The Irish Question

Yves here. Your humble blogger must confess to having neglected the Brexit beat after following it intensely while the UK-EU negotiations were in full swing. The wee problem, as Chris Grey in particular stressed, was that the Brexit deal was not an end point but a process as many points would continue to be worked out, and often fought over, for years to come. The Irish border continued to be the thorniest and is still unresolved.

Richard Murphy gives a good high level overview as Rishi Sunak is about to wrestle with this tar baby. One point to add is that implementing a land border in Ireland is wildly impractical. The border itself is winding, with many actual and potential crossings, far too many to manage via checkpoints (recall that in a post Good Friday Agreement world, there are many daily crossings including for commuting and goods. The UK proposed gee whiz high tech varporware remedies, which the EU rejected as not implementable.

Murphy also makes a passing reference to the US. Ireland has done an excellent job of cultivating the Irish diaspora in American and winning friends in Congress. Nancy Pelosi said in the firmest terms possible that the US would take action if the UK failed to uphold the Good Friday Agreement, the creatively ambiguous deal that succeeded in putting an end to the Troubles. The current Congress is almost certain to hold her line.

By Richard Murphy, a chartered accountant and a political economist. He has been described by the Guardian newspaper as an “anti-poverty campaigner and tax expert”. He is Professor of Practice in International Political Economy at City University, London and Director of Tax Research UK. He is a non-executive director of Cambridge Econometrics. He is a member of the Progressive Economy Forum. Originally published at Tax Research UK

Issues relating to Ireland have been troublesome for British politics for centuries. Since 1802, when the Irish parliament was subsumed into that in Westminster, the parliament in London has had to almost continually address an issue to which it has never had any adequate answers, largely because barring total independence there are none. Today the problem of the Irish border continues.

The question that we now have is simple. Given that England, and somewhat surprisingly Wales, chose to leave the EU the question is where is that border with Ireland to be now? Johnson always ducked the question, but when pushed to deliver a supposedly oven-ready Brexit accepted the compromise that he always said he would never agree to, which was to put the Irish border in the Irish Sea.

Let’s be candid. Johnson had no choice but to do that. The alternative was to make it a land border in Ireland and that would have breached the Good Friday Agreement that has delivered a period of lasting peace and relative prosperity in Northern Ireland. Not that I suspect the people of Northern Ireland weighed heavy on Johnson’s considerations: I think the risk of sanctions from the EU and most especially the USA as a guarantor of that agreement was what forced his hand.

But the issue has not gone away. Johnson created the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in the Westminster parliament. This remains on the floor of the House, providing an ever-looming threat to the EU that the UK might pull out of agreed arrangements. Its presence acts as a constant reminder that UK talks on this issue with the EU and others are never being undertaken in good faith.

That is the problem. The Protocol was always meant to be temporary. The deal was meant to be finalised. The EU is rightly demanding that it is. The threat of sanctions from the EU and USA has not gone away. And the mood in Ireland is changing. Sinn Fein is the largest party in the North. There is a real chance that it could lead the next government in Dublin. The Union has never looked weaker.

Despite all this, the Unionists maintain their demands, backed by the European Research Group far-right fringe of the Conservative Party. Their demand is that there be no border within the UK and that the EU have no jurisdiction over Northern Ireland, which it must if Northern Ireland is to be in the single market as is necessary to avoid a border in Ireland.

There is only one eventual solution to this problem. The people of Ireland are eventually going to vote for it. The legal mechanism to permit that vote already exists, although as yet no one wants to use it. But until then there is only one viable interim step that can work, which is to keep the border in the Irish Sea. There is really no room to negotiate around that. In this case there is also no way that the EU cannot have influence and some sanction over Northern Ireland. Wittingly or not, that is what the people of England and Wales chose. The Unionists in Northern Ireland may not like it, but the country to which they claim allegiance voted for this for them, with the backing of the very same people who now claim to be their allies in Westminster, which fact you could not make up.

