Northern Ireland Constitutional Settlement: A Brexit Booby Trap?

Today we’ll stick our noses into Northern Ireland politics, which it turns our matters more than it might appear in Brexit. And I don’t mean the DUP’s position in the UK parliament or the fact that on Monday, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told Theresa May that the UK could not push the Republic around on the topic of the backstop. Per the Guardian:

Varadkar’s office released a statement shortly after May had called him on Monday morning, which said that while Ireland was open to the possibility of “a review mechanism” for the backstop, “the outcome of any such review could not involve a unilateral decision to end the backstop”.

An issue that appears to have been widely ignored, but our alert Brexit experts have picked up on, is that the UK does not have the authority to alter the constitutional arrangements of Northern Ireland, which includes the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement. It’s not clear how the UK can obtain the needed approvals, given that Northern Ireland has had no functioning government since 2017 and is effectively under direct rule by the Government.

This is a particularly tortured topic and I hope my from-the-other-side-of-the-pond attempt at recapping it is reasonably accurate, given that messy situations don’t lend themselves well to simplification. Bear in mind that this is an area where our Clive deems the normally reliable and detail-oriented Richard North to be “clueless”.

And before you assume that the EU can bulldoze Northern Ireland, recall that Wallonia held up the approval of the Canada-Europe Trade Agreement for two weeks because its parliament nixed the pact, forcing the Commission to negotiate with Wallonia. But it’s even worse here. As Clive pointed out:

But an unelected and unaccountable EU ladling out do’s and don’ts to unionists in NI over which they have no control (which is what “NI remaining under Single Market rules” means in practice) is not what the Good Friday Agreement permits.

To see what it’s so hard to square this circle, we need to look at the train wreck that is Northern Ireland politics.1 Any change regarding Norther Ireland’s border and customs arrangements and/or regulatory supervision needs to be approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly. On the devolution settlement for Northern Ireland, “transferred matters” which are under the Northern Ireland Assembly’s jurisdiction include agriculture, economic development, local government, transport, environmental issues, and justice and the police. Constitutional changes are also agreed, or at least proposed, in the Assembly. Having Northern Ireland subject to enough EU trade and other rules to allow for an open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland would require the Assembly’s approval. As Clive put it:

We have Direct Rule in all but name. The UK cannot make constitutional settlement changes for the province via Direct Rule. For, say, the Brexit Border in the Irish Sea “solution” this would be a constitutional settlement change for NI (putting the province in a totally different legal jurisdiction than the rest of the UK. is the very definition of a constitutional change, which is why I knew it was nevah gonna happen absent support at the Assembly, which was impossible because currently there ain’t no Assembly).

Aha, but what of this Assembly, which is also called Stormont? It’s been suspended since January 2017. In theory, it could fire back up at any time with the same Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) that it had back then; no new elections are required. But why is this not going to happen? Again to Clive:

Post the 2017 General Election (remember, this happened after the Assembly disappears into the constitutional twilight zone) the DUP suddenly finds it holds the balance of power for the entire UK. So Stormont now seems like the parish backwater it is and the DUP, which up until then maybe would have liked to resurrect and repair it, now doesn’t give a stuff about it. It gets even better for the DUP.

Sinn Féin collapsed power sharing when it flounced out of the Assembly in a huff over some made-up outrage (it was a legitimate outrage, but a teeny tiny little turd in the great cesspool that is NI political and governance awfulness) so we have now the U.K. government in the bizarre position of trying to talk Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin of all people, back into power sharing in NI to get it, the UK, out of a constitutional pig-in-a-poke. (cue at this point the DUP in one of Lambert’s subliminal subscript fonts whispering maniacally “it was them who caused all this, them!, them!” in the UK government’s ear).

Brace yourself for more weirdness, if that were possible.

So, Sinn Féin, having done its turn at gesture politics, a NI speciality, finds itself having pushed power sharing under a bus just when it suddenly would have really meant something. Which makes sense, now, of something which seemed completely inexplicable earlier this year (March-ish time, I think, I’ll need to check the exact date) where Sinn Féin, the Republic’s government and the U.K. government were all desperate, just desperate, to restore a functioning Assembly. May went over to NI, I think Simon Coveney was there, too. There was a big stage-managed set piece for the cameras, times for the evening news etc. It was all supposed to end up in a grand bargain fudgey compromise.

The DUP, predictably, refused to play the game. I’ll say this for them, they’re certainly consistent. It played hard ball. Not even the Republic’s government could persuade Sinn Féin to eat any more of the fudge on offer. The Republic’s government has limited sway with Sinn Féin anyway. It’s like Hillary trying persuade Donald to donate his kidney to save Bill. To be fair to Sinn Féin, they gave a lot of ground. And for the DUP, leader Arlene Foster seemed prepared to have her slice of fudge, too, but the hardliners in the party told her they wouldn’t wear it. So everyone, the U.K. government, the Republic’s government, Sinn Féin and the DUP, shuffled off back behind their respective red lines and domestic power plays.

PlutoniumKun agreed:

Regarding the Assembly, the Sinn Fein leadership is desperate to get the Assembly back up again for precisely the reasons outlined. But their problem is that their support base is completely disillusioned with it, tired of seeing every concession gobbled up by the DUP with nothing in return. It could only work when you had strong secure leaders like Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, but they generation has gone. The Assembly is unworkable under the current circumstances where the DUP can torpedo everything they don’t like, which is basically anything that Nationalists want.

There is only one way that the Assembly could be put back together, and that is if the British Govt cut off all the salaries to DUP elected members and nominees. But because of May’s parliamentary situation, they can’t do this (yes indeed, dozens of senior DUP members are drawing fat salaries for doing nothing)….

It’s possible but unlikely I think that the Irish foreign office is not fully informed. I know they’ve put an enormous effort into educating other EU foreign ministers and Barnier on the complexities, including a lot of unpublicised visits to the border areas. So I would be very surprised if the EU was caught unaware, but it is possible that London and the DUP think they’ve come up with a clever legal wheeze which will checkmate the EU, at least as far as the border issue is concerned.

