A generous idea of the British nation is needed in order to keep the UK together

5 Feb

The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland – Realities and Challenges edited by John Wilson Foster and William Beattie Smith

The other evening I was having dinner in London with three liberals and when the subject of Northern Ireland happened to come up, all of them said that of course within the near future, Irish unification would take place.

I said this was not my opinion, which surprised them. They wondered how I could be so oblivious to the way the world is going; so at odds with the progressive consensus.

And I was unable to think, on the spur of the moment, of any arguments for the continued Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland which might have the slightest impact on my companions.

In his introduction to this collection of essays, John Wilson Foster laments that my inarticulacy is widely shared:

“What swells unionist alarm is the absence of influential support for the pro-Union cause from anywhere outside the Northern Irish pro-Union political parties. Irish republicanism (by which I mean nationalism that actively seeks a united separate Ireland) suffers no such political privation; it enjoys assent and promotion around the world even from those who know nothing about Ireland north or south…

“Reviewing a Sean O’Casey autobiography in 1945, George Orwell asked: ‘Why is it that the worst extremes of jingoism and racialism have to be tolerated when they come from an Irishman?’ His answer was ‘England’s bad conscience… It is difficult to object to Irish nationalism without seeming to condone centuries of English tyranny and exploitation.’ Northern Irish unionism has unjustifiably inherited this dilemma.”

Hence the production of this admirable collection of essays. Its 21 authors throw much light on various aspects of the problem, but less on how to solve it.

Indeed, an earlier version of the collection was published in 1995, without, so far as I know, doing more than to make existing supporters of the Union better informed.

As Foster remarks, within Northern Ireland itself, landowners, and senior figures in business and the professions, who used to make the case for the Union, have generally fallen silent:

“For some decades, public defence of the Union has cascaded down the social scale. It has now fallen through classless academia and come to rest mainly with loyalists (i.e. working-class unionists), whose reflex is to assert rather than articulate the Union. And they are targets for those who wish to denigrate the Union and dismiss the culture of unionism as all bonfires and marching bands.”

The London media generally feels “no warmth or enthusiasm” for the Union. The cultural riches of Ireland, wonderful poets from Yeats to Heaney, add lustre to Irish nationalism, whatever reservations those writers may actually have expressed.

The cultural riches of the British isles don’t count in the same way, are indeed discounted. Some Remainers wanted quite consciously to reject Britishness and to declare their European identity, and felt bereaved when they were told they could not remain in the European Union.

In vain Boris Johnson pointed out to them that it was still feasible for them to learn French and German if they wish – two languages of which the teaching had actually declined in our schools while we were in the EU.

Nationalism of every kind includes a strange process by which the bogus comes to be seen as genuine. The House of Windsor has been brilliant at doing this. We observe with pride an immaculate ceremonial which satisfies our craving for ancient splendour, much of which was invented between 1901 and 1910 under the joint patronage of Edward VII and the Daily Mail, founded in 1896 and eager for royal pageantry with which to fill its pages and sell newspapers.

Arthur Aughey remarks in his essay, The Idea of the Union, first printed in the 1995 version of this book, that it was at about the same time that the Union commanded close attention:

“The question of the Union was one which for two decades either side of the turn of the century concentrated the mind of the entire British Establishment and encapsulated the preoccupations of an empire. It brought forth a vast literature on the value of the Union as a political idea. Like conservatives in 1789, unionists in both Great Britain and Ireland had been ‘alarmed into reflection’. They were forced to make intelligible that which hitherto had been instinctive and natural.”

When the convulsions of that time were over, the Ulster Unionists found they had both won and lost:

“They had been able to prevent their absorption into a narrow and authoritarian Catholic, nationalist state. What they had not been able to assert convincingly, and what they had been unable to make the British Government in London fully acknowledge, was their full and unequivocal membership of the United Kingdom. After 1920 Unionists were cast back upon their own resources. They depended on their capacities and strength of will alone to ensure that Northern Ireland remained a part of the Union. What ensued was a dialectic of stubborn self-righteousness within Northern Ireland between Unionist and Nationalist.”

He wants to get beyond this self-righteous Unionism to one which is founded on equal citizenship:

“The idea of the Union is the willing community of citizens united not by creed, colour or ethnicity but by a recognition of the authority of the Union. Its relevant concept is citizenship and not nation.”

Aughey asserts at one point that there is “no such thing as the British nation”, and there are “only British citizens who happen to be English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish and some who would be none of these”.

This seems to me to be plain wrong. There is a British nation, comprising not only the four home nations, but people from all over the world who have chosen to live here, and to become British citizens.

As Henry Hill remarks in his contribution to this book, entitled The Re-emergence of Devosceptic Unionism,

“an underlying sense of nationhood is the essential cement of any long-term political union – especially if it cannot avail itself of near-universal elite buy-in as the EU can.”

