Does Boris Johnson give a damn about the impact of No Deal on anything other than his ability to stay in power? There is scant evidence that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet genuinely care about its damaging impact on our closest neighbours. Any concern about what current UK policy will do to the 21-year old Good Friday peace agreement appears purely rhetorical. A No Deal means a hard border overnight and an immediate impact on the Republic of Ireland and on Northern Ireland. Nothing could be further from the UK government’s mind than the damage No Deal would do to the economy of the Irish Republic; instead the Tory back benches now blame the absence of, failure of, BREXIT negotiations on the Irish government.
Here I had better declare an interest: a soft spot for the Republic of Ireland, particularly Connemara. One of my children is Irish. My first job was lecturing at University College, Galway. Our oldest daughter was born in the Calvary Hospital under the supervision of the Sisters of the Precious Blood. It doesn’t get more Catholic than that – short of a prior visit from the Archangel Gabriel. The big obstetric issue was whether you wanted labour induced, “brought on”, in time for the Galway races. We lived opposite Galway Cathedral known locally as the Taj Micheál (pronounced Mee-Hawl) after its autocratic Bishop Michael. Heavenly days.
To return to our hellish present dilemma. The Good Friday agreement contains two parts: one, an agreement between the Northern Ireland political parties, the other, between the governments of the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Because they had been the main negotiators so knew the dynamics and detail, during the 2016 referendum campaign, Tony Blair, John Major and Bertie Ahern were the first to focus on the dangers posed by BREXIT to the Peace Agreement.
Most people would admit that the Irish and UK membership of the EU with its four fundamental freedoms, the movement of goods, people, services and capital across national borders, provided an essential context for the Good Friday agreement and its subsequent successful implementation. As Jonathan Powell, a key adviser to the UK negotiators recalled, the central issue of national identity was de facto “removed from the table by the soft border” which became a point of contact rather than a point of division. Take away the single market and the customs union, this EU scaffolding falls down and the border returns to being a critical identity issue, a dividing line rather than a point of contact. After a No Deal BREXIT, citizens of Northern Ireland claiming an Irish identity - guaranteed by the Good Friday agreement - would find themselves with different rights from citizens of the Republic of Ireland. These are the main reasons why Nancy Pelosi, Democrat Speaker of the US House of Representatives, told senior members of the Conservative Party earlier this year that the House would not endorse any trade deal if post-BREXIT Ireland was left with a hard border.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK with a land border abutting the EU. A winding border, 499 kilometres long with 250 transport crossing points, it poses obvious, intractable difficulties at the basic material level of customs infrastructure. The (ERG) Economic Research Group’s magic technological fix might be implemented by the Irish hero, the Giant Finn McCool, but not by anyone else. Let’s imagine that say, in five years time, technology can transform physical border control to being electronic, invisible and immaterial, with regulation moving from checkpoints to company and farmers’ laptops. Still the new border would be problematic. The significance of a hard border is not only its visibility or material manifestation. It is symbolic and psychological. And, because of the new divisions between the two countries, five years hence we could well need real-world infrastructure to deal with the resurgence of extremist Republican violence. There are already threatening signs. Hence the need for an insurance policy, the contentious backstop, introduced by Theresa May and agreed by the EU.
BREXIT will hit the economy of the Republic of Ireland hard. The recurrent cost of a No Deal to the Republic’s citizens per capita per year has been calculated by the respected Bertelsheim Foundation as at least 720 Euros. This is not much below their calculation of the cost to the UK, 873 Euros per capita, (which makes an aggregate annual cost nationally to the UK of 57 Billion Euros). This cost will fall differentially on different regions and income groups with the poor suffering most. The USA is Ireland’s largest export partner but, including trade with Northern Ireland, the UK comes second just ahead Belgium. Calculations of No deal’s impact suggest a 5% drop in Irish GDP and the loss of 100,000 jobs (2.19 million were employed in 2018).
The Irish government rightly sees No Deal as a threat. The Taoiseach, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has said as much and concludes this will trigger new pressures for a United Ireland. Simon Coveney, the Tánaiste, deputy Prime Minister, has said that the British Government’s BREXIT tactics are putting the UK on “a collision course” with Ireland and the EU. In reaction to Johnson’ do-or-die sloganizing, on a recent BBC World Service Hardtalk, Neale Richmond, chair of the Irish Senate’s BREXIT Committee, repeatedly called for Britain to “meet the responsibilities they have as a departing member” of the EU: in other words to honour international commitments and the agreement on a backstop, pay their bills, and avoid disruption. Instead Ireland has the future economic damage, forced upon it by the UK government, used as leverage in negotiations.
The Good Friday agreement was achieved not just by subtle negotiation and mediation between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland but by a spirit of co-operation between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The British government is now in the process of undermining this co-operation, and with it the future of our closest neighbour. Such tactics are entirely in keeping with Johnson’s politics of division which he has learnt from Trump: expand the definition of them, shrink the definition of us. Shrink the idea of us enough and the United Kingdom is no more.
We are accustomed in the UK to dealing with politicians who are ineffective, mistaken or lacking in judgement, but not with the clever and power-hungry who, without real convictions, will say anything that is convenient. We find our own judgement rendered uncertain by their false claims to patriotism and their lies. It’s called gaslighting. It’s calculated. So who is going to stop Alexander Boris De Pfeffel Johnson - and his side-kick Dominic Cummings? The Taoseach will need “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”. And we, the British, need to say mea culpa again.
See also TheArticle 12/08/2019