What are Sunak’s options? He has few. The best is to agree a deal. Starmer, who wants the issue resolved before he gets to office, will provide support. Then Sunak has to increase security in Northern Ireland because there will be backlash. And after that he has to be prepared to suspend the whip from any MP who votes against this agreement if it goes to the Commons, which it need not do but likely will. He has, in other words, to use Johnson’s methods to rid the Tories of the ERG as Johnson once used it to rid the party of its moderates.

Will that leave a Tory rump? Of course, it will. But Sunak can’t govern anyway, so that will make no difference. But it will at least permit Sunak to be seen to do the right thing on one issue before his ignominious reign as prime minister ends. And that is one more than Truss managed.

What chance is there that Sunak will do the right thing? I am not optimistic. But, as ever, I live in hope.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. korual

    “What chance is there that Sunak will do the right thing?”

    This is the wrong question at the end, as the article itself shows how Sunak is out of options. The reason this can has been kicked so far down the road is to give the Unionists in Northern Ireland time to accept their fate. That’s where the last two sentences of the conclusion become apposite: “I am not optimistic. But, as ever, I live in hope.”

  2. Isla White

    The EU should never have attempted to incorporate such wildly different cultures as the northern European Scando – Anglo – Saxons; who centuries ago formed the highly successful Hanseatic (Trading) League and the ex Maghreb Arabs still wedded to administration by a higher strata of Sheikhs, their friends and families, to the south.

    Buried in the agitation surrounding Northern Ireland in the EU is the unresolved inferiority complexes of the EU Latinos. For example Spain and its Gibraltar grievance and Portugal its 1890 Ultimatum pain. The driver for Portugal’s national anthem chorus :

    Às armas, às armas!
    Sobre a terra, sobre o mar,
    Às armas, às armas!
    Pela patria lutar!
    Contra os Bretões marchar, marchar!

    Dismantling the United Kingdom seen as excellent recompense and in Almeida, the Portuguese born EU Ambassador to the UK, they have just the man in place to screw up any attempt at a rational solution.

    Still found today in school history teaching referencing the Arab occupation over centuries. Such that, in France – “anyone south of the Loire is an Arab“. Alternately, “you leave Europe when you cross the Pyrenees (also used with the southern Alps).
    Spain, Portugal and Italy – aware of this – all have northern regions that teach that all those to the south of them‘are Arab’.

    The concepts of Rights and the values of being ‘European’ get hopelessly distorted to the south. So much so that – just one example – the investigation of the corrupt involved in Quatargate swiftly flushed out a variety of lobby groups that had given themselves titles with rich meaning in the north but which are only hugely funny in the south.

    Amongst them Fight Impunity and No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ)!

    1. Synoia

      You are discussion “The Irish Problem”

      For which there was is no answer and most probably there will be no solution.

      Why do I write that – as for 23 yeas of my life I hah no understanding if Ireland and relations with Britain. Then I befriended some Irish, and after some strained exchanges, I admitted I knew little or none of the issues surrounding the “Irish Problem” and whatever had been visited on the Irish was none of my doing.

      After consideration, he accepted that I, personally, was English, hand not been an actor in suppressing the, and the it was his then to buy the next round of drinks. Which avoided an nasty fight and insured he would buy the next round.

      My only conclusions were the facts and emotions are so tangled in such a complex web that, first there is no solution, and, second any proposals or actions of the British would be rejected due to the lack of trust between the English and the Irish.

      Oh what a tangled web we weave when we practice to deceive.

    2. St Jacques

      The EU should never have attempted to incorporate such wildly different cultures as the northern European Scando – Anglo – Saxons; who centuries ago formed the highly successful Hanseatic (Trading) League and the ex Maghreb Arabs still wedded to administration by a higher strata of Sheikhs, their friends and families, to the south.