Hill challenges, as ConHome readers will know, the fatuous assumption that the only way to deal with any failure of devolved government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is to devolve yet more powers.

Brexit is the beginning not the end of making the positive case for the British nation. I have sometimes done this in conversation about the Union with Scotland, contending that if it were to end, both England and Scotland would be diminished, becoming narrower and less generous places.

In Northern Ireland, as various contributors to this volume remark, there are almost certainly many people who are content to remain part of the United Kingdom, but have no words in which to express that preference.

A generous Unionism, of a kind which can be commended at dinner even to London liberals, requires a generous understanding of Britishness, and that in turn cannot be the creation of politicians alone, but must depend, as any nation does, on poets, novelists, historians and essayists.

Henry Hill: If Johnson wants to save the Belfast Agreement, he must act to restore unionist confidence in it

8 Apr

Last month, I wrote about what the appointment of Lord Frost signalled with regards to the Government’s intentions over the Northern Ireland Protocol. This week’s loyalist violence shows the importance of Boris Johnson getting this policy right.

The division inside the Government is not between people who like or dislike the Protocol. Nobody likes it.

Rather the divide is between those such as Michael Gove, who believe that the Protocol can be made to work (and has striven to sand off its roughest edges), and the likes of Frost, who don’t. The latter camp maintain that because the Protocol is a ‘living document’ rooted in EU law, it is almost certainly going to metastasise rather than stabilise, and lay a heavier and heavier burden on Ulster’s connections with the mainland.

Of course there is no avoiding the fact that the Prime Minister signed up to it, but the defence offered for that is that after the passage of the Benn Act the Government didn’t have the leverage to get rid of it before leaving the EU. Nor was the mistake his alone.

For all that some commentators like to talk up Theresa May’s alternative approach, in truth the critical mistakes on Northern Ireland – especially allowing Britain’s rhetoric about no return to “the borders of the past” to mutate into a commitment to an invisible Irish border which is not in the Belfast Agreement – were made when she was in office. Ireland and the EU deliberately pushed a maximalist line on Ulster and credulous British ministers swallowed it whole.

The Protocol isn’t the only factor contributing to the violence. The visible refusal of the PSNI to act on blatant lawbreaking by senior Sinn Fein politicians is another. But they are part and parcel of the same trend of unionists and loyalists feeling that the structures and processes of the post-1998 settlement are being stacked against them.

There is no plausible reading of the Belfast Agreement that could offer the nationalist community a right to an invisible border with a neighbouring state but not protect unionists from a visible border inside their country. Yet that is how it has been defined, if not in court then by the political debate around the Protocol. The Agreement is supposed to guarantee Northern Ireland’s British status, yet the Government will not fly the flag there. Some people even thought the Democratic Unionists propping up the May Government – i.e. participating in their national government – a breach of the deal.

As a result, the loyalist paramilitary groups have already withdrawn their support for the deal and there is an increasingly real prospect of political unionism following suit. If the major parties get spooked into collapsing Stormont, it may not come back.

This is a test for both sides. The EU has been keen to talk up the importance of the ‘Good Friday’ Agreement and ‘the peace’ when doing so meant maximally enforcing the EU’s interests. Will it continue to prioritise them if it means going against its perceived interests? It would be a surprise.

But it is even more a test for the Government, because Northern Ireland is British and thus ultimately our responsibility. That means that yes, Johnson needs to back Frost to the hilt if he has a long-term strategy for delivering fundamental changes to the Protocol. But he should not stop there.

As I wrote in the News Letter last week, he should overturn the decision to exclude the Province from the new policy of putting the Union Flag on UK Government buildings and authorise Brandon Lewis to undertake root-and-branch reform at the NIO to get rid of the entrenched neutralist attitudes that rule there. He should also task whoever is in charge of formulating constitutional policy to sit down and develop a proper British vision of the Belfast Agreement and its obligations, to help prevent future generations of lazy and/or uninterested ministers getting memed into terrible decisions by those selling the myths that seem to comprise the ‘Good Friday Agreement’.

For too long, the Government has relied on the old trick of staging interminable rounds of talks and then basically bribing the local parties back into Stormont for a bit. If the Prime Minister wants to save the Belfast Agreement, he must demonstrate to unionists that its guarantees of their British status – including the ability to participate fully in British political and economic life – are real.

Henry Hill: Frost’s appointment shows the Government is not resigned to the Northern Ireland Protocol

4 Mar

Throughout the Brexit negotiations, the European Union always insisted that its approach to Northern Ireland was governed by the pre-eminent importance it placed on the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement. Events may be about to test this thesis.

