Johnson’s Suez

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.


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12 Responses to Johnson’s Suez

  1. Jim says:

    “When it comes to trade, Northern Ireland will be yanked out of UK jurisdiction.”

    Only if the people of NI wish it to be so. Give the history of the Republic and the UK are littered with legal and political anomalies, such as the common travel area and the ability of Irish citizens living in the UK to vote in UK elections (and vice versa) which is not granted to other foreign citizens, and combined sporting teams etc etc, another bit of fudge to keep the peace seems a reasonable compromise.

    Its odd that for the last 3 years Brexiteers have been told they must compromise because the vote was so close, and now we have, we’re derided as having sold the countries sovereignty away. Equally odd that the same people denied point blank in the referendum that being in the EU resulted any loss of sovereignty at all………………

    As far as your argument goes it appears to be that the UK being fully under the EU’s thumb was not at all an embarrassment, or a lost of sovereignty and prestige, but 90% of the UK being out from under the EU’s thumb is a terrible demonstration of our weakness and a public humiliation on the world stage.

    Doesn’t seem very logical to me……..

    • Benjamin says:

      At present, Northern Ireland elects members of the European Parliament; the sovereign power there (the British Crown) appoints a European Commissioner, has co-equal veto power in the European Council, and periodically holds the Presidency of the Union. Its citizens have (approximately) as much influence over European law as those of any other European Union member state; that it is, it is a full participant in the pooled sovereignty upon which European law is based. The point being to withdraw the United Kingdom’s sovereignty from that pool, Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement will repatriate powers currently delegated by treaty to the European institutions for Great Britain, but not for Northern Ireland. There, European law will remain, but Northern Irish influence over the E.U. will leave. N.I. will elect no M.E.P.s; its sovereign state will appoint no European Commissioner and will not attend the European Council. Brexiters say that the Commission routinely imposes its will without due consideration, but they have ensured that, with respect to Northern Ireland, it will have no option. There will be nobody from N.I. around to object.

  2. Parry Hotter says:

    Northern Ireland was put in the UK departure lounge in 1998 by Tony Blair. Once part of your country is subject to elements of dual control from its neighbour, it’s not your country anymore. Just as one’s own country is not one’s own if 27 other countries can set your laws, military priorities, foreign policy, trade policy, fishing, agriculture and so on. Of course the departure of NI from the UK is entirely inevitable – perhaps even to be welcomed; the birth rates of the nationalist and loyalist communities will take care of that within the next decade or so.

    At this stage of the game, 20 years after the GFA, the desire to hang on to NI is oft stated but is clearly not the top priority. Had the DUP not held balance of power for Theresa May, would anyone even have considered a border down the Irish sea as being a problem for a New York minute?

    For those of us who have no problem with the end of the UK, (Scottish independence, anybody?), this doesn’t so much as raise an eyebrow. Ireland is full of hate and bitterness – some of it going back 800 years, we’re told. Any set of people that can carry a grudge that long aren’t necessarily worth expending vast efforts to keep their patronage. As and when Ireland becomes one country, a whole new set of terrorist outrages will probably, sadly, begin, this time driven by the loyalist side.

    Until then, nursing NI along until the end comes is the name of the game. The DUP must realise they’re swimming against the tide.

  3. Dipper says:

    Jim is spot on here.

    Where we are now is a complete win for Leave. All that we have seen since the referendum has confirmed Leave’s views about the EU and the relationship between the EU and the UK, exemplified by the shift from saying the EU had no say in our law making to the position of Labour/TUC that we need to remain in the EU because the EU makes all our laws. The insistence from myself and others on here that we need to get ready for No Deal in order to get a deal has been confirmed by Johnson/Cummings’ tactics. We said a FTA Canada plus agreement should be possible and that’s what we’ve got a clear path towards.

    The use of NI by Remainers as a device to prevent Brexit has been frankly disgraceful. Firstly the constant invocation that any Brexit would break the GFA, right up to the point when an NI court ruled that it didn’t, and the advancement of a settlement by the EU that explicitly did break the GFA. Secondly the use of NI as a kind of self-harm hostage to hold GB in the EU against the explicit wish of its people, that if we tried to leave then the citizens would resort to killing each other therefore we must stop, that because we don’t understand it we must do whatever we are told with regards to NI; a strategy that makes lesser people of Great British citizens, in that citizens of NI get a right of veto on UK policy denied to everyone else..

