I stood as a Conservative candidate in the 2017 General Election and in this capacity attended a hustings I will never forget. With the exception of myself, the five other candidates were united in their conviction that the UK Government’s approach to the Brexit negotiations was flawed because it was too demanding and involved making too many threats. The way forward was, apparently, to be much more friendly and co-operative.
As someone with a PhD in international relations I was completely baffled by their suggested approach. It certainly did not inform the negotiating strategy of the EU. Indeed, as I look back at the EU’s tactics, especially in relation to Northern Ireland, even I am shocked by the brazenly realpolitik nature of their modus operandi which (as this article will explain) actually involved, and indeed continues to involve, their effectively disregarding one of the most basic conventions of international relations. Two arguments against the Protocol are particularly relevant in this regard.
In the first instance, the basic ground rule of international relations is that any state must ‘recognise’ any other state with which it wishes to conduct diplomatic relations as a fellow ‘sovereign state’ and this requires acknowledging and respecting the territorial integrity of the polity in question. If two states can afford each other this reciprocal dignity, then, according to the conventions of international relations, they have a foundation upon which to engage with each other and international relations can happen.
In order to understand this principle in the Northern Ireland context, it is important to appreciate that in conducting its relationship with the Irish Free State, and then Republic of Ireland, the UK adopted an unusually flexible and generous approach. Normally refusing to recognise the territorial integrity of another state by means of laying claim to part of it constitutes a bar to diplomatic relationships, but in dealing with this former part of the union, the UK did not insist on these normal courtesies for many years. From 1939 until 1999 the UK had diplomatic relations with, first, the Irish Free State and then the Republic notwithstanding the fact that their constitution boldly laid claim to Northern Ireland and they thereby refused to acknowledge the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. The Good Friday Agreement, however, facilitated, for the very first time normal diplomatic relations in the sense that the Republic finally recognised the territorial integrity of the UK, removing the claim to Northern Ireland from its constitution. In that sense, while the Good Friday Agreement made provision for the removal of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom if at some point in the future this is supported in referenda in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, its primary and immediate significance was not that it negated the reality of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic but that it laid the foundation for its greatest acknowledgement in sixty years and the provision, thereby, of a proper constitutional foundation for diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland as two sovereign states.
Viewed from this perspective, the Northern Ireland Protocol is deeply problematic because it seeks to undermine what was secured through the Good Friday Agreement, by enabling the Republic of Ireland, and the wider EU, to effectively lay claim to, and thereby negate, part of the UK single market for goods, with the effect that the UK single market for goods no longer exists. It has now been replaced by a Great Britain single market for goods and an all-Ireland single market for goods, as part of the wider EU single market. In a context where one of the primary roles of a sovereign state is to uphold and regulate the market, it is not possible to affirm the territorial integrity of the state with its own laws apart from its territorial market and its laws. To be sure there will be other means of giving credence to the notion of the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom, for example in relation to defence, but in the context of the market realities of modern political economy that inform what it means to be a sovereign state today, the suggestion that the Protocol constitutes anything other than a blatant means of violating the Good Friday Agreement (effectively drawing the Republic back into the pre 1999 days of rejecting the territorial integrity of the UK) is simply not credible.
In truth the actions of the EU and the Republic of Ireland do not merely operate at the level of not recognising the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom for some crucial political and economic purposes, as between 1937-1999. They actually take this failure to abide by the norms of international relationships to a whole new level, seeking to actively create, for some purposes, a new territorial integrity for the United Kingdom (something the Irish Free State and then Republic of Ireland did not seek to do between 1937-1999) that is contrary to the actual territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. As if this was not bad enough, this imposition also disenfranchises the people of Northern Ireland by creating a context in which they are subject to economic legislation in the development of which they have no role and no voice. It is extraordinary that in the 21st century any democratic state, or group of states, could be party to pressing such an arrangement on another jurisdiction.
In the second instance, the United Kingdom cannot afford to continue to submit to the Northern Ireland Protocol because the ‘means’ by which the Protocol was fostered by the EU – exhibiting as it did a deep seated commitment to realpolitik and therein refusal to respect basic norms of international relations – is wholly consistent with the end its presence actually encourages. In order to understand why this is so we must think about the impact of the Protocol on UK citizens living outside Northern Ireland.
The Protocol confronts UK citizens in England, Scotland and Wales with a series of questions: How would I feel if England/Wales/Scotland – uniquely within the union – was effectively placed in a different single market from the rest of the UK, such that if companies in the rest of the union wanted to sell goods to me it would be like trading with a foreign jurisdiction? How would I feel if any of the economic legislation pertaining to England/Wales/Scotland – let alone 60% of it – was made at a level into which England/Wales/Scotland had no representation and was voiceless? How would I feel, if this arrangement – fundamentally changing the constitutional settlement defining my life – was simply imposed on me and I was told that not only would I not be consulted about this seismic change in the rules of the game informing my citizenship through a referendum prior to the change, but that the only form of consultation would come four years after its introduction and be limited to my elected representatives? Moreover – and this is critical – the underlying question to which these other questions inevitably give rise cannot be put off for long. ‘If the rest of the union has been prepared to allow this arrangement, notwithstanding its implications for those in Northern Ireland who are committed to the United Kingdom, is the United Kingdom the kind of community I want to be part of?’
In a context where nationalists in Scotland and Wales are already proposing the break-up of the union, unionists clearly cannot afford to accommodate an environment that generates such questions. Moreover, in coming to terms with the way in which the environment excites such questions, one is inevitably confronted by the fact that rather than our 2017 approach being too forceful, it was in fact too weak because it did not reject the Protocol outright. In this regard the consequence of adopting a less demanding approach of the kind favoured by my hustings friends has ironically been to encourage an environment where the current domestic relationships between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are more threatened than would otherwise be the case by pressures for their reformation into qualitatively very different – and much coarser – international relationships. Rather than saving us from threats and brinkmanship, therefore, the apparently more ‘friendly’ and submissive approach has actually increased the likelihood of the deployment of these practices within our own islands, and the replacement of the United Kingdom with the several foreign policies of the nations of these islands, pursued through power, as we are all disinherited from our union politics.
Now, lest anyone should suggest it, I am not saying for a moment that the union is doomed. Stating that something is more likely to happen is not the same as saying it will happen. What I am suggesting, though, is that at a time when the union is subject to greater pressure than ever before there is nothing inevitable about its continued existence. In this context it is vital that the Government stands up not just for Northern Ireland but for the dignity and integrity of the United Kingdom as a whole by triggering Article 16 as quickly as possible. The Government must make it clear that it can no longer tolerate the extraordinary indignity to which the EU and Republic of Ireland have seen fit to subject Northern Ireland, and thereby the wider United Kingdom, a moment longer. If we cannot command the basic courtesies of international relations even in relation to our immediate neighbours, how can we ever expect to make a success of Brexit?