Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Ireland and Brexit

I've been thinking about the dilemma of what to do about Northern Ireland under the Brexit regime, and how that turned out.

This was the surprise dilemma of Brexit. Nobody discussed it during the referendum campaign. But it became a huge problem during negotiations, because there were only three solutions, none of them at all acceptable.

If the UK was going to free itself from EU goods regulations, there would have to be a customs regime between Great Britain and the Continent, everybody accepted that. (Though in practice it turns out that many of them don't like it very much.) But what about Northern Ireland, which is on the island of Ireland but part of the UK? The three solutions were:

1. Re-establish a hard border, a customs regime, along the land border between NI and the Republic of Ireland. This would be a direct violation of the Good Friday Agreement which brought something resembling peace to the island after thirty years of Troubles, it would exacerbate tensions among the communities, it would impede travel and trade, it would encourage smuggling, and bring back the bad old days that its elimination got rid of. So that's out.

2. Keep NI in the EU regime while Great Britain leaves it. This would be equivalent to erecting a customs regime down the Irish Sea. This would violate the Ulster unionist proviso that NI is an integral part of the UK and tend to weaken its links, with its possible eventual separation. Which some would want, but the unionists are wholly against. So that's out.

3. Eliminate the necessity for a customs regime by keeping the UK under EU goods regulations. But that would delete the whole point of having Brexit in the first place, which they'd just voted for. So that's out.

Throughout the negotiations, the UK kept trying to fudge the question, but eventually when it came down to it, they picked option #2, the border down the Irish Sea. And I think I can see why they did that: because it offended the fewest people. Option 1 would offend everybody on the island of Ireland, both sides of the border. Option 3 would offend everybody in Great Britain who voted for Brexit. But option 2 only really offends the DUP, the extreme Ulster unionist party, and they can lump it.

Incidentally, it seems to me that if the unionists are so eager to be an integral part of the UK, they could start by joining the UK polity and having the same political parties the rest of the UK does. True, Scotland has the Scottish Nationalists, but as its name states, that's the people who want to leave the UK. Scots who want to stay have a choice of the same parties that the rest of the country does. But they hardly exist in NI: instead there's this confusing and oft-changing welter of unionist and semi-unionist groups with no relation to anybody else.

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