And from Clive by e-mail yesterday:

There is, suffice to say, zero, zilch, nada political will to resolve the devolved government issues. The DUP are delighted with the current situation. They never liked the GFA from the start. While Arlene Foster made some of the right noises to trying to negotiate a compromise, the well-orchestrated “hardliners won’t wear it” bust-up meant it never happened. Sinn Fein watered down as many of their demands as their base would let them get away with, but they were still pre-conditions on a resumption of the Assembly. So the DUP could simply reissue its “no power sharing under the threat of extra-procedural Sinn Fein demands” refusal.

The astoundingly useless Karen Bradley (the UK Government’s NI Secretary) tried a ridiculous ruse a week or so ago to allow civil servants to make policy in the absence of the Assembly — without formal Direct Rule being introduced. This suggests that the UK Government does want to resolve the NI law-making issue because it realises that it is a landmine in any Brexit deal that no-one can skirt around and no-one can defuse either. It just landed the UK Government straight into court:

… this will have to end up wending its way, eventually, into the UK’s Constitutional Court (The UK Supreme Court). Who will no doubt throw out the UK Government’s attempt to finesse this away. There’s a near 600-year history on civil servants never, ever, being allowed to make political decisions. The UK Government has a well-established legal basis to step in and re-instigate Direct Rule to preserve the rule of law in the province. The fact that, politically, it is fraught isn’t the courts problem or the civil service’s problem to fix. They will, inevitably, decline to do so.

Now one solution, as Clive alludes to above, would be for the UK to impose Direct Rule for real, and not the provisional version it has operating now, and do whatever it thinks it needs to do Northern-Ireland-contitution-wise to deal with Brexit. But that means sweeping away the Good Friday Agreement. Hard to see anyone having the stomach for that.

PlutoniumKun raised some other possibilities:

There are two wild cards in this I think, which the Irish government may as a last resort seek to use, both of which launch into a legal unknown land. One is the right of the Irish government to call for the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference to sit again under Article 2 of the GFA and insist that as EU matters are in its competence everything must be agreed through it, so bypassing the Assembly. The other option, perhaps for the EU, is to appeal under the Vienna Agreement that the Irish government, and hence the EU, must be allowed a say in NI constitutional matters or the UK is in breach of its commitments.

Whether either of these would change matters if the UK dug it’s heels in I’ve no idea, but I suspect the EU could insist on either option if May insists that her hands are tied legally over the backstop.

Even though either of these could be a Hail Mary pass, it’s difficult to see how they could come to a conclusion before the March 29 Brexit date, particularly since no one as of now looks primed to tee either one up.

Vlade offered another ploy:

I think there’s an additional angle to this, although I don’t think it will be pushed hard at the moment, as it would drive DUP out.

That is, calling a unification referendum. As I wrote some time back, the support in NI for unification was hovering about 20% for a long time before Brexit, but started ramping up rapidly with Brexit. A poll in September was the first one which had unification winning in case of hard-border Brexit, and being too-close-to-call in case of Brexit anyways.

Now, in theory, it would take Stormont to call it, together with Westminster. But if GFA was dead, and there’s a return to Direct Rule, with devolution dead, then Westminster can do whatever it likes there, including calling a referendum. Which would be hard to see as undemocratic (not that DUP wouldn’t try their best to smear it).

Yes, Tories have “unionist” party in the name. But in reality, most of them would be very happy to throw NI under the bus if it means the impasse gets resolved. Most of the non ultras now hate DUP, so if it meant poking DUP into the eye, it would be even better (w/o NI seats Tories would have a majority. Wafer thin, one vote I think, but still). Oh, and it would pull one over Ireland, as while they talk unification, they fear it a lot.

Even NI staying in the UK would solve the impasse, as there would be a strong argument that the people of NI rejected the need for open border, so what’s the EU/Ireland about.

If I was a Tory, I’d offer this as a backstop to the EU, and watch them squirm.

This wee impasse isn’t getting anywhere near the attention it warrants. And before you assume someone has sorted this out, recall that even though it was obvious that the government was not going to bail out Lehman (too much public ire after the Bear Stearns rescue), no one in the officialdom consulted a bankruptcy lawyer to understand what it would mean. They didn’t even talk to Harvey Miller, the dean of the bankruptcy bar, who Lehman had retained. Miller had prepared nothing because the lack of contact by regulators and Lehman management told him there was no reason to gear up. The fact that Lehman filed with a short-form bankruptcy made its collapse even more destructive than it needed to be.

So in situation with way too many moving parts, don’t assume that the key players are on top of all the things they need to be watching. And that goes double for May’s government.


1 Forgive the mixed metaphor, but an excuse is that train tracks can be laid out in squares and circles.

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  1. Clive

    I had completely forgotten the “no one talked to a bankruptcy attorney” aspect of the GFC!

    We attribute so much knowledge, intelligence and forward-thinking ability to our elites. While some are more clueless (like the UK government) than others (like the EU Commission) none have perfect situational awareness.

    I will never forget how, during the GFC, few if any of the top management at my TBTF and seemingly no-one at all in government had the foggiest idea how Treasury operations worked and how a bank “buys” sufficient cash for its counter and ATM usage.

    Given the mindbending complexity of Northern Ireland and its politics and multilateral constitutional lash-up, you’d have to figure it being more likely than not few in the Brexit negotiations teams know how the plumbing works.

    1. vlade

      I’d not expect them to understand many in top management to understand it (but then, maybe I’m biased as few if any of them understand most of what goes on in their wholesale division, and here I don’t mean simply sales or trading, but risks and regulation too).

      But what gets me is that they don’t even understand, and want to understand that there are risks there, and ask for those to be explained. TBH, sometime it’s related not necessarily to the top management, but the levels just below, who loath giving them any remotely badish news. I remember how I once dragged out a board member on a call on Friday night – she was actually pretty good, and got a decision made immediately once I explained the problem. The “Head of” who reported to her, and I jumped over was very very unhappy though..

      1. divadab

        That’s a very good way to get fired, going over the head of your boss. This is especially true if you are right and they are wrong. Basic ape stuff, ignore it at your peril.

        @vlade, how long were you in that job afterwards?

        1. vlade

          Actually, MY boss told me to get it fixed, so I did ;). The “Head of” was a different reporting line, tough luck to him TBH. To my knowledge, he didn’t dare to do much on this.

    2. Nick Weech

      Thanks to U and all this team for making this utter complexity a little bit clearer.
      The point about Lehman Bros just ices this cake: “They” don’t have a clue either

  2. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Yves, Clive, PK and Vlade.

