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The disaster that the Tories and ‘getting Brexit done’ has been for Northern Ireland


Lord Peter Hain is a former British Cabinet Minister and anti-apartheid campaigner whose memoir, ‘A Pretoria Boy: South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’, is published by Jonathan Ball.

The suspension of Northern Ireland’s self-government is the product of failure and neglect by Britain’s Tory government, accelerated and deepened by Brexit, but going back to 2010.

The rot first set in then, when David Cameron stood Conservative general election candidates in alliance with the Ulster Unionist Party, and climaxed in 2017-19 when Theresa May relied upon Democratic Unionist Party MPs for her majority.

Both meant the Tories aligned themselves determinedly with the Protestant — or “unionist” — half of the population wedded to staying within the UK.  

And that trashed the “honest broker” role essential to resolve conflicts — something Tory Prime Minister John Major extolled from the 1993 “Downing Street Declaration” and Labour PM Tony Blair exemplified in achieving the breakthrough 1998 “Good Friday Agreement” for power-sharing between old adversaries.

To get bitter blood enemies to form a power-sharing government in 2007 — as I was able to do under Blair in 2007 — was only possible because I was trusted by both sides who weren’t even talking to each other.

But since 2010, trust with other parties, built patiently over decades, has been undermined, if not destroyed.

Where Tony Blair sat in summits for days on end until agreement was reached, Tory PMs like Boris Johnson flew over to Belfast for the odd hour. 

Successive Tory cabinet ministers for Northern Ireland hardly spent a night in Belfast, never investing time in the relationship-building so essential to successful conflict-resolution negotiations.

Julian Smith was a notable exception, and it was no accident that he managed to get Stormont resurrected after three years in suspension — until being unceremoniously sacked in 2019 for his successful stewardship because he wasn’t a Boris Johnson toady, and reinforcing the perception that for Tory ministers, Northern Ireland was very much a side issue.

That ignored a fundamental lesson of conflict resolution — and Northern Ireland’s goes back many centuries. Namely, that getting an agreement isn’t the final answer. It’s always a process, never a single event, as South Africans know only too well.

The largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionists or DUP, walked out of the legislature at Stormont, Belfast, in protest at the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement Protocol which Johnson negotiated and signed with the European Union.

He’d agreed to a EU/UK border down the Irish Sea, pretending he hadn’t really meant that, and then denounced the very Treaty he’d agreed to. That was understandably toxic for unionists because there was a trade border with the rest of the UK they are wedded to remaining within.

The only other conceivable place for that external EU frontier would have been the border across the island of Ireland — something nobody wanted, because an open border is not simply a must for nationalists and republicans, but for unionists too.  

For nationalists and republicans, because an invisible frontier is progress toward their cherished objective of unification with the Republic.

For unionists, because it makes things easier: banishing the terrible years of “The Troubles” and granting easy access to Dublin from where most Northern Irelanders catch international flights, among many other everyday practicalities like travelling across the border for treatment at the nearest hospital.

But none of this should have come as a surprise.

Northern Ireland always was the Achilles’ heel of Brexit.

“Getting Brexit done”, for Tory zealots, had to be achieved come what may.

Two-thirds of Tory party members polled before the 2016 referendum said they couldn’t care a damn if peace in Northern Ireland was damaged. Brexit first and last.

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Breaking international law by ratting on a Treaty the UK signed with the European Union? No problem. Destroying trust with Brussels and Dublin: who cares?

The bill to unilaterally ditch the Northern Ireland Protocol is currently encountering huge opposition in the House of Lords and may well be stalled.

Because it breaches the Good Friday Agreement, it is opposed by most of Northern Ireland’s political parties; by the business community which fears even greater disruption and instability, and by civil society groups who have been trying to make the Protocol work.

Yet the Protocol’s rough edges could have been fixed if Boris Johnson and Liz Truss had negotiated seriously, instead of posturing and dog-whistling to their right.

