English politicians are prone to playing lip service to the unity of the United Kingdom. Theresa May even made sure she visited Northern Ireland on her whistle-stop one year until Brexit tour last week. May leads the Tory Party that is officially called the Conservative and Unionist Party.
But how deep does this caring for Northern Ireland really go when it comes to Brexit?
Not very far, I’d argue.
Alex Massie, in a thoughtful column in February for The Times (paywalled, here). This is the key paragraph (my emphasis):
According to the most recent Future of England survey, a joint initiative of the University of Edinburgh and Cardiff University, 81 per cent of Leave voters in England believe destabilising the Northern Irish peace process a price worth paying if that’s what Brexit requires. That’s quite something. But then so is the discovery that 88 per cent of those Leave voters consider Brexit more important than the survival of the United Kingdom. That is, they would accept Scottish independence if doing so guaranteed Brexit.
Cardiff University’s website is so chaotic I cannot locate the original report to which Alex refers, but there is a little more detail here. Massie also cites Daniel Hannan, the Tory Brexiter, who claimed “the Good Friday Agreement has failed” – Hannan has deleted his tweet, but it is archived here, and you can sort of see what he and the Tory hardcore Brexiters are trying to do – to firm up their side of the argument for Hard Brexit and to let Northern Ireland go as the price for getting there. Brexit is, lest we forget, essentially a problem of English nationalism.
LBC has commissioned some more recent polling on the issue, explained by The Independent here. The poll forced respondents to choose – leaving the EU (36 per cent) is a higher priority than keeping the UK together (29 per cent).
Meanwhile the GUE-NGL Group in the European Parliament (essentially Sinn Féin) has conducted some polling in Northern Ireland, where they find a majority (57.8%) for a special EU status for Northern Ireland in the case of a Hard Brexit.
So how does this fit with the Brexit negotiations?
At the time of writing we are where we were in December 2017 – with three options for the border in Ireland still on the table, a line that essentially held at the mid-March 2018 summit (more on that holding-the-line from Patrick Smyth of the Irish Times here).
A recap of the three options:
- A comprehensive free trade agreement can be reached between the two sides, rendering a border unnecessary (current status: unlikely, as London wants hard Brexit)
- Technological solutions ensure that goods and people are checked without the need for a border (no-one thinks this one will work – even the Northern Ireland Select Committee of the Commons thinks so)
- The backstop or fallback solution, if 1 or 2 do not come to pass – that Northern Ireland will fully align with the Republic of Ireland (and therefore with the EU), and have some special status towards the EU (this one is loathed by the DUP, but we know how it could work – passport controls and customs controls on the ferries across the Irish Sea instead)
All of which makes me think that Option 3 is going to be the one we will ultimately end up with. There will be legal text for it by the autumn according to Barnier’s deputy Sabine Weyand. If Option 1 or Option 2 are to work then the UK side needs to find ways to make those plausible, and I see no sign of that.
There is of course a hurdle. Or a potential hurdle. The Democratic Unionist Party and its 10 MPs propping up Theresa May’s government in Westminster.
But what is the DUP actually going to do? Down May’s government and cause an early election with the danger of Corbyn and Labour getting in? And do that in the middle of the hottest phase of the Brexit negotiations? Plus on the substance of Hard Brexit, May can probably count on enough support from Labour Hard Brexiters to get approval for the Withdrawal Agreement in the Commons.
It’s time to think what was supposed to be unthinkable in the Brexit negotiations over the last 12 months: that England will wave goodbye to Northern Ireland as a necessary price for Hard Brexit, giving Northern Ireland a special status within the UK and towards the EU (essentially a Norway-option), with passport controls and customs controls on the ferries in the Irish Sea instead.
(Note: I intentionally write England here, for I do not think the views of Scotland or Wales in this are central just now. And note that I do not want this to happen – this post is simply my reading of what is happening)
[UPDATE 5.4.2018, 2000]
I am still annoyed the original Cardiff University research mentioned here is nowhere to be found. A better summary of it is however here.