    Lots to chew, literally and metaphorically, with Vlade later this week.

    Clive’s second paragraph is particularly accurate. 2010 and 2015 led to the departures of many good civil servants and, even, some politicians who had an idea of how complex things can be and recall how violent Northern Ireland was. I come across civil servants in their 20s and 30s and wonder what they have learnt and learn.

    My father had some tours of Northern Ireland. He often says, not referring to the Orange State, that solving one problem leads to another. In the case of Ireland, it appears that the plantation of Ulster from 1607 contributed to partition in 1921. Partition has complicated Brexit a century later. It will be ironic if the Tories, blamed by Sir Edward Carson for using Ireland in their quest for power after WW1, are the ones to oversee unification. Gerry Adams and Martin MacGuinness thought that it would be a Michael Heseltine type who could / would do that/

    1. divadab

      Ironic and I would think impossible unless by reunification you mean Ireland rejoining the UK. The political realities of Ulster are brutally clear. I think it more likely that NI would devolve and leave the UK as an independent member of the EU than join up with the Republic. But then I haven;t been in Ulster since the late seventies, so maybe the situation has softened.

      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, DD.

        I meant the unification of “Norn Iron” with the Republic.

        Max Hastings has often written about white South Africans and Rhodesians saying how well supported they were at golf clubs in the Home Counties. He retorted that when matters come to a head, this support would evaporate and they would be sold down the river. One wonders if the Unionists understand that. Paisley, apparently, did. Pik Botha also understood that.

      2. SOMK

        Ireland has a history of invasion, but the roots of the antagonism in the North whilst certainly plantation has an element in it, is more likely found in the Williamite war of the 1688-1691, especially the early campaign in the North where James II’s failure to capture the last two Protestant hold outs (Derry & Eniskillen), meant the forces of William III were eventually able to land and with longer and more reluctant Jacobite supply chains relying on both control of the seas and the (not inconsiderable) charity of Louis XIV. The campaign in the Notth was bedraggled by the lack of professionalism on both sides, early in the conflict town leaders were willing to cut a deal with the Jacobites but the Jacobites were unable to control the “half-pike” bandits who followed in the wake of their armies and so any promises they made about safe passage or respecting property would not be kept by the various thieves and rapists who followed in their wake and whom the Jacobite forces were too occupied (the Jacobite forces it should also be noted were remarkably militarily inept, whilst the enniskilleners in particular -nomadic pastoralists and so of quasi-warrior stock- made up for lack of military experience and rigour with some terrific fighting zeal) with the war to divert resources to police their own wake.

        As per the attitude of the Protestant population including the North, one of the two biggest concerns that population would have is the scope for being subjected to the same bigotry they have historically benefited from in a Catholic Ireland and the republic’s economic inferiority (in the late 90’s as a teenager working in Newry they jokingly referred to the south as ‘Mexico’, I doubt that’s the case today), both issues are now moot, Ireland has recently voted to essentially legalise abortion, the republics economy vastly out preforms the North’s (albeit being highly reliant on FDI -which I suspect would disappear rapidly were an Irishman governments to get strict about allowing the US military to use Shannon- a kind of ‘soft’ colonialism) in addition to the sentiment of Britain towards NI being gradually corroding, never mind Britian’s general decline. So whilst a United Ireland is still beyond the pale for many Northern Protestants, I’d suspect it’s far less so for many, especially those in their 20’s and early 30’s who didn’t live through the worst of the troubles and more could potentially be won over.

        1. Colonel Smithers

          Thank you.

          I know two people Protestants, both living in London, whose families are applying for Irish passports. The pair are in their 30s and 40s.

        2. makedoanmend

          The Scottish government had to change its policy with regard to giving EU nationals tuition reimbursement when they realised that people from the North of Ireland who claimed they would never have anything to do with the Republic of Ireland started producing Irish passports as proof they were from the EU. I think the Scottish government now demands birth certificates as well. Those from the North have to pay full tuition or reside in Scotland for a minimum of three years.

          Yeah, there is a marked change in economic fortunes. Many places in the North now seem rather quaint, being somewhat backward and from a bygone economic era. Plus Northern tourist spots now routinely rely on Southern visitors for their economic well being.

        3. Laughingsong

          ROI may be supported by FDI and luring multinationals with tax breaks (hence the large disparity between GNP and GDP) but my understanding is that the North is supported by UK subsidies? It seems too small, economically and geographically, to be viable as an independent state.

          The Protestants may truly fear oppression if the island were unified but my decade living in ROI makes me think that this fear is unjustified…. except for the parades maybe.

          What’s always kind of torqued me about supposed Unionists is that they have in the past seemingly supported being part of the UK only up to the point that the UK Parliament supported their agenda. The few times that the UK has tried to get them to ease up on the Catholic communities in the past, they thumbed their noses at them.

    2. Oregoncharles

      NI provides a culturally close-to-home example of how nightmarish colonization is. The English foisted a bunch of Scots (mostly lowland, hence Presbyterian) on Northern Ireland to secure their hold. 400 years later, that move is still causing trouble.

      There are other, contemporary examples: Israeli settlements, for an obvious example. And the Chinese settlements of Han Chinese in their western territories, both Tibet and Sinkiang and probably Inner Mongolia, which are conquered. If the current dynasty collapses, as they always do eventually, there will be a bloodbath in the West, probably combined with mass movements of Han settlers back to China, which doesn’t have room for them. Very much a case of chickens coming home to roost, as are May’s difficulties with the DUP.

  3. Peter

    From Craig Murrays post today, why parts of the Tory party to actually would be delighted wth the destruction of the Anglo Irish agrement.

    It is not possible to understand the current state of play in Brexit negotiations, without understanding that those effectively driving the Tory Party position do not view a hard border with Ireland as undesirable. They view it as a vital achievement en route to rolling back power sharing and all the affirmative measures which brought peace to Northern Ireland, in an affirmation of the glory and power of unionism.

  4. larry

    A perusal of Aeron Davis’s Reckless Opportunists will provide evidence of gross, pervasive elite incompetence across the board for both the political and corporate spheres. Neoliberal propaganda seems to tend to reinforce incompetence as a job description along with, in certain places, some psychopathic traits. This isn’t sustainable in the long run, but one would have expected it to run its course by now given the insuperable problems it has caused. But, no, this does not look like ending any time soon. So, it seems we must continue to expect incompetence in politicians and business leaders. What is odd is that some of them are even incompetent in feathering their own nests, as it were.