Will Rishi Sunak behave differently? Or will he also be imprisoned by Tory hardliners?

Tory proposals for “green lanes” for goods from Great Britain destined for Northern Ireland only have been all but accepted by the EU, with “red lanes” requiring customs checks in GB restricted to the minority of goods likely to go over the Irish border into the rest of the EU.

So why doesn’t Number 10 simply negotiate the fine detail, including sharing real-time customs data with Brussels, which it has so far refused?

Irish and EU ministers simply don’t trust their British counterparts.

And why should they — until London eats some humble pie, stops threatening to break an international treaty it agreed, and stops its dog-whistling?

The EU must make concessions on how the Protocol is implemented — and is clearly ready to do so, if London ever gets into serious and intensive negotiations after Boris Johnson and his ministers dragged their feet for months.

But will Sunak, unlike Johnson and Truss, be prepared to make the compromises needed to get a deal on how better to implement the Protocol, removing the extra costs and checks it currently requires, at the risk of upsetting Tory Brexiteers?

Unionists understandably feel their identity and political security are threatened by trade checks with other parts of the UK, and London’s failure to engage has raised the stakes, especially for the DUP, whose leaders feel they have been backed into a corner.

If Tory posturing was replaced by proper process, solutions could be found.  

For instance, the DUP has never complained that there have long been light-touch controls on movement of plants and livestock from England, Scotland or Wales into Northern Ireland — a “border” of sorts necessitated by the island of Ireland being a single, distinct biosphere.

There is a consensus in Belfast on one thing at least: all the parties want the Protocol changed and its implementation smoothed, so that Northern Ireland can continue to enjoy the best of both worlds in both the UK and EU single markets. Remembering always that the hard Brexit which both Johnson and Sunak endorsed was always intended to allow the UK to diverge from EU regulations.

And because these apply there, that means Northern Ireland diverging increasingly from the rest of the UK, which is unsettling for the DUP — but then they voted for it, when a clear majority of Northern Ireland citizens voted to stay in Europe.

What a mess. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mark K says:

    For Heaven’s sake, the UK should just rejoin the single market if pig-headed nationalism won’t allow actual membership of the EU. Five years ago, I would have said that you are shooting yourselves in the foot. Now, I must amend that. You’re slowly and excruciatingly painfully sawing your own foot off. What is wrong with Number 10 and Westminster?

    • Sydney Kaye says:

      Exactly. Brexit is an example of the disaster that can happen when enough voters are manipulated by ideological zealots into a position that is self harming and in any case impossible to achieve.
      In addition to the economic damage which was obvious, anticipated and now proven it was always a “cake and eat it” project. Leave a trading bloc but have no border where it suits you!

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    Just think about the hypocracy of those who were on the high anti apartheid horse but support the Orania- type racist enclave of Northern Ireland, blind to the fact it is an entity created to give power to a minority group defined by religion and 17th century hate. Now they profess loyalty to the crown but mean power for a minority within a minority and massive subsidies from the mainland.

  • David Stevenson Stevenson says:

    In the last UK elections, it seemed that the electorate approve Brexit. The problem is with the electoral system. If one adds up the votes for perceived pro Brexit parties, they are less than those for perceived anti Brexit parties.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    As an Cockney of Irish descent, I believe that the UK, Northern Ireland, and Ireland should be negotiating “in good faith” the unification of Ireland.

  • Colin Louw says:

    Everyone keeps pounding out the old “but the vote was clearly for a Brexit”. What no one mentions is that the promise of Brexit was sold on a series of astounding lies around the impact of Brexit on the UK. What added to this was the snivelling limp wristed leadership of the Labour Part who were so concerned at their standing if they went against Brexit, and the vote went for Brexit, that they would then lose the next election. What a bunch gutless politicians they were, if they had simply stood up and given the UK electorate the true potential outcome then there is little doubt that the vote would have gone the other way.

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