      Are you channelling some jingoistic nineteenth century Victorian popular historian? I never expected to read such ill-informed nonsense here in my life. Let’s start with a few quick points of general knowledge: Firstly, the Iberians are not ex-Maghrebi “Arabs”, neither by culture or genetics. Yes, there is a little Mahgrebi genetic influence, averaging somewhere around 3 %, which is hardly surprising given the peninsula’s geographical location, but there is no Moorish culture in those countries apart from that brought by the recent wave of migrants. Yes, they are very much culturally Latins – like those founders of the EU or EEC, the Italians and French, and their generally positive attitude towards EU membership has nothing to do with seeing it as an opportunity to get revenge on the UK. Sure, there are nationalists who make a big song and dance about Gibraltar and in Portugal about Britain’s dastardly actions towards its long time “friend” in the Crisis of 1890, but I can assure you that this matters only to tiny, fanatical nationalist groups just like you’d find anywhere else. The vast majority of people have more important issues on their mind, like getting the economy right and overcoming corruption and rightly or wrongly they actually see the EU as a means to help achieve these ends. The UK’s problems in regard to its current relations with the EU are largely self-inflicted but why wouldn’t a Spanish or Portuguese politician take advantage of the situation for a few vote enhancing cheap shots? Do you think British politicians would be above such jingoistic behaviour if they found themselves in a similar situation? But to read more into those cheapshots than mere political grandstanding is to suffer a total lack of proportion and take the tabloids seriously. Finally, trying to link 21st century Britain with the mediaeval Hanseatic League in some sort of cultural unity is really bit much.

    3. GoDark

      Lovely …

      I recall a vacation to Italy decades ago. Yes, we were cheated by our hotels in Monte Casino and Rome and I had my pocket picked in Naples.

      I bared my soul over these depravations when we arrived in the lakes region in northern Italy. The maitre de’s response, “What did you expect? Everyone south of Rome is an African.”

      1. St Jacques

        If Isla White’s post is sarcasm, then it’s terrific. In fact my original reaction was that it must be because it’s so over the top but then I’m only an an occasional Naked Capitalism reader and on further thought it occurred to me that I’ve run into a surprising number of supposedly educated people who hold similar views, so I decided to respond to it at face value. I’ve heard that good sarcasm will always be taken literally by somebody. Touché.

  3. Stephen

    The long-term answer is a United Ireland. The demographics are tending in that direction and Ulster Unionism looks to be an increasingly forlorn cause. Smart statesmen would perceive that answer and work towards it. Unfortunately, they seem to be in short supply.

    Worth noting too that travel between the mainland U.K. and the Republic is also technically borderless as a Common Travel Area. To my knowledge, it always has been and that very much precedes the EU. Dates back to the way that Ireland originally gained independence as a dominion. My understanding too is that the mutual right of residence in each country was never removed after independence and continues after Brexit. The Ukraine-Russia-EU relationship created a lot of similar challenges to the ones following Brexit, albeit in the opposite direction. I believe that the connectedness of the two countries (despite historical issues) one of the main reasons that Britain and Ireland originally entered the EU at the same time in 1973. It made sense.

    Good to see though that Pelosi is as keen to throw the weight of the US against the U.K. as she seems to be against pretty much every other country. American Exceptionalism. And of course the US itself scrupulously upholds all treaties that it signs. And it always has done. Also respects the rights of small countries. Totally.

    I am English but with Irish Catholic ancestry from the post Famine diaspora. Many people here have Irish roots in one form or another, as a cursory glance at a list of “English” surnames will often reveal. My sense is that most people on the mainland do not see Northern Ireland as a cause to get worked up about; even fewer have ever been there. I have to Belfast precisely once in my life and have no intention to ever go again. But I have been to Dublin and other parts of Ireland many times and like going back. A United Ireland would be good for Ulster.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      You are correct that the demographics are relentlessly pointing to a United Ireland, but nearly all polls (north and south) identify a lot of ‘weak’ votes, so there are no forgone conclusions for the foreseeable future. Its even conceivable that NI could vote for a United Ireland, but voters in the south could baulk at the potential costs of taking on such a large economic basket case.

      There was always free movement within the Common Travel Area, but it was not always a free trade area. Up to the early 1990’s there were customs checks in addition to security checks at the border – there was a lively smuggling along border areas thanks to differing VAT rates and currency changes. A friend of mine from a border area told me that as a child she once got a shock to see a group of men with large objects on their backs crawling along a ditch marking the border. She thought they were terrorists or soldiers until she realised that the large objects on their backs were brand new TV sets.