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Merci et bien dit, Larry.

      Maintenant je comprends pourquoi nous avons besoin d’un bain de sang jacobin, un grand nettoyage. Il faut encourager, meme decourager, les autres. French speakers and those interested in the French revolution will know what I mean.

      1. larry

        Colonel, I don’t know as I’d go as far as this. Remember Marat. A grave error if ever there was one. But nicely said. ‘Les autres’ seem to be forever a problem and not only in human affairs. Maybe it is part of our biological heritage rather than ‘simply’ a socio-cultural construct. And by this, I don’t mean that such constructs are simple.

        1. Colonel Smithers

          Thank you, Larry, and good points.

          My comment was made more out of frustration as to what will bring these elites and their 10% enablers / hangers on to their senses.

  5. Duncan

    The joke is:

    Whenever the English have an answer to “The Irish Question” the Irish change the question.

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you.

      Perhaps, this is why the Irish make such good authors, in both English and French.

  6. DJG

    Many thanks, Yves Smith. Our diligent U.K. correspondents, as always, have explained the situation well, and in spite of their efforts, I still don’t understand what is going on. As a USonian, I may never have factored in the idea that Stormont was in self-inflected limbo. Now I understand the paralysis slightly better.

    The only logical resolution if the English truly want Brexit is the Irish Sea border. Yet the DUP knows that such a resolution means reunification fairly quickly (by historic Irish standards–so let’s say fifty years). Reunification gives the DUP of 2060 about two seats in the parliamanent of reconstituted Eire.

    The perils of empire.

    Another logical solution would be Scottish independence with some kind of cobbled-together union of Celts across Eire, NI, and Scotland. That way, the NI unionists would be in touch with their ancestral homeland. But maybe I’ve had too much Glenmorangie.

    The perils of empire: And a lesson for the U S of A, which is always so eager to ape our English betters. What is going on in NI is a case of a disastrous foreign policy (and Ireland is foreign policy) that has become a disastrous domestic policy that has helped to produce endless war. The parallel for the U S of A is endless war in the Middle East and domestic / foreign-policy corruption by our facsimile friendses there, Saudia Arabia and Israel. The historical / demographic disaster of NI parallels what has happened in Israel, and the U S of A is complicit in the foolishness of various Israeli governments, including the right-wing religiously inclined current one.

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you.

      Speaking of the perils of empire, you may recall that the last viceroy of India, the royal who oversaw partition, died thirty years later at the hands of the Irish Republican Army.

      It may be better for the Unionists to come to the table now and get a good deal from the Irish Republic and avoid being sold down the river by the Tories. Seamus Mallon and Albert Reynolds have / had talked about being generous in such circumstances.

      The Unionists would do worse than confer with the Afrikaner Broederbond, FW de Klerk, Roelf Meyer, Marta Olckers and Sampie Terblanche etc. They feel that had white South Africans waited longer to move on, they would not have had such a settlement. One could say the same about white Mauritians.

      1. Colonel Smithers

        I forgot to add that your Celtic union is one way of Scotland accessing EU membership. This said, there are French who recall the Auld Alliance, including Scottish kings and troops fighting in the 100 years war, and would be more than happy to enable Scottish membership if only to spite perfidious Albion. I am surprised that the SNP government has not wooed France. It’s an open door / goal.

        1. divadab

          Excellent discussion! While I would dream of a celtic union it’s a hard dream to realize given the historic divisions created by colonizing religions and languages. The Gauls are celts colonized by catholic latins; the Scots are celts colonized by protestant germans. And the Irish have their own pagan catholicism (if St. Finbar was not a Druid in practice, not doctrine, I’ll eat my tam) but have been colonized by (mostly) english-speaking scots protestants. (admittedly a very simplistic analysis of a complex and fraught history). And don;t get me started on the french-speaking huguenot bretons.

          Divide and rule, that’s been the ticket for a thousand years.

          1. Colonel Smithers

            Thank you, DD.

            NC is great, isn’t it. I am not planning to any work this afternoon. As Clive said, last year, I will only destroy value if I do :-).

            I have Breton (corsaire) and Scots (Jacobite refugee) ancestors. I was not aware of Huguenot Bretons. My family is Roman Catholic. Next spring, we are going to Braemar to celebrate the chief’s 100th birthday. He’s a Compton in the male line, but descended from the Farquharson / Farquhar in the female line.

            The Stewarts (Stuart in French) are descended from a Breton who came with the Normans.

            1. Divadab

              @Smithers- yes there was a fair bit of migration within the Celtic zone. I’ve had a Stewart explain to me that Stuarts are Catholic (comme bel prince Charles) and Stewarts are Protestant but this may well be family legend. The original was the Breton steward to Guillaume le batard who came as part of the Norman invasion and did very well for his lineage. As you know.

              I have ancestry who fought at Culloden on Charles’ left and of the three thousand of my clan who mustered out half were dead within a week, women outraged, cattle stolen, byres burned, and children set to flight. It seems to me it was a bit of a practice run for colonisation of North America for the empire never sleeps. I’m a prot by tradition but lapsed although I do have a great great uncle who was a priest and a bishop and my grandmother and her six sisters all went to school with the nuns tho they were excused from catechism as despite their uncle they were Presbyterian.

              Anyway nice visiting with you I must return to work and may peace be with you and all who read this.

        2. Synapsid

          DJG, Colonel Smithers,

          Let’s see: If memory serves, the Scots left the north of Eire sometime around the Fifth Century and settled in what is now the southwest of Scotland. Over the centuries as Scotland and England developed the fine old tradition of border reiveing (spelling to be considered by the reader) became established in the Scots psyche and flourished to the point that in the 17th C the English king rounded up the most rambunctious and sent them to man garrison towns in the Low Countries, from which they sneaked back to Scotland where they settled back into old, well-loved ways. They were rounded up again and sent to what is now Northern Ireland, whence their forefathers and foremothers came in the first place, not to return on pain of death, and their descendants are much of the stock of the place.

          The way is clear: The Republic should lay claim not only to NI but to Scotland too, and the Gaeltacht, newly refurbished, would begin a glorious future while leaving the Sassenach to sink back into the Dark Ages.

