The Irish Question

The UK’s negotiations with the EU-27 have it seems hit a major stumbling block.  The issue concerns the island of Ireland, and in particular trade across the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The potential for the intra-Ireland border to cause challenges was recognised at the time of the referendum.  Northern Ireland’s interesting geopolitical position – part of the island of Ireland geographically but part of the United Kingdom politically – has in the last 20 years been compounded by both its diplomatic position, in which, courtesy of the Good Friday agreement, its internal governance is most unusually subject to a degree of oversight from a foreign state, the Republic of Ireland, and not least its economic position, where thanks to the very success of the Good Friday agreement it is to a significant degree integrated into the Irish economy, indeed in some industries (eg agriculture) more than it is into the British one.

In short, Northern Ireland matters hugely to Dublin, both diplomatically, economically and socially – in truth, probably more than it does to most of the rest of the UK.  This was brought home when the Northern Irish Executive collapsed nearly a year ago – it was clear from the reactions in both Dublin and London that the Irish government both knew rather more about the political parties in Belfast and cared rather more about the political process there.

It is not therefore very surprising that the Irish insisted that resolving issues relating to the intra-Ireland border were of the first rank in importance, and that the EU agreed that they should therefore be included in the first round of the Brexit negotiations.

Anyone with any feel for history will not, however, be entirely surprised that the issue has proved a challenging one.  Indeed two different commentators have compared it to the Schleswig-Holstein Question, which so bedevilled northern European geopolitics in the middle of the 19th century[1].

There is one major difference though between the Schleswig-Holstein issue and the Irish Question:  the current Irish Question (to distinguish it from the many previous ones which have bedevilled the relationship between Britain and Ireland for at least 900 years) is a most unusual diplomatic conundrum in which all sides genuinely do want the same good outcome – as frictionless trade as possible across the intra-Ireland border – and yet even so it looks unattainable.

When one gets a situation like this, in which the political will of all sides is clear and in agreement, then a failure to deliver means that the diplomatic process is flawed:  diplomacy is after all merely a tool to deliver desired political ends.   And as the Brexit negotiations go round and round the issues that the Irish Question raises, this is become ever more clear.

The problem is a simple one on the surface, but with a number of rather deeper lessons underneath and some revealing insights into the differing approaches of the EU and the UK.

The surface problem is that Britain has been asked to provide an answer to a question without knowing what the question itself is.  The UK has been told to specify how trade will cross the intra-Ireland border before the nature of that border (which will be not just the intra-Ireland border but the EU’s external border with the UK) and the relationship between the customs and trade regimes on either side of it have been determined.

It simply can’t be done.  Until you know how trade between the UK and the EU will be conducted you do not know the framework for trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and until you know the legal framework for intra-Irish trade, you cannot determine the specifics for border formalities.

And the EU has dictated that no work can be done on the nature of future UK-EU trade until the Irish Question is solved.  It is a classic Catch-22.

And it is here that the deeper lessons start to emerge.  We are at this point because the EU decided (entirely unilaterally) that it interpreted the Article 50 process to mean that issues concerning the UK’s departure from the EU (the “divorce” part of the negotiations) should be settled before any discussion on the future relationship between the two after the UK has left.

This sequencing is by no means the only way that the text of Article 50 can be interpreted, and by no means self-evidently the optimal solution.  Yet the EU adopted the position very quickly, with very little analysis or discussion between the 27 member states, and then just presented it to the UK as a fait accompli.

The EU’s rationale for doing so is clear – they needed a way to force the UK to negotiate seriously on the terms of the divorce, and the carrot and stick of “trade discussions if you do, stalemate if you don’t” is, as is being proved, very  powerful.  But it was a negotiating position not an inalienable truth, and it is not the least of Mrs May’s errors over the negotiations that in her desire to show progress on writing the UK’s Article 50 letter, she simply accepted this diktat[2].

That is the first lesson: how diplomatic negotiations are conducted is often as important as their content.  The UK let the EU dictate the format of the talks, and is stuck with a methodology that is at best sub-optimal and over the question of Ireland actually unworkable.

The second lesson is that the EU is now also stuck with the methodology.  Michel Barnier is as aware as everyone else of the disfunctionality of the process for solving the Irish Question, but there is almost no way the EU can change it.  The nature of the EU, with its member states all needing to agree on any decision, makes its diplomacy slow and ponderous at the best of times (ask the Canadian trade negotiators!). But it is doubly difficult for the EU to change direction mid-stream, let alone row back on a previously agreed position.

As a result, it is becoming ever clearer that in these negotiations the EU is more concerned with process than with outcome.  They appear to prefer failed negotiations which followed due process to successful negotiations in which rules were bent.

The EU has become an inflexible body, unable to admit it has made a mistake, doomed to plough on on a course for failure rather than reopen issues where consensus, once reached, is too fragile to risk by re-examination.  For many years the EU has striven mightily to avoid treaty changes as being “too difficult” and too likely to open a Pandora’s box of issues; now even administrative changes to how it does business are it appears too much of a challenge.

Historians may eventually determine that it is this inflexibility, this preference for rules over outcomes – so integral to the EU’s psyche and so different from the UK’s pragmatic solution-seeking approach to problems – that lay at the heart of why the UK was never a successful member of the EU and why it eventually parted ways.

The last lesson is about the UK itself, and is the most worrying for the Northern Irish.  The most likely solution to the Irish Question remains that there will no border on the island of Ireland;  that is after all what everyone wants.  But unavoidably this implies a border in the Irish Sea, ie customs barriers between Ireland (the island) and Britain.  And this means customs barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

For the EU, that is clearly the optimal solution, because it completely outsources the issue to the UK who will have to police an internal customs border.  And for Northern Ireland it is not without its attractions in the easing of daily life around the border – and one must not forget that staying within the single market would meet the democratic wish of the Ulster population, who voted by 56% to 44% to remain in the EU.

But it would be a disaster for the Unionists in Northern Ireland – their worst nightmare as the province becomes ever more semi-detached from the UK and ever more closely sucked into the Republic – and Arlene Foster and her DUP members will surely have something to say about that.  And courtesy of the Conservatives’ poor position in the House of Commons they are not without leverage[3].

Ultimately, though, the hard truth of the matter is that, for the 97% of the UK’s population that lives on the British side of the Irish Sea, it is probably a price they would pay to move the negotiations on.

The Schleswig-Holstein issue rumbled on for nearly 80 years, led to two wars between Prussia and Denmark in the 1840s and 1860s, and was only finally resolved by plebiscites in 1920 as part of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War.  It is to be hoped that the current Irish Question is resolved rather more quickly, and much more peacefully, than the cause célèbre it is being compared to.


[1]           See for example this excellent comment from the independent commentator Alastair Newton, of AlavanZambia:–g

[2]               It is one of the ironies of the whole process of Brexit that the writing of the Article 50 letter, which was hailed by those wanting to leave the EU as “the act of taking back control”, was actually the moment the UK surrendered all control over the actual process of leaving and any chance of changing the narrative for its departure.

[3]               It is an added complication that the Irish government is also a minority government, and Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) has almost as limited a hold on power and almost as little room for flexibility as Theresa May.