      1. SOMK

        I got so exacerbated reading yet another Irish Times opinion piece about how we “can’t afford” a united Ireland I joined Sinn Féin, I wouldn’t be able to forgive this country is we *family blog* the bed like the Scottish did 2014. It’s a bit rich (by the Irish Times I mean not PK) to bring out a language of “can’t afford” given the parasitical nature of the ongoing housing shortage on the incomes especially of gen-xers going all the way to gen-z, the vast majority of adult under 50. Was listening to the excellent week at work podcast and they were talking about how some 13,000 properties have left the rental market in the last year, most apparently bought up by foreign funds who have a vested interest in keeping them empty to drive up prices, despite lip service from the government on the matter of late, none of the local authorities in Dublin built a single damned house last year! You wonder how much free income would be released into the non-vampire economy if the boot of this damned housing crisis was finally lifted from the necks of people by a government with a genuinely proactive housing policy.

        Irrespective this “can’t afford” line is being talked up constantly in lieu of even taking even basic preparatory measures, it’s a head-in-the-sand approach “let’s not even think about it” mentality. The can’t afford argument will play for some, but more than likely only those who were never favourably predisposed to a united Ireland in the first place, as such I can’t see it swinging it, but I’m no political scientist. Arguably the matter that could swing the vote against it is the degree to which there is a clear plan for what a united Ireland would be put on the table, what are we actually letting ourselves in for, what we really can’t afford it the kind of blundering clown car pile up that was and is Brexit, with little or no clear worked out plan that leads to the worst possible outcome, but the top Sinn Féin brains are nowhere near as rotten as their Tory equivalents.

        Regardless it would take some doing for it not to pass, using recent polling as a spitball measure, combined Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin (both ‘republican’ parties) voters are 55% of the electorate, I find it hard to conceive of voters for either passing up a united Ireland at the ballot box and of the other 45% 22% are FG (hopeless), but the rest are mostly left-ish (Labour, greens, people before profit, soc dems, plus a handful of independents of variant degrees of ideology and eccentricity). Things could change, but broadly given the rough layout of the electorate the raw numbers are there for it to comfortably pass, which isn’t to say it’s guaranteed either.

        It depends on a great many things of course, foreseeable and unforeseeable, in the event of a united Ireland I wonder if there would be a second republic declared or to what degree would one be necessary?

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Oh, I agree that the ‘can’t afford it’ thing is way overblown. There is a pretty sound case to be made that it would be mutually beneficial – Belfast would benefit enormously from being linked to Dublin (infrastructure links are already pretty good), which is straining to keep up with the intensity of growth. Plus the huge costs of the border would be removed. And of course thing one thing Irish politicians have always been supremely skilled at is leveraging cash and favours from Brussels and Washington.

          However, I wouldn’t be so sure about a poll. People will usually default to the status quo when they are unsure or uncertain (as shown in Scotland). I’d also not underestimate how much southerners dislike northerners. Just see how many middle class Dubliners cringe when they hear a strong Belfast accent. I would never, ever bet on that outcome.

          Housing is the thing that will kill the current government. Ironically, they are now introducing some better policies, just a decade too late, and Sinn Fein have been hugely successful at using it as a wedge issue. I think an SF/FF government is pretty much baked in for the next election, but I also think they’ll have just one shot at getting things right.

  4. PlutoniumKun

    Sunak is new to Northern Ireland issues and is likely to be struggling to get his brain around how it works. He may hope to get the DUP and ERG on board, but that is an impossibility – the DUP have boxed themselves in, and the ERG enjoy creating problems. Sunak will surely have realised by now that he cannot afford to give the DUP a veto over any agreement with the EU.

    My guess is that Sunak won’t have the guts to whip the Tories in line and so will depend on Labour/SNP votes. Johnson is – unbelievably – still stiffing around the the possibility of getting into No.10 again so Sunak’s final decision may be based on what damages Boris the most. Sunak may gamble that since the media is sick of everything Northern Ireland and Brexit related he will get an easy ride if he signs up to the deal with Labour help – he’s probably right as we’ve seen repeatedly that there is barely a handful of journalists in the UK capable of reading and understanding the agreement. My guess is that whatever is in the agreement, the reliable UK media will dutifully declare it a Sunak victory.

