Britain’s chief negotiator during the peace process, which successfully settled the question of a united Ireland, explains how Brexit has reignited the issue
The sad death of Martin McGuinness briefly put Northern Ireland back in the headlines in Britain. Normally you have to make quite an effort to find a story anywhere in the British media about the province. It is hard to believe that Northern Ireland was a staple of British television news broadcasts for decades and for all the wrong reasons.
What put an end to that daily diet of violence was the peace process. Our aim was to make Northern Ireland boring again and we succeeded. The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 essentially settled the question of a united Ireland for a generation. It was built around the issue of consent. And unless a majority of the people gave their consent there could be no constitutional change.
At their most despondent moments in the process Unionist politicians used to ask us what they had gained from the talks and we were able to reply ‘the union, which is after all what you were created to defend’.
The St Andrews Agreement in 2006 brought the DUP on board and the matter seemed firmly decided. The Protestant Unionists were in a majority for the foreseeable future and there seemed no reason why they would change their minds. In fact, an interesting thing happened. Middle class Catholics also came to support remaining in the United Kingdom, not least because the Good Friday Agreement had made the border irrelevant. Living in Northern Ireland was no longer a battle of identity. You could be Irish or British, or indeed both. Support for the status quo went up to over 60%. So even the gradual demographic shift away from a Protestant majority did not threaten the union and even Sinn Fein did not call for a border poll seriously, because they knew they couldn’t win it.
Into this relative tranquillity crashed the Brexit referendum. John Major and Tony Blair, who can’t agree on much, both came to Northern Ireland to warn that leaving the EU risked creating a hard border and imperilling the fruits of the peace process which they had both worked hard to create. Theresa Villiers, the pro-Brexit Northern Ireland Secretary at the time, asserted that there would be no hard border. She presented no evidence, she made no argument but just said it was true.
The BBC, with its misguided commitment to ‘balance’, reported both statements with equal weight as if they were equivalent. They missed, and continue to miss, the point that impartiality is not the same as relativism. Balance between truth and a lie is not balance, but is to undermine any value in reporting at all. Failing to question an assertion that has no basis or to at least challenge a minister to produce some evidence of what they are saying is an abdication of responsibility by the national news service for which we all pay.
Not surprisingly therefore, no one dwelt much on the consequences of Brexit for Northern Ireland except perhaps the people of the province who voted 56% against leaving. The DUP campaigned for Brexit and the Leave campaign won in all of their Westminster constituencies. Sinn Fein, traditionally an anti-EU party for Corbynesque reasons, stood on its head to support Remain. But 56% is far above the level of the Catholic vote and, clearly, moderate, middle class Unionists voted in large numbers to stay in the EU as well.
For the first time in a long while, there was a non-sectarian majority on an important issue. But the fact that an overwhelming majority had voted Remain had no effect. A slim majority in England and Wales had voted to leave.
When Theresa May decided that rather than seeking the status other non-EU European countries have – of remaining in the customs union or the single market – she would opt instead for a Hard Brexit, she compounded the problem for Northern Ireland. If the UK had left the EU but retained the same customs policy and common entry requirements as Ireland then there would be no need for a hard border. But by leaving both she has created a situation where it is impossible to avoid.
This rash and totally unnecessary decision, for which there is no democratic legitimacy even in England (neither a referendum nor an election has been won on this issue), totally changes the scale of the challenge. Not surprisingly, the Irish government is seriously worried. The consequences for them economically and politically are hugely threatening. An open border is essential for agriculture and agri-industrial businesses on both sides – something on which Unionists and nationalists can agree. I still remember Ian Paisley coming into No 10 in 2001 at the height of the foot-and-mouth crisis which was preventing Northern Irish farmers moving their cattle – even though there was not a hint of the disease in the province – banging the table and proudly shouting ‘our people may be British but our cows are Irish!’
The response of the British government to Irish worries is to assert, once again, that there will be no hard border. Once again, they do so without any evidence or argument but, once again, they are not challenged. You only have to think logically about this matter for a few minutes to see that it cannot be true. If the UK and Ireland have different customs policies, then clearly there will have to be customs checks between the two. The only alternative would be to have customs checks between the island of Ireland and Britain, and essentially allow Northern Ireland to continue to be a part of the EU single market.
