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Opinion

Why British Brexiters Should Back Ireland’s Unification

irishborderpoll.com welcomes every opportunity to widen the debate on Irish unity. Hence our thanks to Brexit supporters Peter Ramsay and Pauline Hadaway, British academics based in London and Liverpool respectively who argue the case for Irish unity. They contend that Irish reunification is the precondition for real democracy in Britain.

By Peter Ramsay and Pauline Hadaway

Brexit is above all about strengthening the sovereignty of the British state. For supporters of Irish unity that may sound like a bad idea. But Brexit has proved that Britain’s rule over Northern Ireland is a fetter on its own sovereignty, and that the British people have a powerful self-interest in bringing the union with Northern Ireland to an end.

Sovereignty is the authority of the state to rule over a territory and the people who live there. The state’s authority over a territory ultimately depends on a political relationship between the sovereign and the subjects. The stronger this relationship, the stronger is the state’s authority. The more that law-makers and government are responsible to, and for, the people they govern, the more autonomous the state is, the greater is its sovereignty.

Membership of the European Union weakens a state’s authority because it removes law-making from elected parliaments and relocates it to remote diplomatic meetings and supranational bureaucracies. As a result, the people of EU member-states experience the government and the laws as not being their government or their laws. Brexit is therefore a necessary condition of reviving the political authority of the British state by returning law-making to the representatives of the British people.

However, Brexit has also proved that British governments lack the authority to assert their autonomous law-making powers over Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Protocol gives the power to regulate the Northern Ireland economy to the EU and it imposes a trade border within the UK. Since the UK is no longer a member of the EU, economic regulation in Northern Ireland is placed in the control of foreign governments. This in itself is an indication of the limits of the UK’s sovereignty within what it currently claims as its own territory. This lack of authority is further emphasised if we think about the underlying reasons for the existence of the Protocol.

The UK government agreed to the Protocol because the government of the Republic of Ireland refused to countenance any change to arrangements on the land border between the two states that might be necessitated by Brexit. The Dublin government’s ability to force the UK into conceding the control of economic regulation in its own territory to the EU’s combination of foreign governments arises from the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). The GFA gives the government of the Republic an effective political veto over significant changes to the governing arrangements of Northern Ireland, particularly where they affect relations between North and South. Dublin has exercised this veto over border arrangements.

The GFA constitutionalises the weakness of the UK’s sovereignty in Northern Ireland, and this weakness was leveraged by the EU effectively during the Brexit negotiations. Initially Theresa May’s government agreed to ‘the backstop’ an arrangement that would have given the EU a veto over whether Britain left the Single Market, leaving the whole UK as a rule-taker in economic regulation for an indefinite period. The backstop played a big part in bringing May’s government down. Her successor Boris Johnson managed to negotiate the current Protocol in which only Northern Ireland remained in the Single Market. And the Protocol gives the EU a legal right to interfere in trading relations between citizens of the UK within its territory.

The Protocol is simply the practical effect of the GFA. It exists because the GFA does not permit Britain to act autonomously in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland the UK government needs the agreement of another state’s government, and that state is a member-state of the EU. There is a noisy controversy at the moment over the Johnson government’s unilateral approach to implementing the Protocol. It is nevertheless the Protocol that the Johnson government is implementing because no British government wishes to risk a fundamental rupture with the Dublin government or an irrevocable breakdown of power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

Why are British governments so committed to the GFA and to its progeny, the Protocol? It is important to grasp that the Protocol does not violate the Union between Britain and Northern Ireland, as Irish Unionists believe. Rather the Protocol, like the GFA which led to its creation, is characteristic of the Union’s political tradition, a tradition of profoundly irresponsible forms of government.

For a century, British governments have maintained Britain’s formal claim to rule the territory of Northern Ireland, but they have also recognised in practice that they lacked adequate political authority there. As a result, they have always relied on forms of government in the province that are not accountable to its people. For the first 50 years, Northern Ireland’s government was organised on strictly sectarian grounds, accountable only to Protestant unionists with Catholic nationalists reduced to second-class citizens, and effectively excluded from the state. The limited authority of the old ‘Orange State’ was institutionalised by the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act 1922 which established a permanent state of emergency, allowing the government to do whatever was necessary to see off the constant threat of rebellion from excluded nationalists.

That repressive order was eventually brought down by nationalist rebellion in the late 1960s. Britain sent in the army and 25 years of guerrilla warfare ensued, further inflaming sectarian conflict. That war eventually ended in stalemate. Although the conflict was essentially unresolved, all parties gradually accepted the GFA as a way of managing Northern Ireland. The Agreement allowed for power-sharing in the province’s government, which institutionalised the sectarian division of the people in a new form, and it gave veto powers to the government of the Republic that was in no way accountable to voters in Northern Ireland. The Protocol takes the Union’s tradition of irresponsible government with limited political authority one step further by leaving the economic regulation of Northern Ireland to the EU, in which neither the British government nor any of the Northern Ireland parties now has any formal influence at all.

This tradition of government without authority has always been very bad for Northern Ireland itself. It has produced half a century of sectarian oppression, a further quarter of a century of war and bitter communal hatred, followed by another 25 years of political paralysis and economic stagnation under the GFA. Despite enjoying the highest per capita rate of government spending, Northern Ireland is the UK’s third poorest region, with its lowest economic growth rates. The working-class population of its major city Belfast is divided into two communities often separated by physical walls and barriers. Its local government is sclerotic.

But Brexit has now proved that the Union also undermines the sovereignty of the UK’s government within Great Britain. The Protocol gives the governments of other states a legal right to interfere in the UK’s internal affairs. It will limit Britain’s room for manoeuvre in the future, just as the GFA did in the Brexit negotiations.  Of course, Brexit Britain can live with the protocol just as Britain has lived with the GFA, as it did with the ‘Troubles’ and with the Orange state before that. But in doing so Britain will not be enhancing its sovereignty; it will be diminishing it.

If the British people seek greater collective autonomy, greater sovereignty, then we should not merely back a border poll but go further and campaign for a vote in favour of the unification of Ireland. Some Brexit supporters might be tempted to argue that if the British people are gaining from leaving the EU, why should we abandon our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland? But the Protocol—the practical condition on which the UK actually left the EU—has already done that. Moreover, the Irish people as a whole are not likely to exercise their self-determination and leave the EU until they gain full control over their territory, before their state is recognised as an equal by their powerful neighbour and former occupier.

In the final analysis, the Union with Northern Ireland is a vestige of an empire that came to an end more than half a century ago. If the British people are really to fulfil the promise of Brexit and to enhance our own sovereignty, we will need a new project with a new vision of the British nation. We cannot do that until the old imperial pretensions are finally given up, and the authority of our government is drawn solely from its relationship with its own people in its own territory. That territory does not include Northern Ireland. Brexit has proved it for all to see.  

Peter Ramsay and Pauline Hadaway are founding supporters of The Full Brexit.