Why ‘Hard Brexit’ threatens war

February 10, 2018

by Martin Odoni

The European Union has every right to run out of patience with the United Kingdom over its meaningless negotiating position on ‘Brexit’, including the decidedly indecisive stance on the fate of Northern Ireland. Sure enough, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, is drafting a formal ultimatum for the British Government to make a decision on what Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Republic of Ireland will be after Brexit. The lack of clarity or conviction from the British so far in negotiations has probably been the biggest sticking-point in the whole process, and is doubtless maddening to many in Brussels.

However, I am going to offer a rare moment of sympathy – or at least understanding – to our embattled Prime Minister, Theresa May, and her Brexit Secretary David Davis. In truth, the Conservative Party as a whole has brought the logjam on itself, but however one might get there,  it is never pleasant being in a no-win situation. And there is a possibly insurmountable problem over settling the Irish border that I do not envy them the task of untangling.

BS-3

The Good Friday Agreement is irreconcilable with a ‘Hard Brexit’

The six counties of Northern Ireland endured nearly three decades of Protestant/Catholic sectarian conflict – frankly civil war – from the late-1960s to the late-1990s. Although a complete peace has never really been achieved, the province has had two decades of unusual stability, and remarkably little bloodshed, thanks to a treaty agreed between the UK, Eire, and the various factions representing the (mainly Protestant) Unionist and (mainly Catholic) Nationalist communities in 1998. That treaty, known as The Good Friday Agreement, was one of the finest triumphs of European diplomacy in the Twentieth Century. It found a workable process for serving the interests of Ulster communities, those who wished to remain British, and those wishing for unification with Eire, including a devolved power-sharing Assembly of elected representatives at the Castle of Stormont. The details of the GFA are quite complex.

The problem that may prove insurmountable is that a total breakaway from the EU by the UK appears completely incompatible with the GFA. Literally, the two policies cannot exist side-by-side; they actually contradict each other.

One of the rules of the GFA was that trade conditions on both sides of the Irish border have to be pretty much identical, mainly to deter smuggling. Whatever the British choose to do, the Irish Republic does not want to leave the European Union. Whether we think Eire would be better off outside of the EU, as some suggest (it would not), is neither here nor there; they are not leaving the EU any time soon. So this means that, in order to maintain cross-border market-harmony, Northern Ireland has at least to stay in the EU Customs Union.

Northern Ireland must share market conditions with Eire

But if the UK opts for a ‘Hard Brexit’, that means, by definition, detaching from every feature of the EU, including the Customs Union. So to maintain the harmony with Eire, Northern Ireland would have to leave the UK. But that cannot happen either, as the GFA also guarantees the right of Unionists to remain British if they so wish. The majority of Unionists remain ‘loyal to the crown’, so to speak.

One idea that is sometimes floated is that Northern Ireland should remain in the Customs Union while the rest of the UK does not. Sadly, this also looks unworkable, as there would have to be border controls between Northern Ireland and the British mainland. That would violate Article VI of the Acts of Union of 1800. The whole of Ireland, under these Acts, became part of the UK, and, despite the secession of the rest of the island in the 1920’s, the Act still remains in effect in the north today. Article VI created a British customs union, one that would be violated by introducing border controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Meanwhile, not imposing such border controls would defeat one of the stated objects of Brexit, which is to “take back control of our borders.” It is a nonsense platitude anyway, but the pertinent point here is that anyone wanting to sneak into the UK could just enter unchecked through Ireland.

Border tensions

A hard border within Ireland will cause a lot of anger for social reasons too. Nationalists and Republicans will be rightly outraged if free access to their fellows in the south is curtailed, and will feel that they are being forced back under direct and exclusive British governmental control. It is therefore no exaggeration to suggest that there is a real danger of a ‘Hard Brexit’ restarting war in Northern Ireland.

These problems would be largely avoided if the British Government opted for a ‘Soft Brexit’ i.e. to stay in the Customs Union. But of course, that looks a remote possibility at best too. The lunatic fringe of the Tory Parliamentary Party, and the extremist Brexit supporters around the country, appear unwilling to tolerate anything less than a complete British severance from the EU, and any attempt May makes to move away from that will trigger a rebellion in Parliament, and probably the collapse of her Government.