    The Venn diagram above captures the conundrum well. But the approach to handling the seemingly intractable nature of political division in NI as exemplified by the GFA was to create a political framework of fudge which gave the community an opportunity to manage their differences, and this proposal does the same. The EU approach of rule by dictatorship and interminable regulation is completely unsuited to NI. By contrast, this agreement maintains the fudge factor high enough to give the scope to manage the situation.

    There is no political case for voting this deal down. It is almost exactly what was promised in the referendum by the majority of Leavers, so all those MP’s who voted for the referendum to take place and all those MPs and former politicians who said that the result would be implemented have absolutely no defence right now.

  4. David says:

    Funny how you never see any ‘replies’ from Rik’s acolytes…..

  5. Ken Charmer says:

    So being in the EU has enabled me to live in both Spain as a resident for tax purposes and the Double Taxation Agreement allows the tax I pay in the UK [on my civil servant pension taxed at source] to be discounted against my tax here. But I can also own and live in the UK in my property there for up to 6 months. This is just one of the benefits of EU membership and in fact our expectations of life today. I watch Spain wracked by division and the UK fighting over Brexit and think ‘It doesn’t have to be this way’. Maintaining elements of cultural identity and appropriate degrees of self-determination have been part of the political scene developing for decades. This proposed agreement promises the world to the UK but it is a false dream. We are Europeans and should regulate to sensible standards that meet the needs of the people in practical, ‘day to day’ ways to better society progressively with all our trading partners. The attachment to identity is a generational and educational barrier to future generations. Whatever deal [or fudge] seems likely to be put back to the people this week I would bet they will put ‘money’ first. Protecting individual right of choice is at the core here and it appears from the weakness of the current ‘agreement’ proposals that the impossibility of Brexit is dawning on the majority of people. And do they have a democratic right to change their mind. ?Define democracy?

  6. Would I rather be part of political-economic system where I get a say or dominated by trade rules imposed by the US and possibly China where I get no say? Would I rather have our (poor) economic performance underpinned by frictionless trade with our closest neighbours (and *all* countries mostly trade with their closest neighbours) or would I rather see adverse economic effects as big as the financial crisis and austerity combined? Would I rather be part of a system of shared sovereignty that represents my country’s actual position and status in the world, or would I rather pursue a magical idea of sovereignty that vanished at least 100 years ago? The problem with Brexit, as all of the comments above demonstrate, is that it is a theology, not a strategy or a policy. Pursue fundamentalism if you all wish, but don’t pretend that it is rational or that anyone outside of a few speculators will be better off because of it.

    • Dipper says:

      No. And the Johnson deal shows this. It is a commitment to work closely with neighbours but not be ruled by them. There are not just two choices available – complete union or WTO – there are choices between these extremes which the Johnson deal looks to capture.

      • Guano says:

        So, did everyone know exactly what they were voting for in 2016? As you say, there are choices – so you cannot object to parliament takings its time and examining those choices.

        The UK has never been ruled by the EU – the UK has been subject to EU rules that the UK helped to create and agreed to. In some cases (eg the EEA) the UK under Conservative governments took the lead in creating those rules. The CU, EEA and CJEU are institutions that were created to allow the nations of Europe to work together without any one of them ruling another. If the UK doesn’t want to belong to those institutions it means that it doesn’t want to work closely with the rest of Europe.

  7. Guano says:

    Perhaps my memory is playing tricks, but I have this recollection of Dipper at one time being furious that the EU had proposed a border between Larne and Stranraer as a solution to the Good Friday Agreement problem.

    • Dipper says:

      it wasn’t my favoured solution, but there is a political mechanism for NI to exercise some control over this.

      The UK government can choose to operate its internal customs processes in any way it so chooses.

      • Guano says:

        When the EU suggested it, you were furious. When Johnson proposes it, you see it as a work of genius. Do you see the problem?

        Having two customs’ regimes in the same nation state is unusual. Deciding to do so would normally come after a great deal of discussion, parliamentary committees, an Act of Parliament etc etc. The UK Government cannot choose to do it without going through the democratic processes. In this case it appears that the UK Government has decided that it can, because it is the only way that it can “deliver Brexit” (or at least deliver a form of damaging Brexit that will keep the Faragists happy). It is the kind of hasty decision that the UK will come to regret.

        There is a solution – remain in a Customs’ Union with the EU. That avoids damaging the Union and avoids reneging on the Good Friday Agreement. It requires, of course, addressing the question of why the UK would want to do its own trade deals (which are likely to be less advantageous than its present ones), which has never been properly addressed.

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