But that is unlikely to be acceptable to the DUP. The government has tried to float all sorts of technological ruses as ways of solving the problem they have created. My favourite is having three red routes between North and South which must be used by lorries transporting goods across the border. If anyone thinks that – in a region where many have lived off smuggling for generations – Slab Murphy and his ilk are going to abide by ‘red routes’, they have another think coming. We would either have to block off all the small routes crossing the border once again or create a customs regime that deliberately opened a back door between the EU and the United Kingdom, which, even if it was acceptable to us, would certainly not be acceptable to the European Commission.
The problem is that Brexit has, for the first time, created a land border between the EU and the UK. Brexiteers claim there is no problem. After all there is a land border between Norway, which is outside the customs union, and Sweden and they manage. That is entirely true. But both are inside the single market and both are very large, sparsely populated countries with very few cross border roads and no tradition of smuggling.
Furthermore, there has not been a long lasting terrorist campaign in Norway targeting government officials. The notion, which the government puts forward – that it will be OK because in Northern Ireland we will put the customs posts miles away from the border to avoid violence – is not going to deter dissident IRA terrorists from taking pot shots at customs officials whenever they come out of their buildings.
The customs challenge, however, pales into insignificance by comparison with the immigration problem. The whole point of Brexit, we were told, was to get control of our borders again and check immigration. That means we need immigration controls on all entry and exit points, and therefore immigration posts on the border in Ireland.
The government asserts that won’t be necessary because we had a common travel area with Ireland long before we both joined the EU. That too is true. But the reason we were able to have a common travel area was because we had the same immigration policy since Irish independence. By leaving the single market we change all that. Ireland will continue to have free movement of people within the EU and we will not.
The basis for the common travel area will cease to exist. A Polish plumber may no longer be able to fly to Stansted and get a job in Leicester, but he will be able to fly to Dublin, take the train to Belfast and the ferry to Stranraer and get a job in Nottingham, unless we have passport checks between Dublin and Belfast (or Belfast and Britain). The government’s answer to this, apparently, is we don’t need controls in Ireland because we will not be insisting on visas for Europeans who arrive at Heathrow, so why would we need them for Europeans who arrive at Dublin. If this is the case we will not in fact be regaining control of our borders at all. The only way of preventing free movement will be either to impose visas or to have a draconian programme to prevent Europeans working illegally in Britain. But how are we to distinguish between a Pole who has been working here for years and a Pole who has just arrived? The only way to do this effectively would be ID cards, something Tories have long opposed.
We will therefore have to impose a hard border of some sort between Northern Ireland and the South by once again blocking off the hundreds of small roads that criss-cross the border. The consequences will be severe, economically and practically – in many places it will increase journey times by hours – but more importantly it will create a political threat to the whole basis of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Agreement was all about identity and it was, in essence, an agreement to disagree. The Nationalists and Republicans still aspire to a united Ireland and Unionists still want to remain in the United Kingdom. The issue was not resolved. All that was agreed was that they would not pursue their aims by violence, only by strictly peaceful, political means. The issue of identity was resolved by allowing people to enjoy any identity they wanted – they could paint their kerbstones red, white and blue or green, orange and white if they wanted. They could hold British passports or Irish passports or both. The border was open and, in most places, you can’t tell where it is. The joint membership of the EU meant there was a higher body to which both the UK and the Republic of Ireland belonged.
What the Brexiteers have essentially done is reopen the balance in the Good Friday Agreement and given Sinn Fein a new grievance which allows them to awaken an old cause. That is why you see Gerry Adams once again in politics in the north, before the recent election and since, having previously devoted himself to politics in Dublin. Once again, he sees an opportunity to achieve his long term goal of a united Ireland.
This opportunity is compounded by the political crisis in Stormont. The administration was brought down by the refusal of the First Minister Arlene Foster to stand aside while her role was investigated over a heating subsidy scheme that had at the least gone badly wrong, and Sinn Fein’s refusal to remain in government with her.
Their gamble in forcing the election paid off with a substantial increase in Sinn Fein’s seats in the Assembly and, for the first time, a nationalist majority in the vote. Now the two parties are going through the motions to see if they can reconstitute the government, but it may be in both their interests to avoid doing so.
