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Analysis

Brexiters forging ‘Dishonourable Britain’ in Ireland

by Bill Emmott | 07.02.2018

Do Brexiters care about Britain’s reputation as a country that keeps its word? It feels strange to ask, especially about people such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Iain Duncan Smith who call themselves “Conservatives”. But it is clear they do not.

They cannot care, as they are intent on tearing up an international treaty that the great global nation they profess to love signed solemnly in 1998, to great acclaim from our close friends in the United States as well as in Europe. What’s more, they are intent on disavowing the agreement signed by Theresa May in Brussels only in December last year.

That, if only they were brave enough to admit it, is the consequence of their insistence that Britain must have no truck with the EU’s customs union or its single market, and must, at all costs, have the freedom to do trade “deals” with non-EU countries that will be on different, presumably advantageous, terms from those between those countries and the EU.

This can only mean that the Brexiters – a particularly vocal member of whom, Theresa Villiers, served as secretary of state for Northern Ireland for four years from 2012-16 – are also intent on hanging out to dry a province of the United Kingdom in which more than 500 British soldiers died during the “Troubles” that the 1998 treaty sought to bring to an end.

The Brexit hardliners clearly have little regard for the future of the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which Duncan Smith himself fought to defend during the 1970s. He served as an officer in the Scots Guards, one of the more than 300,000 soldiers based in the province during the Troubles.

If the hard Brexiters get their way, the British Army may soon have to send reinforcements. Or perhaps Duncan Smith couldn’t care less at the prospect of a clause of the 1998 Good Friday (or, strictly, Belfast) Agreement being invoked and a referendum then being held on possible unification with the Republic of Ireland.

New barriers

In the treaty we signed with the Republic of Ireland in 1998 we pledged to maintain close cooperation in the island of Ireland on a long list of issues of economic development and trade, a list that was left deliberately open-ended given that trade inevitably evolves as economies change. We also pledged to maintain close cooperation over the use of EU funds, which have since had a big impact in the border regions between the two countries.

And in December 2017 we pledged to ensure that there would be no regulatory barriers either on the island of Ireland or in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

As the EU’s negotiator Michel Barnier said in 10 Downing Street on February 5, trade barriers between Britain and the EU, and so between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, will be “unavoidable”, as and when the UK leaves the customs union. Brexiters seem to think he is simply posturing, and that all can be solved in a miraculously “frictionless” trade pact after Brexit. But unlike them, Barnier is actually stating the truth.

Well, to be fair, Duncan Smith has also broken a long habit by telling the truth. In an interview with Radio 4’s Today Programme in December last year he acknowledged that new barriers would emerge to trade between Britain and the EU, but said that business would just have to adjust and learn to get by.

Simple matter of honour

It is a straight choice: diverge and have barriers, stay aligned and do not. This should not be a difficult point to grasp, but it seems that it is. Any country that wants to have trade terms with the US, China or anywhere else that are more generous than the EU’s, and which wishes to have different regulations for food, chemicals and much else besides, must by definition then have customs checks at EU borders.

Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, will be just doing his duty as a representative of an honourable country that believes in the commitments made by countries in international negotiations when he insists that both Britain and Ireland must stick to the terms of both the Good Friday Agreement and December’s EU divorce deal.

At some point during the next fortnight, possibly Valentine’s Day, Boris Johnson is apparently planning a big speech calling for a “liberal Brexit”.

Let us hope that the foreign secretary faces up to the issue of Northern Ireland in his remarks, giving us all his view of how he believes his vision of Brexit can be reconciled with both the international treaty that Britain signed in 1998 and the agreement signed in December by the government of which he forms part.

Is it any wonder that Britain is now so mistrusted that the EU wants to write in the power to impose sanctions even during the transition period, should we break our word?

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

5 Responses to “Brexiters forging ‘Dishonourable Britain’ in Ireland”

  • I don’t know what the Govt legal officers are up to but they need to put Petain May straight on a number of basic principles of international law; that negotiations must be conducted in good faith (which from my perspective the UK has singularly failed to do with the EU); and that treaties are legally binding and must be performed in good faith (pacta sunt servanda). Why, post-brexit, would any State want to enter into arrangements with a slippery, mendacious UK that couldn’t abide by such fundamental rules and couldn’t be trusted to fulfil its legal obligations? It’s on the way to becoming a pariah State, with as much respect for international law as Saddam Hussein.

  • What Gino Novaldi says is so obviously correct that it should not need to be said if the Brexiteers believed their own words, and that also applies in the case of Northern Ireland. The Brexiteers seem to think that the problem of Ireland will just disappear if we have a hard Brexit or else they intend to ditch Northern Ireland, which would certainly be grist for the mill of those Scots who want to leave the union. In addition the Brexiteers seem to think that the members of the Commonwealth will be waiting to do deals with us forgetting that we left them on the lurch when we joined the EEC so they will be bound to drive a hard bargain and want guarantees against something like that happening again.
    So it should not need saying that staying within the law be it internal or international should be paramount otherwise we have anarchy.

  • Have to say, Britain’s record in Ireland was hardly ‘honorable’ in the first place, so to suggest that Brexiters are now forging a ‘Dishonourable Britain’ in Ireland misses the point. More realistic to say that this is a policy of continuity: long-term disdain for Ireland and continuing resentment about its independence.

  • The answer to this problem is for Ireland and the other countries we have been dealing with is to stop tiptoeing around the situation and call our nationalist Dear Leader out. Admittedly, Leo Varadkar has been doing his best, given the constraints that this complex situation imposes on him. Our government has overnight become quite hostile to the EU, while the EU appears to have adopted a somewhat bemused and disappointed outlook on the situation – although it is undoubtedly seeking to protect its interests.

    These countries do not need to adopt an aggressive stance towards the UK, but it is now time to let the UK government know that the game is up. It’s the Norway option or get out. Why should the EU countenance a former member government that seeks to destroy it? We are not out yet, but all signs point in that direction. Although I’m not sure our paralyzed Dear Leader has the guts to make the call herself; we may have to have the decision made for us and be thrown out.

  • I agree no hard border – Brexit or no Brexit. If the Troubles return I would from then on be against Northern Ireland continuing as part of the UK. The terrorists brought bombs to London and other cities in late 20th century. I was fed up with it all. As far as I ‘m concerned, if some of them find union with Republic of Ireland abhorrent well there is always another option. Maybe both sides can agree to secede and declare independence. Refusing to secede because they would have to unite with the rest of Ireland is a blatant excuse because they don’t need to belong to either country. NI can always share our Queen like Canada, Australia and New Zealand or have a President. As a sovereign country NI can then apply to rejoin the EU. Why do they need Britain so much or the Republic of Ireland for that matter Every time there is a problem in that province both countries have had to pick up the pieces and it’s the taxpayer who has to pay for it all. More money wasted when it could be spent on the NHS.