Dividing the two Irelands

Posted by Thersites on  UTC 2019-10-15 14:09 Updated on UTC 2019-10-20

What will happen with Brexit? It seems we shall know soon enough – or perhaps not.

Most of the debate in the media has consisted of completely uniformed speculation. The focus of this speculation has been the 'Irish Backstop'. The solutions to this problem presented in the media have been questionable to say the least.

The crucially important strategic issue is drowned out by all the noise about pre-payments and checks and reimbursements and single markets and customs unions and… and…

Unlike the noisy discussion points, that strategic issue is quite clear – and quite worrying. Here is the executive summary, much of which for most readers will be a statement of the obvious, one which we stated at tedious length a year and a half ago. Nevertheless, sometimes the obvious has to be repeated until it really does become obvious.

For most of the 20th century, the island of Ireland has been divided into two parts: the Republic of Ireland in the south and the province of Northern Ireland in the north. That division was a fudge, but a pragmatic one. Like all political fudges everywhere in the world, we are still stirring it.

The very existence of Northern Ireland is offensive to the purists in the Republic, who view the province as the last foothold of the hated British occupation of the island. These romantic malcontents have spent many years waging a violent guerrilla campaign – the Troubles – to force Northern Ireland to reintegrate with the Republic. This campaign has forced the loyalists in the north to strengthen their own campaign against the enemy in their midst.

The animosity between the two sides goes back through centuries of fudges that are also still being stirred, seething pans that we shall leave untouched.

The 'Good Friday Agreement' came into force in 1998/99. It was supposed to put an end to the overt violence of the Troubles and all the uproar of the preceding centuries.

It was arguably a triumph for the Republicans: some consider it to be a surrender agreement. The main loyalist party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), refused to support it. The agreement set up various institutions and instituted various procedures that put a veneer of democratic process over the issue, but a low-level, sectarian gangsterism still continues.

No one now under thirty will remember any of this and no one under fifty will remember the terrorism of the Troubles: 'It was before my time'. Which means there is a good reason to revisit it.

Beneath all the details, the agreement is an expression of a pact with an historical inevitability. Both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom were members of the European Union and as such were on a path of ever greater union anyway. The EU is moving inexorably to becoming a single state – a process that was at the core of its being since its inception.

The tussle over the separation or the union of the two Irelands was therefore ultimately pointless, for they would anyway just become outposts of a single state relatively soon. Once the territorial issue no longer exists, only an underlying sectarian hatred remains. The DUP perceived this: the Republicans only needed to wait and the separation of Ireland would be resolved in their favour. The higher fertility rates of the Republican inhabitants of Northern Ireland would work their magic, too.

This entire process would need decades more, but, even in 2019, its progress is manifest. The Republic and the UK are part of the Single Market, with the four freedoms of movement - goods, people, capital and services. There is currently no need of a border, whereas at the height of the troubles in the 1980s there was a very real border between the two. The issue of the division of the island of Ireland is therefore effectively dead. To anyone who reaches for an Armalite or some explosive one only needs to say 'Why? The job has been done.'

When the UK leaves the EU, the situation on the island of Ireland reverts to that of the 1980s: there are two countries, the EU/Republic and the UK/NI, which are completely separate countries in every way, with a border that divides them. There is no point discussing terms such as 'hard' or 'soft' borders – there is no such thing as a soft border. The border between the EU and Switzerland, despite all the agreements and treaties of cooperation, is a real border with real checks on all crossings. In Ireland, the job has no longer been done.

The Good Friday Agreement and the memories of the Troubles seem to be forcing UK politicians to consider leaving Northern Ireland behind in some twilight state of EU membership in order to allow historical inevitability on the island of Ireland to take its course.

This would be an act of limp-wristed treachery towards the majority of the population of the province, but it will almost certainly happen, even though there will be serious repercussions that go beyond the immediate problem.

Once Northern Ireland has been cast into a limbo of EU not-quite-membership, there is no reason that Scotland can be prevented from going its own way within the EU, too, at which point we shall all be discussing the implementation of 'soft' borders along Hadrian's Wall. No one will be able to argue that a separation of Scotland from England is impracticable: Northern Ireland will be the lesson.

Whatever the reader's point of view on such things – and there are numerous legitimate points of view – the strategic implications of what is happening in the tactical confusion of Brexit must not pass unnoticed.

The promise of 'no border between the Irelands' is impossible to deliver without dramatic political upheavals – it is not merely a requirement to come up with some administrative ruse to maintain the status quo, but a fundamental strategic issue. Establishing an appropriate, 'normal' border may be painful, but it is the least worst option in strategic terms.

Update 20.10.2019

Under the headline 'Northern Ireland is on the way out', Peter Hitchens writes on the strategic defects of the current Boris™ Brexit proposal:

Whatever eventually happens between this country and the EU, one thing is permanently clear. Northern Ireland is now a semi-detached part of the UK, and moving rapidly out of it. The DUP cannot stop this, only delay it.

And the reason is that the Union was dealt a fatal blow by the Blair Creature's much-praised surrender to the IRA in 1998. The IRA, and the Dublin government, and the White House, and the EU all grasped at this point that Britain had lost the will to hang on to Northern Ireland. Our final departure is only a matter of time.

The SNP also took careful note of an event that has obvious implications for Scotland.

Only the British people, who could not be told we'd been beaten, needed to be fed the line that we had won a great victory and all would now be peace and happiness. I can see why many still want to believe this hogwash, but now that we have conceded a customs border between us and Belfast, and now that it's clear that we can't stop the prosecutions of British soldiers for alleged crimes during the Troubles, the truth really ought to sink in. This will soon be the first time since 1945 that territory has changed hands in Western Europe as a reward for violent aggression.

Peter Hitchens Mail on Sunday 20 October 2019, MailOnline.