On 2 March, prime minister Theresa May was forced to make a speech responding to the European Union’s publishing of a legal draft on British withdrawal from the EU. In attempting to allay the fears this draft had raised among British and Irish unionists, Ms May only reinforced her untenable position; the dual and contradictory objectives of keeping a ‘soft’ or open border between the occupied six counties and the Irish republic while withdrawing from the EU customs union and single market.
Yet withdrawal from the European single market and customs union means there will inevitably need to be checks on goods entering from one side of the border to the other. In other words, there will have to be a hard border.
Conversely, a soft border, the free movement of goods between the two parts of the island of Ireland, means there would need to be a single market and a customs union. The contradiction seems insurmountable.
Recognising this, the EU’s legal draft takes the soft border option, and has the six counties remaining part of the EU customs union.
An added layer of complexity is that May’s minority Conservative government is being propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which can effectively hold it hostage, thus hardly giving May the wiggle room she would need to accept this section of the EU draft.
“The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has made clear that if the Irish Sea became a de facto trade border, it would withdraw its support for the Conservative government.
“‘It would represent a break-up of the United Kingdom,’ Sammy Wilson [DUP MP for East Antrim] said.
“‘For the Irish government, which prattles on all of the time about the importance of the Belfast Agreement, part of the Belfast Agreement was that there can be no change in the constitutional position of northern Ireland without the consent of the people of northern Ireland.
“‘Yet here we now have the EU, prompted by the Irish government, seeking to bring about that constitutional change.’” (BBC News: 27 February 2018)
Additionally, Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP MP for Lagan valley, has attacked the EU as ‘deluded’ in expecting his party to accept the so-called border in the Irish Sea.
Former Brexit minister David Jones, speaking on the Today programme, called the EU legal draft an attempt at an ”annexure of northern Ireland by the European Union”. (In this we must bow down to his superior knowledge, for no-one would know more about annexing northern Ireland than former British government ministers. They have all the experience in this regard.)
In response to the British bluster, European Council president Donald Tusk spoke in Dublin alongside Irish taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar.
“‘We know today that the UK government rejects a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea, the EU single market, and the customs union,’ Mr Tusk said.
“‘While we must respect this position, we also expect the UK to propose a specific and realistic solution to avoid a hard border.
“‘As long as the UK doesn’t present such a solution, it is very difficult to imagine substantive progress in Brexit negotiations.
“‘If in London someone assumes that the negotiations will deal with other issues first before the Irish issue, my response would be: Ireland first.’ …
“Mr Tusk recalled that the Good Friday Agreement, whose 20th anniversary is next month, had been ‘ratified by huge majorities north and south of the border’ …
“‘We must recognise the democratic decision taken by Britain to leave the EU in 2016 – just as we must recognise the democratic decision made on the island of Ireland in 1998 with all its consequences,’ he said, in a play on the rhetoric used by Brexiteers regarding the 2016 EU referendum …
“The joint report agreed by both sides stated that the UK would maintain regulatory alignment with the EU to prevent a hard border – unless another solution could be found, either specifically for Ireland, or as part of the wider trade deal.
“Since that agreement, however, the UK has ruled out a trade deal solution by reiterating its commitment to leave the customs union and single market, has ruled out a customs border between the province and Great Britain, and has not produced detailed specific proposals for avoiding a hard border …
“Mr Tusk’s ultimatum raises the prospect that trade talks will be delayed even further beyond March, when they had been expected to start following the next meeting of the council.” (Independent, 9 March 2018)
There are two ways out of the current quagmire it seems. As we know, there can be no soft border without the customs union and vice versa. We either sink lower and regress further into the past, or we view matters from a higher plane, one which seeks historical progression and genuinely surmounts the contradictions currently faced. In the case of the former, Brexit could be overturned or a historical regress could occur: install a hard border and so renege on the Good Friday Agreement.
Needless to say, both options would be a disaster, not only for the people but also for those in power, who would not find themselves remaining there for long.
In the case of the latter, higher position – the logical and obvious conclusion to the entire mess is a united Ireland. Not only is it the desired outcome for the Irish and peace-loving people of the world, it is the implied endgame of the EU’s position on the issue. The so-called border in the Irish Sea is a first step in this direction; hence the uproar from the extremists of the DUP.
Similarly, hence the interference of former prime ministers like Tony Blair and John Major. Both would like to go down in history as the British PMs who oversaw peace in Ireland whilst keeping the north under British control. Both know this ‘legacy’ is under threat. That is one reason why both have openly criticised the government for even considering the possibility of ditching the commitments made by Britain in the Good Friday Agreement.
The other, rather more compelling, reason is that both are firmly on the side of the remain camp of the ruling class when it comes to Brexit, and Blair especially is only too happy to take the opportunity to advance his current pet project – the overturning of the Brexit referendum – as the solution to the problem.
“Tony Blair has urged European leaders to reform the EU so British people ‘change their mind’ about Brexit.
“The former prime minister argued that if ‘comprehensive’ immigration reforms are offered, voters will realise their ‘genuine underlying grievances’ can be addressed. [‘Grievances’ that the Labour party under his command, as under all others going back to the 1960s, actively nurtured and encouraged.]
“He thinks Brexit can then be ‘averted’ via another referendum, this time on the final deal reached with the EU.
“Mr Blair, who opposed Brexit, also said northern Ireland could be at risk.
“Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: ‘I find it not just disappointing but sickening that people should really be prepared to sacrifice peace in northern Ireland on the altar of Brexit.’
“He said that Labour should ‘say what it really believes’ on Brexit – which was that leaving the EU will ‘make problems worse’.
“If he was still in charge, he said, ‘I would be hammering the Tories all the time’ on the ‘destructive impact’ of Brexit.
“‘We could be making that case so forcefully,’ he added. Mr Blair earlier set out the three steps he said could lead to a ‘reconsideration of Brexit’.
“These are: firstly, showing voters that Brexit ‘has turned out much more complex and costly than they had thought’, secondly, responding to their grievances, especially around immigration, and thirdly, the EU accepting the vote as a ‘wake-up call’ to change.” (BBC News, 1 March 2018)
Europhiles like Blair are shamelessly using the Irish border issue as a pretext for overturning the Brexit vote. This cannot be allowed to happen. The Brexit vote represents the one of the strongest democratic mandates ever given in this country. (How often, after all, have workers been consulted so directly on any question regarding how the country is run?)
Similarly, the Good Friday Agreement referendum was the greatest-ever democratic mandate given by the people of Ireland, with 71 percent in the north and 94 percent in the republic voting in favour.
The tension that exists between the two mandates exists only so long as the north is occupied by Britain. Under a united Ireland, the contradiction is resolved. We can have Brexit, peace in Ireland and an open Irish border only with the surrendering of British imperial ambitions in Ireland.
This is the position any fair, peace-minded British government would have to take.