The challenge of what to do about border arrangements in Ireland has haunted the Brexit process. In the week that the British parliament was prorogued, there was intense speculation that the Tories might return to the Northern Ireland-only backstop arrangements in order to get a Brexit deal with the EU.
Boris Johnson appeared to be backtracking on his absolute commitment to “no backstop”. As with all the manoeuvres of recent weeks, however, there is no guarantee that he is not simply bluffing in order to blame the EU for the chaos of a “no deal” Brexit.
According to a report in the Financial Times of a meeting with the EU in Brussels, Johnson seemed to be mystified that merely preserving the existing, minimal checks for livestock and agricultural products would not be enough to satisfy the EU. Two-thirds of all road transport across the Irish border is in manufactured goods, for which there are still no customs arrangements in place.
When Theresa May originally proposed the NI backstop in 2017, a single threatening phone call from Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), forced her to withdraw the offer. The DUP claimed that a guarantee that the South of Ireland and Northern Ireland would have the same customs arrangements, threatens the constitutional status of the United Kingdom, by effectively moving the border to the Irish Sea. And they were backed to the hilt by the hard Brexiteers in the Tory Party.
The DUP, now much less crucial to the Tories’ non-existent parliamentary majority, is being reported as “softening” its hard-line opposition to the backstop. It is caught between making practical plans to satisfy its large base of support among Northern Ireland farmers and small businesses and, with little in the way of jobs or anything else to offer to their supporters in poorer areas such as East Belfast, wrapping itself in the Union Jack.
The EU, aligning itself with the Irish government, is playing hard ball over its rules for the single market, and is determined to force the British government to accept that the North at least remains in harmony with EU regulations. In September, the Irish government announced that it was already increasing the number of armed garda siochana (police) in the Irish border counties, in preparation for the reimposition of a border. And Jean Claude Juncker, after promising last year that the EU wouldn’t impose border posts, claimed the EU may have to demand that the Irish government erect border controls if there is a “no deal” Brexit.
The root of the problem is the border itself, which is why the debate about a united Ireland has returned with renewed vigour during the Brexit crisis.
The dividing line in Ireland is a rotten legacy of the British Empire, which carved out a majority for Unionists in the new Northern Ireland state in 1921. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which was supposed to have solved the problem, in fact locked in the religious division of politics in the North.
The pro-Remain wing of the British establishment which claims that Brexit will upset the delicate balancing of British and Irish “identities” in the agreement, completely fails to understand how the locking in of “identity” as the over-riding consideration of politics in the North is a large part of the reason why the peace process has stumbled from crisis to crisis ever since.
The DUP may have seen its star wane as Boris Johnson lost his majority. But it still holds all the cards in terms of the future of the North of Ireland. This is why it is now talking about a veto in the NI Assembly over any final Brexit arrangements, just as it has used this veto to block all progressive legislation in the North.
The opposition to Brexit in the North is driven by this deep frustration with Tory and DUP rule.
The 56 per cent Remain vote in the North in 2016 reflected a generally positive view towards the EU as a progressive bulwark against successive British governments. The ability to appeal to the European courts, for instance, in the face of many miscarriages of justice, was an important part of building illusions in the EU. EU funding for community projects during the peace process was seen as an antidote to years of privatisation and cuts under the Blair government and the Tories.
This view of Brexit has only been compounded by the attitude of Tory Brexiteers, such as Johnson and Rees-Mogg, who have treated concerns about the return of border posts with traditional Tory disdain.
A new poll released in September by Lord Ashcroft put support for a united Ireland in a future border poll at 51 percent. But the same poll also provided evidence of attitudes to Brexit polarising sharply along Nationalist/Unionist lines.
In part, this is because the main drivers of the case for a united Ireland are presenting it as a way of simply staying within the EU. Sinn Féin, for example, is claiming that the Tory Brexit debacle means a united Ireland is the most rational way of ensuring stability for business. It is talking up EU leaders’ support for a united Ireland, calling them “our gallant allies”. It is calling for Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, to convene talks involving businesses, political parties and other ‘social partners’ to begin planning for a united Ireland.
But the Irish state is a deeply corrupt, tax haven economy, with a massive housing crisis, an underfunded public sector, and a privatised health service, which, like schools, is still largely controlled by the Catholic Church.
Holding out the prospect of simply joining the rotten Southern state does nothing to undermine the reasons why people voted Leave in the North, which has been subjected the same deindustrialisation and neglect as many former industrial areas of Northern England or South Wales.
Equally disastrous are the small republican groups, such as the New IRA, which have increased their attacks in border areas in recent months but remain a marginal and largely discredited force. Nevertheless, the threat of a renewed republican armed campaign is being exaggerated as yet another danger associated with Brexit.
Jonathan Powell, former advisor to Tony Blair, and ardent pro-Remainer, claimed in a recent Newsnight interview that “every IRA campaign has started because of the border”. This is simply untrue. The IRA’s attempt to start a campaign precisely about the border in the late 1950s, with attacks on police posts in border areas, failed completely. Any similar campaign would fail again today. It was the state’s violent reaction to the mass civil rights movement of the 1960s which led to the re-emergence of a physical force tradition in the North. And the British state’s responsibility for the 30 years of the Troubles which followed is still the massive, sinister silence in Irish politics.
What is needed is a determined campaign on both sides of the border for a different vision of a united Ireland. People Before Profit in Ireland has called for mass civil disobedience to dismantle any new border posts and use the slogan “Neither London nor Brussels, but a socialist Ireland” to argue for a border poll.
It has a vision of society North and South that challenges the two capitalist states in Ireland; one that rejects both the neoliberalism of the Tories and the low-wage, tax-haven capitalism of the South and the EU. Instead it highlights the enormous movements North and South for progressive politics, especially around issues such as water charges, climate change, abortion rights and gay rights in recent years, as the basis for a different society.
On all counts, the Tories, the DUP, the EU and the southern Irish government will be our opponents, not our allies.