Backstop steeped in history - Martin Scicluna
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Backstop steeped in history - Martin Scicluna

An anti-Brexit protest along Whitehall with sign saying ‘Northern Ireland loves EU’. Photo: Gina Power/Shutterstock.Com

An anti-Brexit protest along Whitehall with sign saying ‘Northern Ireland loves EU’. Photo: Gina Power/Shutterstock.Com

For five intensive years, between 1985 and 1989, I was responsible for advising ministers in the Ministry of Defence on operational policy in Northern Ireland. Ireland and its history are subjects close to my heart.

The history of Anglo-Irish relations has always been fraught. This is why the negotiations about the so-called “Backstop” (the controversial insurance policy to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland), which are proceeding even as you read this article, must be understood in their historical context.  

It’s been over 20 years since the Good Friday Peace Agreement on April 10, 1998. The three-decade conflict which preceded it pitted Protestant Unionists, who wanted to preserve Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom, against Catholic Republicans, who sought to leave the UK and join the Republic of Ireland. Fighting among paramilitaries on both sides, with the British Army caught in the middle, left about 3,600 dead during the period.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, sectarian violence on the island of Ireland has greatly diminished. Communal relations between Unionists and Republicans have improved. The North-South Border, once hardened by military checkpoints and watchtowers, has become almost invisible. 

But as Senator George Mitchell, the former US envoy to Northern Ireland and one of the principle architects of the agreement, said recently: “The agreement did not guarantee peace or political stability or reconciliation… It stated explicitly that the different political objectives of the two communities… would continue to advocate for their objectives, but they would not do so through violence, but rather through democratic and peaceful means.”

Brexit has brought into sharp relief the tenuous foundations on which the Good Friday Agreement rests. One key to the entire arrangement is the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that the European Union, with both Britain and the Republic of Ireland as members, guaranteed. 

Brexit has created its own kind of limbo. Unionists are against any kind of special arrangement – “the Backstop” – that might symbolically appear to separate it from the rest of the United Kingdom in an effort to maintain close relations to the Republic of Ireland. For Republicans, the border causes similar fears of separation – albeit from the Republic of Ireland.

With both Britain and Ireland in the EU since 1973, having a soft border has been crucial because this meant the issue of identity was removed from the political equation. You could live in Northern Ireland all your life and be Irish (have an Irish passport, never notice there was a border), or you could be British, or you could be both. A hard border could lead to the return of violence and instability. Brexit has put Britain and Ireland, and Unionists and Republicans, at opposite ends of the negotiating table. 

The present tensions on the Backstop between the British government on the one hand, and the Republic of Ireland and the European Union on the other have a turbulent history which long pre-dates the current pivotal talks between Theresa May, Leo Varadkar and the EU27 leaders. The abysmal history of several hundred years shapes them irrevocably. Why do the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and the EU find themselves here? 

The Irish have been asserting since partition in 1921 that they want a united Ireland. But, in truth, the last thing they want in it are thousands of recalcitrant Protestant Unionists, more than a few of whom are unreconstructed Cromwellians. Lord Salisbury observed a century ago that the average English voter had “little interest in, and less understanding of, Irish affairs”. Today, most thinking Englishmen are ashamed and angry that Democratic Unionist members of parliament, who care for nothing beyond their local sectarian interest, hold the entire British body politic to ransom.

The Irish have been asserting since partition in 1921 that they want a united Ireland. But, in truth, the last thing they want in it are thousands of recalcitrant Protestant Unionists

The issue of the Irish border between the north and south of Ireland, which is a legacy of the last 100 years of Anglo-Irish politics, represents what a former Fianna Fail (southern Irish conservative) prime minister called “an imposed deformity whose indefinite perpetuation eats into Irish consciousness like a cancer”. It has plagued Britain and Ireland since 1921.  

The careless attitude of extremist Brexiteers to the border today shows how, in the words of a recently published book by Diarmaid Ferriter: “Clownish Tories revealed their depth of ignorance and contempt when it came to Ireland.” 

In 1913-14, the Conservative Opposition party, in one of its fits of imperialistic frenzy, supported Ulster’s Protestants in arming for civil war to escape citizenship of an independent Ireland, thus leading directly to the creation of Northern Ireland.

In the fraught 1920-21 negotiation with Westminster, the original founders of Sinn Fein (a left-wing Republican party) accepted partition as the price of southern independence, being duped by the British into supposing this a short-term expedient. Instead, the Unionists created Fortress Ulster, in which discrimination against Catholics was institutionalised.

The accession of Britain and Ireland in 1972 to what was then the Common Market began a welcome process, which has continued, of strengthening cross-border relationships, fostered by rising southern prosperity and falling Catholic extremism. A diminishing number of Northern Irish people remain committed to their isolation, dependent on British tax-payers’ handouts. 

But – as many warned during the ill-informed 2016 referendum campaign – Brexit has the clock. The ultra-Brexiteers continue to pretend that a solution to the border issue, which is once more intractable, is a mere technicality. Boris Johnson’s remarked six months ago that: “We’re allowing the whole of our agenda to be dictated by this folly”, illustrates the ignorance of the then Foreign Secretary to Anglo-Irish history. He dismisses Ireland’s assertion that a new international border would breach the terms of the Good Friday Peace Agreement.

It is of course grotesque that tiny Ulster still casts its shadow over the fortunes of two nations. Yet for more than a century British Conservatives have indulged Ulster Unionists’ fanaticism, of which today’s imbroglio over the Backstop is the outcome.

To many of us the logic of Irish reunification is irresistible. Partition of Ireland was a dereliction and a folly. A majority in Northern Ireland (55.8 per cent) voted against Brexit. But logic stands little chance of winning. On present indications, it seems highly likely that Brexit will reopen Ireland’s historic wounds. 

If a resumption of The Troubles proves part of the price of Brexit, then British politicians have only themselves to blame.      

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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