As the notional deadline of October for final Brexit negotiations draws ever closer, the clouds if anything are growing darker. The UK’s statements on their withdrawal position and the NI protocol have clarified very little. Johnson and co seem like General de Gaulle in 1940, holding out for an impossible position of victory against the odds. But at least de Gaulle had allies. A City University webinar I linked up with yesterday confirmed growing pessimism over Northern Ireland prospects.( video available later).
Forget about “frictionless.” There will be six different types of formalities for movement of goods GB to NI in a type of arrangement that doesn’t exist anywhere in the world, said customs expert Anna Jerewska. Most of the formalities relate to sorting out where goods and parts are coming from and where they’re going to – across the land border or staying in the province ; in other words much of it is about assuring that the open border doesn’t become an illegal back door into the EU. With less than 170 days to go no one knows how the UK will handle this.
UK single market plans
Under the circumstances the UK government is keen to ensure the uniformity of standards within its own single market from which Northern Ireland will be partly and complicatedly exempt. But the way they’re dealing with this clashes with devolution prerogatives and is therefore a gift to the SNP who are accusing London of making “ a land grab.” On Northern Ireland our own Katy Hayward writes:
The EU single market had provided the glue for the UK’s internal market even as devolution became more established and led to increasing intra-UK distinctions. The question now is how much divergence can the UK manage? This is an economic/markets question, but also a political one..
.. some other policy areas were seen as vital and in need of legislative frameworks to ensure commonality across the UK. There were 21 such areas that related to Northern Ireland, and 17 of these areas are now covered by the NI Protocol. .. And so, the future UK-EU relationship becomes key to the future UK internal market. Because the more distant the UK-EU relationship, the greater the challenge for the UK internal market because NI will follow EU anyway (and thus by definition diverge from GB).
Worse still, a ‘no deal’ outcome at the end of the transition period will turn a choppy Irish Sea into a very stormy one indeed.
At the City University webinar Katy registered a change of tone among NI and cross border business folk, from the mantras “we can handle it” and “the best of both worlds,” to “Northern Ireland is between a rock and hard place.” She observed that, as the prospects for foreign inward investment, why should anyone locate in NI when by going a few miles down the road they have free entry for continental EU workers and no complex customs arrangements into the EU?
It’s not just trade, it’s politics stupid
Most striking was how four experts, an English and an Irish lawyer, a customs expert, a City University London and a Queen’s academic agreed that the Irish/ NI Protocol was a political project of the first order and not only about trade. “About peace” declared Dublin legal trade expert Vincent Power. The outworking of the Protocol would not be a rapid adjustment but “an interminable process”. It took over seventy years to achieve free trade between Britain and Ireland. The Protocol might not work and peace (meaning continuing good UK-RoI relations) was not guaranteed.
No Assembly veto
The experts noted that Protocol arrangements are avowedly temporary. The Assembly will be consulted on any proposed changes and will be able to vote on withdrawing from it. Here the ideology of “consent” raises it head.
The Northern Ireland Assembly will periodically vote on whether to consent to the continued operation of the protocol for as long as it remains in force. The frequency of the vote will depend on how the decision is made.
If a decision is made on the basis of a simple majority in the Assembly, the Assembly will have the opportunity to vote again four years later. If a decision is made on a cross-community basis – then the Assembly will not vote again for eight years.
If consent is withheld at any point, the arrangements will cease to apply two years later.
There could be a crisis waiting to happen here. The DUP are biding their time. David Trimble believes the consent principle in the GFA has been honoured where it had been breached by Theresa May’s preceding backstop. Others are doubtful. As external trade is a matter reserved to Westminster, the UK government will decide whether the Assembly vote will be by simple majority of a cross community vote. This by no means guarantees a unionist veto and is surely intentional. Is it conceivable that the UK government would allow the fragile house of cards so painstakingly erected to be blown over by Stormont? Katy Hayward and her colleague David Phinnemore are correct in holding that legally, the consent principle in the GFA doesn’t apply . But the GFA specifically envisaged continuing EU membership. The position has radically changed. And so emphatically has the politics. The potential constitutional implications are obvious.
Is Westminster deliberately lying doggo or genuinely in mental lockdown? Exhaustion due to Covid v and the bitterness of the abortive second public vote on Brexit prevails. Although a Leaver, the right wing Scottish columnist Iain Martin sounds the alarm for the future of the Union greatly weakened by Brexit. He forecasts what everyone interested knows: that an impending constitutional crunch over Scottish independence that, if mishandled, will mean the break-up of the nation. But he blames it more on the poor handling of the Coivid crisis.
