part of the “Irish nation”. To make people who feel Irish relaxed about Ireland being partitioned as a matter of legal fact, the agreement sought to soften the border in people’s minds: to help them imagine it wasn’t there.
Brexit means that is no longer possible. There would either have to be a land border Northern Ireland and the Republic or a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Somebody was always going to end up being disconnected from their own country. If there were a land border, an Irish businessman from Derry would now have to complete paperwork to trade with a company in Dublin, another city in his country. If there were a sea border, a British businessman in Belfast would now have to complete paperwork to trade with a company in Birmingham, another city in his country.
To say that this is all fairly trivial misses the point. Symbolism is important in most cultures but particularly so in Northern Ireland. As Jonathan Powell said, any form of border is a threat to somebody’s identity:
The DUP has a perfectly legitimate complaint against the border between Northern Ireland and Britain because it undermines its identity. The Irish are rightly never going to agree to a border with the EU. And a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would reopen the issue of identity underpinning the Good Friday agreement.
Brexit was always going to destroy the delicate balance achieved by the peace process and the Good Friday agreement. Even if the suggested technological solutions had delivered all they promised it still wouldn’t have been enough. Identity and symbolism can’t be wished away. Even a completely invisible border policed by magic robots would be too much. Just knowing there is a border between you and the rest of your country is enough to rekindle the old hostilities.
Someone, then, was always going to lose out. In the event, it was the unionists. According to the deal negotiated by Boris Johnson there will be a trade border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There is an attempt to fudge this by saying that Northern Ireland will be part of the UK for customs purposes but this is a face-saving formula. The customs and regulatory checks will take place in Irish Sea ports not on the Irish border. Our British businessman in Belfast will be the one completing the paperwork to trade with his country. We’ve ended up at Point A on the Brexit Trilemma.
It’s not only Northern Ireland where symbolism matters though. The image of Britain as a world power is bound up with our national identity. Even people who consider themselves progressive or anti-imperialist make assumptions about the UK’s place in the world. For the most part, deft diplomacy enabled the UK to transition from global power to global influence and to maintain its seat at the top table of nations. As the only country to be a member of the Western military alliance, the English speaking world and the European Union, the UK sat at the intersection between powerful groups or countries. This gave it considerable influence. While its military power might not be what it was, the UK was still a global player, ‘punching above its weight’.
As well as deft diplomacy, though, the UK expended a considerable amount of blood and treasure to stay at that top table. At least some of the rationale for maintaining the nuclear deterrent was to keep this country on the UN Security Council. Who knows whether the nuclear deterrent would work in a modern war or even if it did whether it would be any use but we don’t ask such questions because we have to have nukes. It’s simply what world powers do. Likewise, while there was a lot of talk about protecting the rights of the islanders and even some suggestions of oil wealth in the South Atlantic, the real reason we went to war over the Falkland Islands was because we could not be seen to be pushed around by a middle-ranking Latin American countries. World powers don’t have bits of their territory nicked by tinpot dictators.
Yet here we are about to concede a part of our country to be governed by trade rules set in another country. OK, it might not look like a big deal but it is symbolic. When it comes to trade, Northern Ireland will be yanked out of UK jurisdiction. Some aspects of its law will be made elsewhere. Make no mistake, this is a capitulation. The hardliners in the British government would have loved to be able to tell the EU and the rest of the world to shove the Good Friday Agreement and leave the EU with No Deal but they knew they simply didn’t have the power to do so. For all the talk of Blitz Spirit, they knew that, in the end, the people wouldn’t wear it. Sure, many of them don’t really like the EU but they don’t actually care about it that much and certainly not enough to see their living standards hit. There is little tolerance for economic disruption and hardship. Politicians know that and know they will get blamed. Voters have short memories. Many will forget how much they wanted to leave the EU when the factories start closing and the jobs start disappearing. Johnson’s government knew they had to make a deal and the only way they could leave the EU’s trade framework was by leaving Northern Ireland behind. As Tom Mc Tague said, the price of Brexit is Northern Ireland.
This will not be lost on the rest of the world. The decline in Britain’s diplomatic stock and global influence that began under David Cameron has now reached its ignominious conclusion. A country that pretends to be a world power has had to concede partial control of part of its territory because it had no choice. No other major country has a customs border running through it. World powers don’t have parts of their country governed by other countries.
The fact that this has been imposed on the UK severely diminishes the country’s global prestige. Like the man who ostentatiously walks out of his job only to find he can’t even get another one at his previous salary, the UK found that its international clout didn’t carry as much weight as it thought. As Fintan O’Toole said, Brexit is a long overdue reckoning for Britain. The limits of its power have suddenly and clearly become exposed. The UK’s global pretensions have been marked to market.
This has been brought about by a leader who presents himself as a patriot and quotes Churchill. The man who taunted others with the word ‘surrender’ has agreed to split the country. The man who wrapped himself in the Union Jack has pulled the string that may unravel the united Kingdom. The world will see this deal for what it is, another point marking the UK’s long decline. With the same unseemly haste that Britain pulled out of India, fled from Palestine and backed down on Suez, Boris Johnson has cut and run on Brexit, leaving part of the UK behind as he went. The man who said there would never be a border in the Irish Sea has just signed up to one. He didn’t really have much choice. The border in the Irish Sea will be a constant reminder of Britain’s diminished status, forced upon it as the price of its unhappy divorce from its neighbours.