    The DUP may scream and shout, but they are increasingly a busted flush. Most Unionists have reluctantly decided that the Protocol works and so may grumble, but won’t put up a fight. Hard line Loyalists have failed to get people on the streets when they tried. The only reason the DUP still poll moderately well is that none of the alternative Unionist parties can get their act together to challenge them. They have horribly miscalculated almost every judgement from the moment they jumped on the Brexit bandwagon. They have made a united Ireland far more likely.

    1. Stephen

      I think that is right.

      Your points above also make sense. A United Ireland at some point seems inevitable but it may be a very long time until it actually happens! These things tend to need some form of catalyst to convert them from something that seems inevitable at some unspecified time in the future into tangible reality. We have not yet seen that. In some ways it is like Taiwan and China. As long as China can believe that unification will happen “one day” then they can live with present reality.

      Brexit on its own is probably not that catalyst but it does make unification far more likely too.

      Johnson increasingly seems to be trying to role play his interpretation of Churchill. I guess he sees himself now as role playing the wilderness years.

      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, Stephen.

        It’s not just Winston, but his father, Randolph, too. Randolph made trouble over Irish home rule to advance his career and the Tories, encouraging the Tories to play the Orange card. Lord Salisbury was unimpressed.

    2. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, PK.

      It’s not so unbelievable regarding Johnson as per The Soames branch of the Churchill family, as per a conversation with a close relative of mine, regrets allowing the Johnson research team and ghost writer access to the family archives as it allowed the charlatan to market himself as a Churchill expert and advance his career. I told said relative that they should have professed surprise at Johnson’s use of a ghost writer and suggest that Johnson was busy chasing the fillies.

      Off topic. As per a conversation on Monday, morale at the Bank of England and Treasury is poor, but has been for years. Out of ear shot of ministers and boot lickers like Governor Bailey and so called adults in the room and orthodox mandarins like Treasury permanent under secretary James Bowler, officials openly talk of managing the UK’s decline and hoping nothing too untoward happens on their watch. They fear Brexit will dominate politics for the rest of the decade.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Thanks CS.

        I think if the really bad polling goes on for a few months many Tories may well be tempted to think that Boris could at least prevent a catastrophe for them. I’ve seen one poll that predicted fewer Tory seats than the SNP. Although the SNP seem to be doing their best to commit political hari-kiri too.

        Totally anecdotal, but my friends in the business of helping Chinese/HK/Taiwan people move to Ireland say that there has been a notable diversion from the UK. It seems its the property market that is making them more nervous. I do wonder if a property crash is possible this year. Given the shakiness of the economy the potential a whole series of dominoes to fall at once seems quite high.

      2. Stephen

        David Starkey once described Johnson as lazy, wanting to be liked and having zero values other than the promotion of Johnson. It feels a fair assessment.

        The idea that he would not use a ghost writer for a book would simply be outrageous!

  5. The Rev Kev

    In all seriousness I think that what is needed from time to time are Schrödinger’s Agreements. That is, so long as both sides do not really lift the lid on what is really in an agreement but find their own accommodations, then you can muddle through such a situation. And over time factors do change which mean that either the agreements no longer work and both sides call it quits, negotiate another agreement or it basically becomes irrelevant. Stephen above points out the demographic shift in Ireland and he is right. The demographics of Ireland in the 1990s are no longer the same in the 2020s. The Protestants are shrinking in number while the number of Catholics are increasing. Sooner or later Ireland will unite because it will be inevitable. “Marching season” will be an embarrassing memory and Catholic/Protestant neighbourhood strongholds will just be….neighbourhoods.

    1. chuck roast

      We were at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Manhattan a few years ago and went to lunch at a nearby restaurant. There were some people at the next table who were clearly Irish natives. I mentioned to one of the fellows that it was my understanding that the Catholics had finally out-produced the Protestants in the north. He replied, “Aye, laddie. It’s hard work, but somebodies got to do it.”

