Should the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, as negotiated by the Johnson administration, go through it will represent an astonishing victory for Ireland, writes Conor Gearty (LSE). But what of Britain, he asks?
One of the undesirable aspects of the Brexit affair has been the way it is forcing so many of us back into the national silos from which we thought we had escaped. I have lived in the UK for over thirty-five years, with my country of origin Ireland having been more a fun conversation piece than vital identity (since 1998 at least). And yet these days I wear it with pride, as a badge of honour.
If the range of concessions made by the Johnson government goes through, then the ‘deal’ conceded by his administration represents an astonishing victory for my country of origin. The backstop becomes the basic position so far as Northern Ireland is concerned, while its unbundling from the rest of the United Kingdom throws it into the arms of Europe – or more accurately those of its nearest European neighbour, Ireland. And all the while, driven by some kind of denialist colonial nostalgia, the British will continue to pay the bills – for security; for welfare; for all local services; and much else besides. Little Ireland has triumphed over huge Britain using its illusions about its own power the way a judo artist fells a larger foe. There will be many PhDs and monographs on how the Irish pulled it off, and many too will be the leaders of small European states watching on admiringly.
Facing the threat of Brexit, the European Union has been delighted (and perhaps even surprised) to find an identity rooted not just in law and supposed common values but in solidarity as well. The Irish have been midwives to that. The Democratic Unionist Party are right to be livid. But then they are livid so often and about so much that they find to their horror first that no one is listening, and second that no one seems to care.
But what of Britain? Irish, I may be but I live here and so does my family. The arrangements Johnson now seeks to push through Parliament are disastrous, presaging months of haggling with Europe but now without any of the levers already conceded in the Withdrawal Agreement (money, Ireland, citizens’ rights) and all of this against a backdrop of a soon-to-be-imminent cliff-edge no deal (end 2020, possibly later by agreement). The GB part of the UK may well choose then to jump off, especially if the current leader of the Conservative Party has secured an electoral mandate, and the inevitable demands of the EU for convergence with its regulations prove just too hard for him and his cohort of Brexit-devotees to stomach.
What then? A pinched, isolationist England holding on to an angry Wales and with Scotland forcing itself into the UK departure lounge, bound (it hopes) for Europe. No traction at all on the world stage, little prospect of any kind of compensatory trade deals to make up for the calamitous loss of access to world markets. Eventually the young will revolt and if the English are lucky a fine leader will emerge to articulate their rage and to act with authority to redress their grievances. If the EU is still there in ten years – and thankfully it looks as though it might well be, not least thanks to the prophylactic power of Brexit – then there will be an application to (re)join. But what a waste of time this whole thing will have been!
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor of the LSE. © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons /
Conor Gearty is Professor of Human Rights Law at the LSE.
From a current British viewpoint this whole Brexit farrago may seem rather pointless.
However as Conor Gearty also points out, the whole business has been rather salutary for the other 27 current EU countries. It has shown that, contrary to British criticism, the EU possesses considerable negotiating strength, especially when the countries of the EU act in unison. It will also strongly discourage any other EU country contemplating leaving the embrace of the EU.
Even if the UK suffers for a while outside the EU, this may even be beneficial for the UK in a counter-intuitive sense. It will lay to rest the ghosts of imperial hubris that still amazingly haunt the UK. When the UK finds it difficult to assert it’s power in the world, it will definitively come to realise it’s diminished role on the modern global stage.
As a (typical English) Remain campaigner, I’ve felt since the Johnson-Varadkar meeting that seeing Ireland benefit rather than suffer from Brexit is the only factor that can assuage rather than exacerbate the pain of Britain leaving the EU.
An interesting perspective, but one sided without full explanation. You say that your county of origin is Ireland but omit reference to which part. Dublin and Eire I believe. That colours your comments here. Johnson’s Brexit deal with a border in the Irish Sea favours a continued engagement as part of the UK, given the rights for the DUP to counter the deal, and the PM’s commitment for the Union to continue post Brexit.
A united Ireland should be a political imperative but Brexit only makes it less likely.
On the contrary, it may well be that so called ‘Brexit,’ if it happens, may encourage a closer affiliation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In such an eventuality one would hope that if Britain facilitated such a process the ties between Great Britain and Ireland would be encouraged by such means. After all it was Lloyd George, was it not, who proclaimed our policy of ‘benevolent neutrality’ and was it not King George V in opening the Parliament of Northern Ireland expressed the possibility that one day the two Parliaments in Ireland would be one.
It is therefore very difficult to understand a continuation of colonial attitudes and perspectives to the position of Ireland. Our administration in Ireland was not exactly our finest hour as Sir George Cornwall Lewis opined over 100 years ago, and Sir Charles Russell (later Lord Chief Justice of England) forcefully argued Britain’s colonial rule was sometimes marred by evidence of misgovernment and a certain display of political incompetence.
It would be most unfortunate if such ghosts of the past were resurrected, but worse if the anxieties of those who voted to remain in the EU and those who wish to remain British subjects were to be disregarded. Any resolution must obviously conform with our international obligations under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement as well as the national interest. One hopes that reasonable time will therefore be given to a detailed analysis and consideration of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in this context.
I remember Prof. Gearty well. One month after the 2016 referendum, the BBC ‘Newsight’ team organised a retrospective at the Royal Geographical Society. Prof. Gearty was one of the speakers. I recall vividly that ‘livid’ did not even begin to describe his emotional state. “Emotion clouds analysis”, I thought.
If this contribution is anything to go by, he has not calmed down much in the last three years. “Little Ireland has triumphed over huge Britain using its illusions about its own power the way a judo artist fells a larger foe.” No. Ireland has triumphed (for the moment) for three reasons.
1. Ireland was perched on the shoulders of the French and Germans. It was put there by Donald Tusk on his visit to Dublin in December 2017, when he effectively gave Varadkar a blank cheque.
2. Britain’s negotiations were dire. Mrs. May managed to lose two Brexit secretaries, because she insisted on negotiating with Brussels behind their backs. If you are faced with a negotiating team which is divided against itself, it is child’s play to play one group off against the other.
3. Britain’s negotiations were actively sabotaged by the outgoing Parliament. That’s a strong word, know, but I think it’s the word historians will use. Once the remainers in Parliament recovered their nerve after their 2016 defeat, and Mrs. May made them a present of a near-hung Parliament, they did their (pretty effective) best to undermine Britain.
So Ireland has won this round. If Boris gets his majority next week, I would not give much for Ireland’s chances in the next round. But we’ll see!