Brexit, betrayal and Ireland

2 October, 2020

For those witnessing the United Kingdom’s spectacular descent into ignominy over the last four years since voting to leave the European Union, Tuesday September 8, 2020 is a date that will not soon be forgotten. On that afternoon, Brandon Lewis (Northern Ireland Secretary of State), speaking from the House of Commons’ despatch box, announced the government’s intention to break international law in pursuit of its Brexit policy. Reading from prepared notes, Lewis ‘qualified’ the Government’s intentions by claiming that it will be only “in a very specific and limited way”, a ludicrous attempt at defending the intended transgression.

As a close and somewhat exhausted observer of the Brexit ‘psychodrama’ and having worked on Brexit related policy for a UK government entity from 2016-2019, I admit I am not overly surprised with this latest manoeuvre by Prime Minister Boris Johnson et al. I am, however, deeply saddened by it.

For most of my six years in London, I felt very much at home. But over time, and particularly after the vote to leave the EU, I became increasingly disenchanted and angry at the actions of the governing Conservative Party towards both the EU and Ireland in the negotiations. The lack of any attempt to pursue a deal which might unite a deeply polarised UK exposed the dark underbelly of UK politics and belied a prevailing sense of English exceptionalism. Pandering to the likes of Nigel Farage and the extreme Brexiteers in the so-called European Research Group, little concern was paid towards the deal’s impact on UK citizens and businesses nor on the process that brought peace to Northern Ireland with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) on 22 May 1998.

The intent to break international law

The intent to break international law is to be put forward in domestic legislation called the UK Internal Market Bill (IMB), and it contradicts a number of the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) provisions, which are encompassed in the Withdrawal Agreement (WA). The offending clauses grant the UK unilateral authority to make changes to the WA’s terms without necessitating mutual agreement of the EU’s Joint Committees (as had been established originally as a means of overseeing the WA’s implementation). To become law, the proposal will need to pass in both the lower (House of Commons)—which it did convincingly on the evening of Monday September 14 (on the back of the Government’s 80 seat majority)—and upper house (House of Lords) of the UK’s parliament.

It is fair to say that EU–UK relations are now in a very poor state. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, expressed both frustration and anger in a series of interviews and tweets last weekend. Talking with the news outlet Politico, he lamented that “It is a difficult negotiation because the British would like the best of both worlds and to export their products to a market of 450 million consumers on their terms… we would like the conditions to be fair”. Then on Sunday Barnier tweetedProtocol on IE/NI is not a threat to the integrity of the UK. We agreed this delicate compromise with @BorisJohnson & his gov in order to protect peace & stability on island of Ireland. We could not have been clearer about the consequences of #Brexit.”  (sic)

As for Ireland’s relations with the UK: they are lower than they have been for years. Speaking on BBC’s flagship Saturday politics programme with Andrew Marr, and in response to a suggestion made by Boris Johnson that the EU could blockade British food to Northern Ireland, Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Foreign Affairs minister stated bluntly: “There is no blockade proposed, and that is the kind of inflammatory language coming from No 10* which is spin and not the truth.”

Coveney went further: “Britain is behaving in an extraordinary way” and that “What is agreed in the Withdrawal Agreement and in the Protocol is that there will be limited checks on goods coming from GB into Northern Ireland, because there is an agreement to prevent the need for physical border infrastructure on the island of Ireland. That is the whole basis of the Northern Ireland protocol which the UK designed, along with the EU together to protect peace in Northern Ireland… and that the British government is now looking to renege upon, which is why you sense a frustration in my voice.”

Reaction, consequences and what now for the negotiations?

The intention to contravene the WA has brought enraged reactions from all sides; even including senior pro-Brexit Conservative luminaries Norman Lamont and Michael Howard, as well as former Conservative UK Prime Ministers Theresa May, John Major and David Cameron. The former attorney general Geoffrey Cox said on Monday that breaking international law risked causing “very long-term and permanent damage to this country’s reputation.”

At this time, whether this bill passes or not is somewhat beside the point. There is no doubt that the UK’s reputation as a trustworthy and honourable broker in international negotiations is now dubious at best, and this approach is strategically risible – to put it diplomatically. Consider the position the UK is now in as it leaves the EU to independently negotiate its own trade deals: one of the key requisites is an ability to to be a trustworthy partner. The mind boggles.

Opinions differ, but the EU may see this as a tactic by Johnson to extract concessions from them. The likelihood of this happening, however, is close to zero, particularly given the further reaction mid-week from senior US politicians (such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden) who have said that any threat to the GFA will jeopardize a US-UK trade deal. The US response will have served as a stark reminder to the UK government (belatedly) of the role that the US played in the brokering of the Good Friday Agreement and the strength of the Irish-American relationship. The UK approach now looks like a terrible miscalculation and how Johnson will achieve a dignified climb-down whilst managing to placate the Brexiteer hardliners within the Conservative Party is unclear.

A statement from the EU Commission following an extraordinary meeting of the EU-UK on September 10 insisted that the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement must be “timely and full”. This was similarly echoed a few days later by the Commission President Ursula van der Leyen in her annual State of the Union speech at the European Parliament Plenary. The EU has called on the UK government to withdraw the measures from the draft IMB in the shortest time possible and in any case by the end of the month and reminded the UK that it will use the mechanisms and legal remedies contained in the WA to address violations of legal obligations.

So, the EU will continue to negotiate and may launch infringements proceedings against the UK (which it believes it can do before the bill is signed into law). This would, as Peter Foster in the Financial Times notes, satisfy EU honour. If a ‘no deal’ does occur, it will only happen because the British decided to walk away from the table or actively breach its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement. The fundamental question therefore is: is the UK government interested in a deal on the current terms of the WA or has it decided that a no deal is unavoidable?

Where does this leave Ireland?

It may be that Johnson and his ever-present and disproportionately influential special advisor Dominic Cummings have simply over-played their hand. Such has been the reaction on both sides of the political aisle. In which case, the IMB may not become law. The minuscule remnants of trust (if any) with the UK’s EU and Irish partners suggest that a ‘no-deal’ is still a distinct possibility but perhaps less so now given the extent of the reaction from all quarters to the IMB; it is stil rather astonishing however that Number 10 didn’t not seem to anticipate this and particularly given the US role in the GFA negotiations.

However, as things currently stand, the island of Ireland is in a vulnerable position. The potential for a return to a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has increased and the existence of which could lead to a possible re-emergence of violence. The blame is solely with the dishonest and duplicitous Johnson if this happens, and it threatens a complete disintegration of UK-Irish relations.

As well-known Irish writer, historian and Brexit commentator Fintan O’Toole wrote recently in The Guardian: “This idea that Britain could sign the withdrawal agreement with its fingers crossed behind its back and then just ignore it later on is, in a way, perfectly consistent with the larger mentality of Brexit. At the heart of its theology is the fantasy that there is such a thing as absolute national sovereignty, a complete unilateral freedom of action that had been taken away by EU membership. Once Britain is “unchained” from the EU, Britain can do whatever it damn well pleases. The withdrawal treaty is not a set of permanent obligations, merely a route towards the obligation-free future that starts on 1 January 2021.”


*No 10 refers to No 10 Downing Street, the PM’s residence and government headquarters

Mark Dempsey is a former EU Policy Advisor from the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and is currently pursuing an Executive master’s in public administration (EMPA) at The Hertie School

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