Today the Loyalist Communities Council, “an umbrella group that represents the views of the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando” in the Guardian’s words, wrote to Boris Johnson to announce that the major paramilitary groups were withdrawing their support for the Agreement.

Whilst they insist for now that unionist opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol remain ‘peaceful and democratic’, the move has been made against a background of mounting concern about a resurgence of loyalist violence, most likely targeting the infrastructure and personnel enforcing the new Irish Sea border between Ulster and the mainland.

All this is important context to the announcement that Lord Frost, the new Brexit Minister, is going to unilaterally extend the grace periods exempting supermarkets from checks on goods being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, as well as a moratorium on customs declarations for parcels being sent to the Province. The move has sparked outrage from Brussels, which has accused the Government of engaging in a second UKIM-style breach of international law.

But according to sources familiar with the thinking behind the move, this is quite another sort of manoeuvre. The threat of “specific and limited” breaches to international law deployed during the debate on the UK Internal Market Bill were a short-term negotiating tactic – and one which worked, in as much as it helped Michael Gove to secure concessions from the EU on the Protocol.

However, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was at best negotiating with one hand tied behind his back. Whilst the Prime Minister and his team had apparently come to office fully aware of the danger posed by the Backstop – see this letter from Johnson to Tusk from August 2019 – the passage of the ‘Benn Act’ severely restricted their ability to push back against Brussels’ demands before the Withdrawal Agreement had to be concluded.

Thinking within government has since divided into two camps. The first, represented by Gove, is essentially facilitative. They don’t like the Protocol, but they recognise the extreme difficulty of resiling from it. This would certainly be in keeping with his more conciliatory approach to the parallel row over devolution.

Frost apparently takes a different view. His camp believes that with the best will in the world, the Protocol is simply not sustainable. Even if its first few weeks had not already witnessed several emergency summits, the triggering of Article 16, and the above loyalist declaration, there are deeper structural problems that mean it cannot be a stable foundation for a lasting settlement.  Specifically, the fact that the whole thing is rooted in EU law means that it is a ‘living document’, whose implications and scope will continually expand in line with EU regulation and rulings from the European Court of Justice. Its operation will therefore drag Northern Ireland farther and farther away from the economic orbit of Great Britain by default.

If you take this view, then it follows that the Protocol needs to be replaced, and sooner rather than later – just as the UKIM Act partially redressed Theresa May’s capitulation to the devocrats over post-Brexit powers. This is where Frost’s unilateral extension of the grace periods comes in.

Those privy to the thinking behind the move believe that it is much more defensible internationally than the UKIM gambit was. Especially in light of the dangerous situation with the loyalists and the role of empty shelves as a focus for unionist anger, the Government can defend a temporary measure intended to buy more time to find lasting solutions.

But as we saw when we looked at Gove’s negotiations, such solutions may not exist in the current framework. He notably refused to reassure Democratic Unionist MPs that the original grace periods were intended to buy time to make GB-NI supply lines work, rather than give Northern Irish businesses time to find new, EU suppliers. Which on the face of it makes another round of temporary fixes just another tactical get-out-of-jail (for now) card.

Unless, that is, the ambition is to have secured material changes to the Protocol by the time those extra six months are up.

This won’t be easy. Contra the somewhat complacent assumptions of some ERG members, it would be very difficult for the UK to simply resile from the Protocol. A short, sharp, UKIM-style threat is one thing. Standing indefinitely in the bad graces of the international law community quite another.

So there are two possible paths forwards. The first, assuming that Brussels absolutely refuses to play ball, is that Britain manages to argue that the EU is operating in bad faith and uses that to justify walking away from the agreement. The second is more attritional, and involves persuading the EU that reworking the Protocol is in the interests of both sides.

This might seem optimistic. But in the event of an actual return to violence, not to mention an endless succession of crisis talks, Brussels will be forced to choose between its hard-nosed defence of the Single Market and its homilies about the peace. British strategists apparently think that the EU places such a high value on its being seen as a moral (indeed, the most moral) actor that it is unlikely to stick to its current purist position in such conditions.

In the event of fresh negotiations, London would be aiming for a new arrangement which overturned two axions which May unwisely signed up to: that there be no change whatsoever to the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland (which is often dressed up as a Belfast Agreement obligation, but isn’t); and that the EU should not have to adapt its legislative arrangements. Greater cooperation in other areas – maybe defence? – could be offered in exchange.

This is a bold strategy. To have any chance of working it will take months of sustained diplomatic and governmental effort. If the Prime Minister really has elevated Frost with such a mandate, it is vital that he be left in post long enough and be sufficiently empowered to pursue it. To let one half of your Union strategy collapse into chaos might be regarded as carelessness; to let both looks like negligence.