          Time for more port.

          1. Colonel Smithers

            Thank you.

            It’s definitely time for more Port. Anything to do with Brexit drives one to such relief / sustenance.

            With regard to pain of death, it’s still illegal, punishable by death, but not enforced for the Welsh to cross Offa’s Dyke into England.

            1. Synapsid

              Colonel Smithers,

              And here I thought the purpose of Offa’s Dyke was to keep the Mercians from fleeing to Wales.

          2. Anonymous2

            Some of us Scots seem to have come over from Norway in the dim and distant past judging from DNA studies. We are the tall blue eyed handsome ones obviously.

            1. Synapsid


              In historic times the Orkneys and the Outer Hebrides were part of Norway until the later Middle Ages and the cultural marks are still there, and the Viking contribution, generally Norwegian, picked up some six centuries earlier. The genomic work, though, as you point out, shows significant Scandinavian input as far back as the Mesolithic, in England as well as Scotland.

              We get around, we do.

          3. Divadab

            @synapsid- yes highland scots are Irish – but I think were there earlier than the fifth C – and yes many clans are of Norwegian origin tho you’d be surprised how many Norwegian s are dark haired and blue eyed. Norway not outside the Celtic zone of influence- Celt s water people and mobile – celts got to Iceland first and maybe North America. Genetic studies show icelanders are more than three quarters Celtic in the maternal lineages and more than three quarters Nordic in the paternal. Food for some speculation I think!

            1. Oregoncharles

              When my family were fishing in Iceland, they were told by an Icelander that the initial settlers were about half Celtic, mostly Irish, slaves. The female half, it sounds like.

              Iceland has cultural continuity back to then, so they should know.

          4. Oregoncharles

            @ Synapsid: I like it, just for the excitement. Now I see why the Colonel was hoping to hear from me. I’ve suggested this as a possible result of a complete re-alignment. No idea how serious the prospect is – don’t think we’ve seen anyone on the ground there suggest it. Scots independence in order to stay in the EU is a real possibility, though.

        3. Synoia

          Ah, but the English exported those Scots under the Highland Clearences, so there a non remaining.

          I think in 1745. Not sure.

          1. Synapsid


            The Clearances wrecked the Highland economy for those living on the land but the people are still there and on the Hebrides too. Gaelic is widespread (not on the Orkneys–that was Norn not Gaelic) but the numbers are small. The region may not have had a large population since the Neolithic.

    2. Colonel Smithers

      If you have too much Glenmorangie, try some Lagavullin :-).

      I hope Oregon Charles pipes up as his ancestors are from Norn Iron.

      1. Oregoncharles

        Well – my mother’s family; but it’s really just a name. A lot of Americans have Scots-Irish ancestry. They were an important part of the pioneer wave, at least in the Midwest. Actually, I take some small pride in being descended from people who got a good look at the situation in NI and got the h…l out.

        Despite that, I think it would make sense to re-unify the island, so I sympathize with Sinn Fein, not the Unionists. Especially not the DUP.

        And I really couldn’t tell you about whiskey; haven’t tried either.

    3. Anonymous2

      On an Irish Sea border there are now suggestions that the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland limits the ability of the UK Government to impose restrictions on trade inside the United Kingdom. The 1707 Act, it is said, cannot be amended by Parliament in Westminster alone as it is legislation passed jointly by the English and Scottish Parliaments. My impression is that the limits imposed by the Act may not be absolute and doubtless subject to interpretation but what a mess if true. None of this was discussed in the run up to the 2016 vote as far as I am aware.

      1. vlade

        What _was_ discussed in the run up? (apart from the 350mm to NHS)

        There was no rational discussion before it, and both sides did their best (leave better) to have as irrational and emotional discussion as they could.

        TBH, the Scottish Indy referendum set up a nice precedent for that, as SNP was very good with the “cake and eat it” (“we will keep the pound, and stay in the EU”)- although not good enough, or maybe Scots are a bit more rational than the English.

        1. larry

          Scotland keeping the pound upon leaving the UK is an idiotic idea. It unnecessarily reduces their fiscal space, which is serious but not the only negative consequence.

          1. vlade

            Indeed – yet it was one of the key planks of SNP’s referendum policy. A large part of that was because a lot of voters were afraid of the economic impacts. There were also issues like mortgages – what would happen if you had a sterling mortgage with an rUK HQ bank, but earning whatever Scotland currency was?

            So SNP’s take on it was to ignore it, and promise to keep pound.

            Apart from the obvious economic idiocy, it would also be not so easy practically, as RBS (for example) is technically Scottish. How would BoE approach that? How would the sterling clearing work, for banks where technically BoE had no oversight and were clearly a systemic risk? etc. etc.

            All of this was pointed out, to which SNP tended to put their fingers in their ears and say “we can’t hear you, we’re going to keep the pound!” So we saw this level of idiocy before Brexit and Trump.

          2. Oregoncharles

            (Revisiting an old topic): I can no longer give you a link on this, but I’ve read that Scottish pounds are distinct from English pounds, and there’s an effort to repatriate those that wander. And since the Union is theoretically co-equal, Scotland has as good a claim to the pound as England. If this is right, there was a good deal of smoke-blowing by the loyalists during the independence campaign.

            This could be important in solving the “new currency” problem, much discussed here on NC. No need to reprogram the ATMs; but to have a sovereign currency, they’d systematically stamp any currency that came through the banks with a thistle so they’re easy to tell apart. I assume this would be far messier than I imagine, but less messy than trying to adopt something new. If they’re staying in the EU, they’d probably be adopting the Euro anyway, but as much documented here, that would take time.

            Of course, once the Scottish and English pounds were separate, their values would diverge; that’s why you want them easy to tell apart. (Sort of like Canadian and US dollars – which are quite similar). But if Scotland stayed in the EU and England Exited, they might diverge to Scotland’s advantage.

            1. vlade

              There are scottish notes in circulation. Issued by the likes of Clydesdale, RBS etc. (i.e. some scottish banks). But, for those, the operation is a bit weird, where for each 1 pound scottish note issued, the bank has to physically hold a 1 pound GBP note in its vaults. So it’s really more of a bank PR than anything else (try paying with them outside Scotland! Or even taking them outside the UK and exchanging for something – you might end up explaining it’s not a counterfait to police).

