Peter Ramsay is Professor of Law at The London School of Economics and a founding member of The Full Brexit. He was one of four panelist’s speaking at irishborderpoll.com debate, The Irish Border Question: Can The Union Survive?
It took place on Sunday October 10th as part of the Battle of Ideas festival in London. Below is the speech he gave on the day.
The reason we are all here today discussing the Union with Northern Ireland is not because the old Irish Question has re-emerged. The Irish Question concerned how the claims of the Irish nation were to be dealt with by the state institutions of the United Kingdom.
The current debate over the Union has been triggered by a new and different question:
the British Question. Brexit raised the question of how the claims of the Britishnationare to be dealt with by the state institutions of the UK.
As a member state of the EU, the institutions of the UK were failing to represent its people: a void had opened up with ordinary citizens on one side and an effectively unaccountable political class on the other. In 2016 a majority of voters rightly rebelled against this unaccountable form of government and rejected Britain’s member-statehood.
One by-product of rejecting that Britain, Third Way Britain we might call it, was that the Irish border re-emerged as a problem, and that’s why we are all here today. But while Brexit raised the question, Brexit did not in itself provide a positive answer to the British Question. Britain may no longer be a member-state of the EU, but what is it? What if anything unites the British into a single nation?
And this question needs answering. If we are honest, the institutions and traditions that once converted the diverse peoples of Britain into a singular nation are in serious decay: the Crown, the state religion, the Mother of Parliaments, the constitution, the welfare state, all worn very thin.
When I ask myself the British Question, I find no place for Northern Ireland in my answer. I will give you three reasons why.
First, the Northern Ireland Protocol proves what has always been true: Northern Ireland is part of a United Kingdom with England, Scotland and Wales in name only. Though it is home to many British citizens, Northern Ireland is just not British.
The Protocol puts a trade border within the so-called United Kingdom and puts the economic regulation of one its provinces in the hands of foreign powers. If Brexit was about reasserting Britain’s sovereignty, why was it not reasserted in Northern Ireland? That Her Majesty’s Government ever agreed to the Protocol tells you that Northern Ireland is not really part of a United Kingdom.
And so do the reasons why Her Majesty’s Government agreed to it. The British government could not persuade the Irish government to change arrangements on the land border in Ireland. And the British government did not want to change those arrangements unilaterally, without Dublin’s consent, because that would risk the Good Friday Agreement. Britain did not want to risk the Good Friday Agreement because, since the early 1970s, British governments have understood that Britain lacks the political authority to rule Northern Ireland unaided, and they have sought to draw Dublin into helping them administer it.
The British state has never had adequate political authority in Northern Ireland. When, in the late 1960s, nationalists rebelled against the old Unionist regime in Northern Ireland, the UK government was forced to send in the troops and the civil servants. What they discovered was that 50 years of sectarian discrimination, backed up by the permanent and sweeping emergency powers of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act, had failed to maintain order. A further 25 years of war were to follow, before the British eventually managed with the Good Friday Agreement to bring Dublin in to provide some minimal legitimacy and stability to the North. The Agreement was, as Seamus Mallon famously described it, ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’.
You don’t need the Protocol to tell you that Northern Ireland is not really part of a United Kingdom with Great Britain. The Good Friday Agreement already told you. The Agreement formally vests sovereignty in the UK, but at the same time it constitutionalises the influence of another state’s government over the administration of the province.
So, my first reason for not finding a place for Northern Ireland in my answer to the British Question is that Northern Ireland is not part of Britain.
My second reason is a consequence of the first. Retaining formal sovereignty over a territory where the British state lacks sufficient authority is a real weakness for the British nation. Throughout the Brexit negotiations, British governments committed to the Union with Northern Ireland were constantly on the backfoot over the border question, unable to take the initiative with the EU. The Protocol was the result.
Boris Johnson and David Frost are, as we speak, trying to whittle down the Protocol with their new proposals. And we shall see how this goes. For all the loud undiplomatic posturing, a deal is likely. The Union will stagger on for a while longer. But Brexit revealed the truth that Britain would be stronger without it.
My third reason for finding no place for Northern Ireland is that my own answer to the British Question is not the Tories’ Global Britain nor the left’s Penitent Britain. My answer is Democratic Britain.
Democracy is one British tradition that has shown signs of life recently. We may not have been the first modern democracy. But Britain has a very long tradition of representative government; the sovereignty of parliament is a uniquely democratic constitutional doctrine; we gave birth to the Chartists, who were the world’s first democratic mass movement; and, in the Brexit struggles, our democratic tradition emerged as the most important thing that Leave voters were fighting for.
It is democracy that has the potential to give meaning, coherence and authority to the British nation after Brexit. And,significantly for this discussion, it is democracy that has always been available in Scotland on the same terms as it has been in England and Wales,
but has never been available in Northern Ireland on those terms at any point in its 100 years of existence. The Good FridayAgreement mandates for Northern Ireland an undemocratic internal system of devolved government that is entirely different to the rest of the UK, one in which the political parties that seek to represent the population in the rest of the UK play no part.
So those are the three reasons why Northern Ireland is not part of my answer to the British Question.
None of my argument should be read as simply abandoning British citizens in Northern Ireland to their fate, licensing a border poll when it appears a majority will vote for it and then walking away. My answer to the British Question involves British citizens in Britain and Ireland playing an active and constructive role in reuniting Ireland because it is in our own interests to do so. The already close relations in which Irish and British citizens can travel and live freely in each other’s territories, and even vote in each other’s elections, should help to inspire a new democratic relationship. For Brexit Britain to back the reunification of Ireland would be a true act of international leadership. It would show our emphatic commitment to democracy. It would be a sign of our seriousness about our future together as a nation. It would be a demonstration to the whole world of what is possible for a nation that understands the potential of its own sovereignty.