It was always evident that the pre-election smoke and mirrors concoction Boris Johnson sold to the British people last autumn in the form of the ‘revised Northern Ireland Protocol’, which was supposed to show that he could square the circle of the Irish border problem and ‘deliver’ a clean Brexit, was going to fall apart as soon as it was put to the test.
As the Withdrawal Agreement and its revised Northern Ireland Protocol (the deal which Johnson agreed on 19 October) stands, both sides are committed to avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland regardless of the outcome of the withdrawal negotiations.
This means that even if there were ‘no deal’ and we moved to WTO tariffs, Northern Ireland would effectively remain within the EU Single Market – which means, in turn, that there would have to be a customs border down the Irish Sea.
No amount of bluster about EU blockades and breaking up our country can disguise the fact that the government is reneging on the withdrawal agreement that it negotiated, and it agreed to, last autumn. The mess is entirely of Johnson’s making but the political calculation is devilish and masterful.
Either the EU plays ball, concludes a free trade deal on our terms (i.e. we set our own rules and standards), and drops their insistence on a hard border or on a border down the Irish sea – and in the process destroys the integrity of their own Single Market; or we move to WTO rules, and the Republic is forced against its will to impose a hard border with Northern Ireland.
One suspects that since the latter is inconceivable, something along the lines of the former is inevitable. But then the former is also inconceivable, and though the latter is unpalatable, it could be argued that border customs posts erected by the Irish would be less likely to be a target for nationalist terrorists. Either way, Johnson, Gove, and Cummings have given the term La Perfide Albion a whole new lease of life.
Yet through all these negotiations and machinations, neither the British nor the Irish has addressed the root cause of the problem – namely, the precarious position of Northern Ireland in the UK. Here are the facts: First, recent Labour Force surveys reveal that there is, in all probability, already a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland. Second, the demographic trend is for the Catholic population to continue to rise rapidly and for the Protestant population to fall. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the economic consequences for Northern Ireland of being part of the UK have been dire.
In an article in the Belfast Telegraph a few years ago, Irish economist David McWilliams argued that the Union had been an economic disaster for both communities in Northern Ireland.[https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/news-analysis/demographics-are-shifting-towards-a-united-ireland-we-must-have-a-plan-35865222.html]
The statistics make dismal reading. In 1920, Northern Ireland was Ireland’s industrial powerhouse producing 80 per cent of its output; a century later, it produces less than 10 per cent.
The Republic produces 15 times more exports than the North. Foreign capital has poured into the Republic, which is now a net contributor to the EU. The North, meanwhile, is dependent on handouts from Whitehall, the DUP’s extortion of extra money from Theresa May (in return for propping up her government) amounting to a shopping expedition by ‘a subsidy junky’.
Ulster has great emotional resonance for a certain generation of English – for those of us with Northern Irish ancestry, and those of us who remember the sacrifice of Ulster in two World Wars. Alanbrooke, Churchill’s great CIGS, was an Ulsterman, of whom Churchill said, ‘When I thump the table and push my face towards him what does he do? Thumps the table harder and glares back at me. I know these Brookes – stiff-necked Ulstermen and there’s no one worse to deal with than that!’
But for growing numbers of young aspiring Northern Irish of both communities, the prospect of remaining an outlying ‘province’ of the UK, a millstone around Great Britain’s neck, an economic basket case, cannot be very appealing, especially when measured against their dynamic southern neighbour, whose religious past is fast receding, and whose population is increasingly cosmopolitan and secular in outlook.
As for the spectre of Gaelic, less than half the population of the Republic can speak it, and only one in twenty does so on a regular basis. Neither is the prospect very appealing to growing numbers of mainland British, for whom Protestant Unionists and Orangemen are nothing but an embarrassment, and for whom a visit to Belfast holds all the appeal of a visit to Leipzig.
The truth is that the writing is on the wall for Northern Ireland, just as it is for Scotland, and we had better start facing it. The Union has no more life in it than the Empire. But the demise of the Union, of Great Britain, perhaps even of ‘Britain’, could be a golden opportunity, indeed the last chance, for England – or, if the Welsh consent, for ‘England and Wales’ – to save itself, and its people, from multicultural suicide. Or, in the words of the old hymn, ‘England, arise! The long, long night is over.’