              So Scotland does not have a scottish currency, it has scottish notes. A big difference. It’s not a currency issuer, it’s a currency user.

      2. Adam1

        It seems that way for sure (granted I didn’t read the whole act)…

        Act of Union 1706 – Article 6: VI. “That all Parts of the united Kingdom, for ever, from and after the Union, shall have the same Allowances, Encouragements, and Draw-backs, and be under the same Prohibitions, Restrictions, and Regulations of Trade, and liable to the same Customs and Duties,
        and Import and Export…”

        Act of Union 1800 (which I would assume still holds for NI) – Article 6: “No duty or bounty on exportation of produce of one country to the other. All articles the produce of either country shall be imported free from duty. Produce of either country, subject to internal duty, shall on importation into each country be subject to countervailing duty. Same charges on produce of either country exported through the other.”

  7. Mickey Hickey

    Albion’s scope for perfidy has been in decline since 1918. It is now into scoring own goals and shooting itself in the foot on the way to shooting itself in the head. I wish Bojo, Rees Mogg and other conservative stalwarts would weigh in on the “Irish Question” we Irish would enjoy an injection of hilarity to relieve the tedium. I have seen no evidence that the usual suspects are fund raising in North America which is a hopeful sign for Ireland once a province and now closer to nationhood.

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, MH.

      I agree with you, but caveat that Albion can still do enormous damage. The British upper class accented and overeducated fools and knaves that the UK NC community and I come across are still considered educated and thoughtful in some places across the Channel and many places across the Atlantic. A case in point are the British shysters participating in the Russia hysteria in the US.

      I am reading Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers (How Europe went to war in 1918). I have had the book for five years, but just got round to reading it. Albion’s perfidy is plain for all to see. Albion’s current demonisation of Russia and, at times, the EU is reminiscent of such practice in the years before 1914. From the mid-19th century, France, Russia and Germany were targeted.

      What else strikes me from the early chapters is how Serbia seemed to be a jihadist state, how things could have turned out differently if Franz Ferdinand had succeeded Franz Josef and how similar the paranoia, misunderstanding, incompetence, delusions of grandeur, greed and venality of then have not changed a hundred years later.

      1. Anonymous2

        The run up to 1914 is indeed fascinating. Sleepwalkers is an excellent book which annoys some people because it doesn’t blame the Germans enough in their opinion. Macmillan and Lieven are also interesting reads, the former rather closer to the conventional British view (‘it was the Kaiser wot dunnit’), the latter shining much light on the frequently ignored Russian involvement in the whole ghastly message, for example why Sasonov persuaded the Tsar to change his mind and continue with mobilisation, after which the die was of course cast.

        It is such a complicated area with so much to read that I still don’t have a fully settled view (must research the role of Von Moltke next ) but it is clear that many men were involved in bring WW1 on the heads of the world. Simple explanations don’t do justice to the whole mess.

        As for the British – secret dealings and incompetence bulk large IMO. Are things any different now?

        1. Colonel Smithers

          Thank you.

          The CFO of my employer is a Moltke. Last year, he said it was “now time to attack”. Er…

  8. Ignacio

    Oh boy!
    So we can conclude that a crash out brexit was baked since art.50 was triggered. Were all those meetings, negotiations, agreement drafts just theater acts?

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, Ignacio.

      You may very well think that.

      I would also remind you that Jeremy Corbyn, god bless him, wanted Article 50 invoked as soon as the official result was announced. As a lifelong socialist and someone who worked in and with Brussels from 2007 – 16, words fail me.

    2. Susan the other

      It does look that way. I suspected that the endless discussion about NI was a ruse that would be used as long as possible to extract financial concessions from the EU. From May’s first rude comments to the EU – that the UK would simply set up an offshore sweatshop and corrupt the EU with neoliberal competition (more or less what she said), because how can the Tories honestly care about NI if they are willing to destroy everything? For what? Those for-whats are closely held details. But this post, thank you Yves, and Clive, was the most interesting thing I have read. Full of ghosts.

  9. HotFlash

    Colonel, or anyone, could you please elaborate? Since one of the possible outcomes is that Jeremy Corbyn could end up holding this baby, is there any hope that Labour could make this less bad? IIRC, he was Remain, although fairly quietly so as not to put off the Labour “base” that seemed set on Leave. I have not heard much about his possible policies WRT Brexit except a couple of comments that were basically, “Oh, good Lord, no!”, but I don’t really understand what was going on (still don’t, but it’s getting clearer).

    Is there any hope in that direction, or is he similarly benighted and/or hamstrung?

    1. Mark Pontin

      HotFlash wrote: I have not heard much about (Corbyn’s) possible policies WRT Brexit except a couple of comments that were basically, “Oh, good Lord, no!”

      See here for a full formulation —

      In short: Corbyn is eurosceptic, as were all the Labour party’s Bennite wing who — going back to the days of Aneurin Bevan and the European Coal and Steel Community/European Economic Community (the EU’s earlier iterations) — opposed all these supra-national European formulations as designed to serve the interests of corporate capitalists and bankers at workers’ expense.

      Is Corbyn right — by his lights — to consider the EU a neoliberal impediment to re-nationalization of infrastructure like British railways, state aid for British industry, and socialist programs?

      Yes. You can’t remove the EU’s requirement for competitive tendering while the UK is a member of the EU. Even Norway, which isn’t in the EU, has succumbed to this rule.

      So for instance, Aditya Chakrabortty, Colonel Smithers’s favorite journalist, wants to stay in the EU but wants to nationalise the railways too. Yet you can’t nationalise the railways (in a clause 4 sense, which is what he means) and have it both ways. You could create a private company, whose shares are majority- owned by the UK state. But the contract would still be subject to competitive tendering, while the value of the assets it held while it had the contract would only belong to the taxpayer in an accounting sense.

      Vlade will contend all this by pointing to France as a nation that gets away with those things. But France has retained them and a heavily dirigiste society historically, pre-EU. (And note that Macron, the EU’s golden boy, is trying to chip away at them.) Equally to the point, the “rules are for the little countries,” whereas France and Germany are the two big dogs of the EU and have broken EU rules with impunity when they felt they needed to.

      Hope this helps.