One cannot please any of the people all of the time

Hence the ongoing deadlock over finding an Irish border settlement. It is almost impossible to find a solution that will please enough people, and is just one of the many reasons why the ‘Brexit genie’ should never have been allowed out of its metaphorical bottle. The Conservatives created this mess, largely for internal party reasons, so it is right that they should be the ones to have to clean it up. But it is also wrong that they are, because they show such profound inability to carry the process out in a competent fashion.

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10 Responses to “Why ‘Hard Brexit’ threatens war”

  1. Sophia.George 💋 Says:

    Wow that’s really insightful, great piece 😊

  2. jaynel62 Says:

    Reblogged this on jaynelinney and commented:
    As the author Marton Odoni (@HavetStorm) states “It is almost impossible to find a solution that will please enough people, and is just one of the many reasons why the ‘Brexit genie’ should never have been allowed out of its metaphorical bottle. The Conservatives created this mess, largely for internal party reasons, so it is right that they should be the ones to have to clean it up. But it is also wrong that they are, because they show such profound inability to carry the process out in a competent fashion!. Hard #Brexit Threatens WAR


  3. You’re getting the customs union and single market mixed up.
    Act of Union 1800, not 1801
    Customs controls were introduced in 1923, after the establishment of the Irish Free State.
    The SM abolished customs controls, not art 6 of Act of Union.
    Ulster has 9 counties, NI has 6. Why would article 6 of Act of Union apply to 3 counties in the republic, and the republic as a whole?
    The 1937 constitution renamed the state Ireland. In 1949 it explicitly became a republic, definitively ending its tenuous membership of the British Commonwealth.
    We use different currencies and different tax laws.

    • Martin Odoni Says:

      “You’re getting the customs union and single market mixed up.”

      No, I’m not. The Customs Union is what allows a frictionless border, not the Single Market.

      “Act of Union 1800, not 1801”

      Well, the Acts of Union were signed into law by George III in 1800, but did not come into effect until 1st January the following year. Still, the official title on the documents does say “1800”, so I’ve amended it.

      “Customs controls were introduced in 1923, after the establishment of the Irish Free State.”

      Well yes, they would be. I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make with that?

      “The SM abolished customs controls, not art 6 of Act of Union.”

      Maybe you’re confusing what I’m saying about relations between Britain and Northern Ireland with relations between north and south? Otherwise I’m very confused as to what your point is. Article VI explicitly created a customs union between Britain and Ireland. Yes, with the establishment of the Irish Free State, customs controls were introduced, but not between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, which is the point I am getting at; keeping NI in the EU Customs Union while the rest of the UK leaves it would create a border WITHIN the UK, which would violate NI’s status under the 1800 Acts of Union. Unionist communities were very unhappy about temporary controls being introduced during the Second World War. Their possible reaction to permanent ones doesn’t bear thinking about.

      And I would also question whether the SM really abolished customs controls on its own. The establishment of the Common Travel Area played a significant role as well.

      “Ulster has 9 counties, NI has 6.”

      I did write “six counties of Northern Ireland”.

      “Why would article 6 of Act of Union apply to 3 counties in the republic, and the republic as a whole?”

      The Acts wouldn’t apply to any part of the Republic, because the Irish Free State Government officially repealed them within its jurisdiction. I never suggested they would apply in the south.

      You do understand that the 1800 Acts are still in force (albeit with amendments), right? The rest of Ireland may no longer be subject to them, but Northern Ireland still is, because the Belfast Parliament rejected a motion to repeal them and join the Free State in 1922.

      “The 1937 constitution renamed the state Ireland. In 1949 it explicitly became a republic, definitively ending its tenuous membership of the British Commonwealth.”

      Again, I’m not entirely sure what point you’re trying to make? Yes, ‘Southern Ireland’s’ transition from part of the UK to a Republic was a slow, complex process, it’s true, but I didn’t see any need to offer a summary for the purposes of this article. Hence why I only mentioned the secession from British control, which happened in the 1920’s.

      “We use different currencies and different tax laws.”

      Yes, but that’s about as far as variation is allowed. It’s also quite commonplace for stores in Northern Ireland, especially close to the border, to accept payments in euros instead of sterling, which takes a lot of the potential ‘sting’ out of the difference.

  4. perry525 Says:

    Perhaps we should remember the agreement between the EU and the UK. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
    And, over the years laws and agreements have arrived and subsequently been amended, ignored and cancelled.
    Nothing is set in stone. Parliament is Sovereign. Parliament can change/cancel agreements and laws.

  5. sdbast Says:

    Reblogged this on sdbast.


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