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!
Conor Gearty is Professor of Human Rights Law at the LSE.