      1. HotFlash

        Thank you, Mark Pontin! As a citizen of a lesser partner in NAFTA, I am acutely aware of the dangers of a treaty that binds one’s country to the will of global corporations. I predicted that the vote would go Leave, much to my young British friends’ disbelief. I can see many, many ways that Leave would allow the UK (however constituted) to regain its ability to solve what are now structural problems. One friend expected to work in Spain the following winter (sunshine!), but didn’t understand the value of a sovereign currency, even after the Squeezing of Greece. To him the convenience of just paying and getting paid in Euros as he and his friends worked their around Europe was a big attraction, that and no visa problems.

        To people 20 or 30 years his senior, the world was a far different place than it had been when they were his age.

        However, just being off the EurioLeash only makes it *possible* to do better. For Brexit to be A Good Thing, the country will need to be rebuilt for the benefit its citizens. That is a huge undertaking and it will require political will, citizen support of the government, superb, and selfless leadership not just at the top but all down through the ministries, agencies, and councils, great expertise, and a whole lotta luck. For instance, just going back to pre-Thatcher days, just as an example (although this may not be anyone’s plan) will involve re-nationalizing the railroads, the post office, bringing back industry, re-instituting public ownership of housing, reorganizing agriculture — these are monumental tasks, involving prying private owners clenched fingers off ‘their’ property.

        Britain has, for sure, tackled even larger problems, for instance, abolishing slavery throughout the Empire, but the guys who did that are all pretty well dead by now. Hope there is talent in the pool and it gets put in the right places to do the job.

        And I sure hope Jeremy C understands MMT.

        1. Anonymous2

          I am unsure if the UK can back out of it but I believe that the current UK government have applied to participate in the WTO GPA which if I understand correctly imposes much the same restrictions on tendering as EU provisions. Richard North calls these sorts of arrangements the double coffin lid.

        2. vlade

          Majority of structural problems that the UK suffers from are entirely because of the UK, and more importantly entirely in its gift to fix it. No EU needed, either way.

          EU is a convenient scape goat for for the UK politicians, right AND left. TBH, making EU the scapegoat is not the UK specialty, although the UK is best at this. It’s oooh so convenient to say “but the nasty EU forced this on us”, when more often quite a few of the nasty bits are put in by the national politicians, to hide it behind the EU.

          I have very little faith in the structural problems being fixed in, or out of the EU. Even assuming that Corbyn has the solutions, in case of no-deal Brexit it’s extremely unlikely he would be able to implement them (and that assumes he would get the government, which is way less likely than Labour likes to imply). There’s only so much management capacity a government has, and if the current govt is paralysed by not even negotiating Brexit, a no-deal Brexit would eat all management capacity of way more capable government.

      2. vlade

        Yes, I will contend all this.

        First, as Anonymous2 says below, rules on state aid and competitive tenders are NOT (only) EU rules. They are built in in WTO rules, and most of trade agreements. IIRC, Canada’s FTA with EU has clauses on them too. So unless Corbyn turns the UK into an autarky – good luck with that – he will not avoid them.

        Secondly, if you haven’t noticed, UK successfully nationalised Railtrack. In 2002. The current Network Rail is state owned, not-for-profit, and the ONLY owner of rail infrastructure in the UK (well, technically there are some small insignificant tracks that say fans operate steam engines on etc.., but for all terms and purposes it’s the only one). Please provide a reference to an ECJ case that contests this. In fact, the Treaty explicitly says that there’s no forcing a choice between public and private ownership. In case of strategic national interest, there’s even allowance of excluding competition. In case you haven’t noticed, all of the EU has a nationalised health service, and no-one in the EU is calling for it to be privatised. NHS is under more threat from the US post Brexit than it ever was from the EU.

        RBS (and for a time Lloyds Bank, and what used to be Norther Rock etc.) is majority owned by the UK state. Your contention of “only in accounting sense” is wrong. The assets are in full control of the UK state, via the board that the state appoints (see Network Rail for example). Please provide an example of how is the state unable to do what it wants with the assets (within the law). Oh, and since this is an article on Northern Ireland, I’d call your attention to the fact that NI rail operator is publicly owned. Duh. (in fact, there’s a couple more state owned rail companies in the UK, not that the proponents of the nationalisation talk much about it).

        Thirdly, France is just one example of a state that has a national rail operator (in fact, France’s EDF is a majority owned state utility. Germany has similar companies, as do other EU countries ). Most of the continentals have one, if the UK people cared to look, but most of the UK politicians know f-all about how the continent runs (in fact, they know zilch about NI too, see above).

        The contention of “but France/Germany is a big dog that can break the rules” doesn’t hold, as for example Slovakia, Czech Republic and a slew of other smaller countries (in fact, pretty much all of them) have state owned and run rail operators, which in most cases provide 90+% of the rail connections (as non-profits). I’ll ignore the fact that even it it was true, the UK was also big enough dog to ignore things as well as France could – when it suited it. And it blamed the EU rules when it suited it to blame them.

        Fourtly, a non-profit should have a significant advantage in a competitive tender. Because it’s a non-profit. Further, a state aid can be given, the main condition is that it is available equally to everyone.

        Fifthly, there’s been a slew of “municipalizations” in the Europe. Again, if pols paid attention to the continent, and not their UK-centric bickering, they might know. That is, municipalities across the continent (started in Germany, but other countries are doing it now IIRC) are setting up/buying out the local utilities, and running them as non-profit for the local community (in fact, the place I stay in Europe just bought out its water company, and our water bills are now to the town council). Which IMO is way more efficient than nationalising the massive utility companies with all the political graft that goes with it. Yet I can’t recall Labour pushing this (in general, I can’t recall Labour pushing more responsibility and powers locally.. does it remind me of something?)

        About the only thing that can be said about the EU vis a vis nationalisation is that it would make it somewhat harder, because some rules would have to be followed. As I put above, numerous examples shows it can be done, and is not even that hard though. Please provide counterexamples, with links to the ECJ cases, where the EU stopped nationalisation.

        1. Mark Pontin

          @ vlade –
          First, as Anonymous2 says below, rules on state aid and competitive tenders are NOT (only) EU rules. They are built in in WTO rules, and most of trade agreements

          Then WTO rules need to be dismantled – to put it politely. More generally, the whole existing structure of globalized JIT supply lines is grossly energy-inefficient given global climate change and, besides, precarious in its complexity and designed in effect to restrain every society within the current neoliberal status quo – as Brexit is demonstrating.