For the first time the default assumption in Scotland among depressed unionists appears to be that independence will happen when the pandemic dies down.. It will be all but impossible for the PM to refuse demands for a second vote if there is a strong Nationalist majority built on a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum. If 75 per cent or more of MSPs are for independence, the potential for the Nationalists to mount a campaign of peaceful but messy civil disobedience — to fire up opinion on the perfectly reasonable basis that Scots should be allowed to settle this soon in a referendum — is obvious… The tide is already with the SNP. A poll published this month suggested that 54 per cent of Scots favour independence. The pollster Professor Sir John Curtice says that the future of the Union has never been so uncertain. In England, too, the ties may be fraying. A Panelbase poll this week recorded 49 per cent of English voters favouring English independence.
On the economics, Scotland leaving the UK would clearly be much more difficult even than Brexit. Scotland is entwined via currency, pensions, welfare and a large public spending shortfall. But the Brexiteers know from 2016 that many voters value emotional appeal above dry-as-dust economics. This battle is coming and it will be extremely tough to win.
Alan Wager, research associate at the UK in a Changing Europe has just reported on a survey of MPs on the likelihood of UK breakup
The ritual has begun to look something like this: an opinion poll, reported as a shock to the system, shows the real possibility of independence. Westminster is, supposedly, awakened from its stupor. A serious but temporary discussion about the existential threat to the union takes place. Then, normality resumes…
We saw the latest example of this a couple of weekends ago, as a Panelbase poll for The Sunday Times saw the campaign for independence register its highest ever support with the pollster at 54%.
At the core of this ritual is the idea that the break-up of the United Kingdom is overlooked and under-priced by politicians in Westminster.
Yet, in truth, the opposite may well be the case: many MPs could well be aware that a second IndyRef and Scottish independence is increasingly likely. They are just not sure what it exactly they can do about it.
To test this and wider attitudes to the union in Westminster, back in January – in a pre-Covid-19 age – at the UK in a Changing Europe we worked with Ipsos Mori to ask a representative survey of MPs in the new Parliament some questions about the future of the union.
As a fantastic Institute for Government graph here shows, at the start of the year independence had polling consistently on a knife-edge, between 49% and 51%, for the best part of a year.
We asked three questions: whether it was likely Scotland or Wales would vote to become an independent country within the next decade, and whether it is likely that Northern Ireland will vote to join the Republic by 2030.
The results demonstrate a clear party split: the Conservative Party in Parliament, at least at the start of the year, remained confident in its ability to keep the union intact. Just 10% of Conservative MPs thought Scottish independence was likely in the next decade.
This was a clear disjunction between the expectations of the party that governs the UK, and the fact that support for independence had been precipitously on the rise since 2017.
The question is whether the sharp further increase following the handling of this crisis has woken any more Conservative MPs up.
The recent creation of a new Union Policy Implementation cabinet committee suggests the party may be increasingly alive to the fact that the implementation of Brexit – and the enforcement of a UK-wide internal market – is likely to bring a new set of political opportunities for an emboldened Nicola Sturgeon.
In contrast, by more than a two to one margin – 68% to 32% – Labour MPs thought the independence movement was more likely than not to win a referendum by 2030. The Scottish question within the Labour party is beginning to take on an air of weary resignation.
Where there as slightly greater cross-party agreement was on expectations around Irish unification. Over a quarter of Conservative MPs see this as likely, and just over half of Labour MPs.
The simple fact that the possibility of a unification referendum in the near future in Northern Ireland is taken seriously by a significant proportion of both main parties in Westminster would have been difficult to imagine prior to Brexit.
And certainly, analysis by Katy Hayward and Ben Rosher of the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times survey – fieldwork conducted between September 2019 and the start of February 2020 – shows that the expectation of Irish unification has risen among the Republican community in Northern Ireland.
What our survey also shows is that the possibility of a unification referendum in the near future in Northern Ireland – a legal obligation under the Good Friday Agreement, if a majority for a united Ireland appears likely – is taken seriously by a significant proportion of both main parties in Westminster.
Indeed, a key takeaway from our survey is that a substantial minority of MPs, and a majority of Labour MPs, are alive to the real possibility of further constitutional rupture over the next decade.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of Conservative MPs may be sleepwalking into a decade marked by major constitutional ruptures.
Perhaps the key lesson from the referendums of 2014 and 2016 – if you are about to enter into an existential constitutional referendum against an insurgent with their tails up, you had better come prepared with a plan – does not appear to have been learned by the Conservative (and don’t forget Unionist) Party.
The results may show that MPs are in more denial about Scottish secession than a united Ireland because they care more about the former.
For Northern Ireland, if higher prices and slower growth at a cost of greater divergence from Great Britain are the prospects, is it any wonder that people will become more interested in “ a shared island”?
Provided that this too is about more than empty rhetoric.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London