If they fail to agree there will probably be another election, in which Sinn Fein could conceivably win the majority of seats and therefore the right to the position of First Minister of Northern Ireland, which would be a major shock to Unionist confidence. If that election doesn’t happen, or doesn’t result in a power-sharing executive, then the British government will re-impose direct rule which will be opposed by both Sinn Fein and the Irish government.
Adams will be presented with a perfect argument to demand a border poll, in which the people of Northern Ireland can choose to join a united Ireland or remain in the United Kingdom, as it leaves the EU.
If the British government refuses to allow a referendum, as they have in Scotland, Sinn Fein can use that to milk more support. On the DUP side, proud of its obstinacy, it seems extremely unlikely they will back down and push Foster out at the behest of Sinn Fein. And if no government is formed they will demand the replacement of the power-sharing executive with a majoritarian system. So long after the Troubles, why shouldn’t there be a proper democratic system where if you win a majority in an election you get to rule, they will argue? The answer is that you cannot, while politics continues to be sectarian.
In other words, we will be thrown right back into identity politics just at the time when the whole basis of the Good Friday Agreement has been undermined by Brexit and the return of a hard border.
This will not, in my view, lead to a return to the Troubles. History rarely repeats itself. The dissident Republicans have almost no political support and will not gain any from their communities, unless the British government does something very stupid indeed in terms of the security response, as we did in the 1970s with internment and Bloody Sunday. But it will lead to an existential political crisis in Northern Ireland that will reopen all the issues that we thought we had managed to settle in 1998. It is a terrible time for Martin McGuinness to have left us.
No 10 Downing Street, which has enough problems on its plate at the moment, is keen to stand back from the crisis and leave it to the new Northern Ireland Secretary. And the government in Dublin has an existential political crisis of its own which makes it impossible for them to take a leading role in finding a solution. So this slow-rolling explosion in Northern Ireland will be an orphan, with no serious external actor trying to find a solution.
It is still a stretch to think that this might lead to a united Ireland. The probability is that people would still vote on sectarian lines if a border poll was held now. But consider this: what if the economic and political costs of Brexit become increasingly clear to the people of Northern Ireland in the next two years?
Even now, you hear middle class Unionists in the rugby clubs and the golf clubs saying ‘I never thought I would hear myself saying it, but perhaps we would be better off in a united Ireland if that means staying in the EU’. This is still a minority view, but when they see Scotland proceeding to an independence referendum and quite possibly voting to leave the UK, more may join them. After all, the Unionists’ ties, spiritually and economically, are with Scotland not England, and the ferry goes to Stranraer not to Southampton.
If that independent Scotland joins the EU, or at least the single market, then there will be a hard border between England and Scotland and between Scotland and Northern Ireland. The province will be cut off in the North Atlantic, surrounded by hard borders. There are a lot of ifs there, but I am omitting the effects of the economic and administrative chaos that is likely to be caused in Britain itself by Brexit. Perhaps in these circumstances a majority will decide to vote to leave the United Kingdom.
If so, a united Ireland – which the IRA could not achieve by three decades of violence – the British government would achieve in two short years by Brexit. The question that was closed for a generation in 1998 has been re-opened. That will not by itself make the people of England and Wales change their minds about Brexit. But the paradox will be that in seeking to leave the EU we will have destroyed another much older union. The obsessive Little Englanders who drove the mendacious Brexit campaign will be the ones who destroyed something truly precious.
Those who don’t really believe in Brexit, like the Prime Minister, are now forced to argue for one union but against the other, leaving them in logical contortions. In Scotland, breaking up is a bad thing to do, but in London it is the right thing to do.
On the one hand, we need all the advantages of cooperation and a larger economic zone, and on the other hand we do not. On the one hand, unravelling a union raises impossible questions of removing subsidies and becoming economically worse off; one the other hand, it is absolutely fine to crash the economy by jumping off a cliff. These contradictions, both political and economic, will tell in the end when people see that dissolving one union, the EU, may lead to dissolving the other, the UK, as well. The people are not stupid and they will begin to see through the web of lies that make up the Brexit case and force the politicians to rethink before they commit suicide on behalf of all of us.
Jonathan Powell was Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1995 to 2007 and chief negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007