          If you haven’t noticed, UK successfully nationalised Railtrack.

          I haven’t noticed. I left the UK for California when I was a teenager and when Thatcher was elected I resolved never to visit while she and hers were in power. I didn’t return for three decades and only started to visit again because my father, still alive and working in his nineties, has a business in the North of England. When I do come back, what I notice about the British railway system is Branson/Virgin’s parasitic place in it.

          So unless Corbyn turns the UK into an autarky – good luck with that – he will not avoid them.

          An Indian nuclear engineer once told me, while promoting a reactor design he was partly responsible for, that nobody says it out loud but energy-independence should be every society’s aim. He was right. More generally, autarky should be the aim of every society and in 2018 is feasible. The whole notion of competitive advantage a la David Ricardo – the quintessential banker and con artist – is nonsensical in an era when we have 3D printers, CRISPr-enabled genomically-edited crops, and meat cell-culture farming.

          In case you haven’t noticed, all of the EU has a nationalised health service, and no-one in the EU is calling for it to be privatised.

          That’s not exactly true, is it? There are various healthcare systems operating throughout Europe. Germany has the compulsory insurance-based system that Peter Drucker was always pushing for in the US: a multi-payer system paid for by a mix of compulsory health insurance and private health insurance. Obamacare in America is arguably a bastardized version of the German model.

          France, conversely, has universal healthcare financed through the government. Italy has something else again: a regionally organised National Health Service (Servizio Sanitario Nazionale, SSN) that provides universal coverage largely free of charge at the point of delivery. And so on. The NHS is something else again. Speaking of which ….
          NHS is under more threat from the US post Brexit than it ever was from the EU.

          Agreed. That doesn’t make the EU any less of a mainstay of the neoliberal status quo. Here’s the Lancet study reporting that Greece’s total death rate rose approx. 5.6 percent from 2000 to 2010, then jumped by 17.7 percent during the next six years, after the EU imposed austerity measures.

          The death rate rose three times faster than that of Western Europe overall, at a time when mortality rates were declining worldwide. The largest increase in deaths were among people 70 and older, and young children also saw a disproportionate increase.

          The EU did that. Moreover, they did it just so Merkel and Sarkozy didn’t have to go before their electorate and tell them they’d bailed out their banks after 2008 and the GFC.

          Do you seriously want to defend that?

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            Your tone is out of line, and you are straw manning vlade. You had to get pissy about Railtrack rather than admit you were wrong, and acted like the fact that you hadn’t actually been in the UK for decades gives you the excuse to make ignorant comments.

            The UK will never be an autarky, at least at current population levels. It imports 40% of its food. I agree autarky is an important aspiration, and Keynes urged it as a goal, but Russia is just about the only country that can pull that off.

            Your attempt to address vlade’s point about the NHS is nonsensical. He won that and you are refusing to concede the point. That’s yet another example of you engaging in bad faith argumentation and against our written site Policies. So is your bit about Greece. Greece is irrelevant to the UK. The UK had an extremely favorable deal with the EU and never got a bailout from the Trokia. You are completely straw manning vlade, a third instance of violating our Policies.

            And if you care about mortality, arguing for the dismantling of WTO rules is a great way to create more deaths. Current trade rules have lots of problems, but trade in food depends on them. You don’t go around smashing things on which lives and incomes depend. Changing trade rules needs to be approached like dismantling a bomb. We need war scale mobilization to deal with climate change, and tossing the WTO out the window is not the first move, by a long shot.

            You owe vlade an apology. And your are accumulating troll points. Commenting here is a privilege, not a right, and I should not have to remind you of that.

  10. makedoanmend

    Two issues which need to be further highlighted is the reaction of nationalists in the Northern six counties and the role of Sinn Féin as an all Ireland political party in the political dynamic developing in Ireland as a result of the Brexit debacle.

    Sinn Féin has gone out of its way to be seen as accommodating, willing to compromise and to portray itself as a voice of reason despite the obvious will of the UK establishment to disdainfully ignore them and nationalist concerns. Sinn Féin* seems willing to wait and see if Fine Gael either try to dilute the GFA or worse see to its demise in order to accommodate the UK in any way. (A very unlikely event, but one never knows.) In any event, it seems the GFA is in trouble and this will be a nice talking point during the next national election; especially if Brexit hurts the Irish economy and disturbances of any kind develop along the border.

    The willingness of so many parties to ignore recent history is somewhat astounding. It is has not gone unnoticed in many nationalist circles in the Northern six counties. They are waiting to see, as they have been warned by those who will never accept partition, if indeed the UK reneges on their treaty commitments – thus repeating their role in Irish history ad nauseam. While concern is so often expressed about the DUP and their feelings of being recognised, one of the dynamics never discussed is the Nationalist feelings of isolation in the North. This is most likely one of the many reasons that the IRA was able to carry on for 35 years.

    On another note, The Northern Standard newspaper (Monaghan) reports that that Lakeland Dairies of Monaghan (the South) and Leakpatrick Dairy of Tyrone (the North) have merged. Given that there is going to be a sharp separation in trade between the two jurisdictions, this seems to be ill advised. However, Varadkar and Coveney (Fine Gael) were in Monaghan and claimed conclusively that there would be no border posts: “Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney TD was anxious to exorcise the spectre of a return to the Border Customs posts of the past…’The one thing we are not asking businesss to prepare for is the re-emergence of Border infrastructure’, the Tánaiste stated emphatically.” How they expect this to occur is beyond my understanding. But Varadkar is a bit like past President Obama, big on PR and little on delivery. Could the merged company simply find ways to by-pass trade and sanitary requirements?

    On another nother note: the spouse just returned from Ireland and says RTE (the national broadcaster) is pretty current in gathering all shades of opinion on Brexit, and that the general tone towards the UK and the DUP has changed. It isn’t as generous as it was in the past and is sometimes rather scathing. Brexit is changing more than just the legalities.

    *There is some amusement by Sinn Féin members that Fine Gael (previously pro-British) has had to repeatedly come out with Republican sounding communiqués nearly every time they meet their Tory counterparts, but the amusement is severely tempered by the knowledge that a vacuum is looming if the GFA is abrogated. Such a vacuum caused disturbance previously.

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