  6. Bill Malcolm

    Having heard aggrieved NI Unionists coming out swinging yesterday (on the radio) about how upset they are about possibly being “abandoned” by the mother country, I must say it’s really the same old, same old I heard over fifty years ago. Nitwits of the blinkered Ian Paisley variety. Choosing England over the EU is not very bright, even if the EU is a total mess itself. Just less of a mess than England is, but a somewhat better medium term prospect. Scotland is raring to become another Norway AND join the EU, even if they’re (the SNP) as crooked as a three quid note.

    In very early 1970, as supper was ending at London House, a mausoleum-like dormitory residence for Commonwealth postgrad students studying at London universities, a commotion occurred. I should add that a good quarter of the students there were Americans, since there were not enough Commonwealth students to fill all the rooms, so worth knowing. In a burst of followers, into the dining hall with its 50 foot ceiling came Bernadette Devlin, and if you don’t remember who she was, well too bad. Look it up. She jumped up on one of the massive oak dining tables and gave an impromptu half-hour speech calling out the English and the NI Unionists.

    I have never before or since seen or heard such a whirlwind of a human being. Wow! And yes, I participated in anti-Viet Nam rallies outside the US Embassy in London. Devlin’s passion outweighed any other person I ever personally witnessed. And she made sense. It was far from mere rah-rah. The Boerish South Africans melted away bar one fellow who had been the national leader of student unions. People in general seemed stunned.

    I am afraid I have never since paid the slightest attention to the right wing Unionists in Northern Ireland. All they want is privilege over Catholics — as it has always been since they were shipped off from the Western Scottish lowlands as excess baggage. And so, now that England and Wales are Brexiters for whatever stupid reasons they managed to hoodwink themselves into by believing Tories of the ilk of Oxford debating pro and general chizwit Boris the Bozo together with the financial parasites in the City who wouldn’t know what an industrial policy was if were a week-old rotting cod that smacked them square in the face, England is about all-in. And I mean all-in in the classic sense of beaten and tired, not this new American usage of saying all-in when they mean all-out effort — like driving a race car flat out. Driving it all-in means nothing that makes sense.

    I was born in Oxford, and now couldn’t care less about my country of birth. It has been hollowed out the same way the US has by financial vultures, assisted by a supine population of wanna-be social climbers of the Mrs Bucket variety who vote Tory come what may. No, I do not get along well with my relatives and friends over there these days. They seem nonplussed by me — “it’s not so bad” is the chorus.

    And to sort out the NI Customs mess, there sits Sunak, a complete dunce of a rich man with an impoverished brain. Starmer of Labour is both a neocon, a neoliberal and a thoroughly evil man who crucified his predecessor Corbyn by getting the media to relentlessly accuse him of being an anti-Semite. Come the next election, maybe one of the other parties might make gains, because if it’s Tory or Labour England is sunk without trace. And Northern Ireland will join Eire, allowing the flapdoodle Unionists to leave and pick fights in Blighty instead, perhaps like Farage-type racists.

    Rocky times ahead.

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you and well said, Bill. Please see my responses above to PK and Stephen.

      For my part, born in Islington, but living in Buckinghamshire since soon after birth, I am trying to get French citizenship.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      I think an important point very often overlooked is that there is not one Protestant Unionist movement, there are two. The ‘moderate’ traditional Unionism of the Anglo-Irish Church of Ireland (Anglicans) middle and business classes, and the ‘extreme’ loyalism of the Scots-Irish Presbyterian/Methodists working classes and farmers. The former would accept a united Ireland quietly if its in their interest (as they did in 1921). The latter would be far more reluctant, although it should be noted that although small in number, they essentially accepted independence also in 1921. One current Irish minister comes from that background. Street violence always comes from the loyalist side, not conventional Unionists, although the latter use it when its in their interest.

  7. Susan the other

    so can they just park a sputtering old aircraft carrier in the middle of the Irish Sea and create a customs checkpoint and shopping mall?

Comments are closed.