BY EFFIE DEANS
France is a rather odd place. It is not merely the chunk of the European continent across the Channel. It also includes two islands in the Caribbean, Guadeloupe and Martinique, a little bit of South America, French Guiana, and two islands in the Indian Ocean, Réunion and Mayotte. These are part of France in just the same way as Picardy and Normandy. The concept then of territory that is far far away being France is quite clear to Mr Macron. Yet oddly he struggles with the concept of Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom.
Perhaps Mr Macron is getting mixed up by the fact that Northern Ireland is not part of Great Britain. But Northern Ireland is so much a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that if it ceased to be a part there would be no United Kingdom at all. There would then be just the Kingdom of Great Britain. But although Northern Ireland is not a part of Great Britain the people living there are British and just as British as any other citizen of the UK. The reason for this is that the word we use for citizens of the UK is not as it might have been “United Kingdomer”, which is a bit ungainly but rather “British”. Every resident of the UK is a British citizen unless he has the citizenship of somewhere else. We are all equally British. It doesn’t matter if you come from Belfast or Barnsley.
It is for this reason that Mr Macron’s words are so offensive. It is as if Boris Johnson said that the people of Corsica and their most famous general were not really French and that the territory of Corsica was not really a part of France because it is separated by a stretch of sea.
Unfortunately, it is more understandable than it ought to be that Mr Macron does not consider Northern Ireland to be part of the UK. He has been encouraged in this view by decades of British Government policy which has not treated Belfast as if it were just the same as Barnsley.
Northern Ireland exists because of the Irish War of Independence. While the majority in what is now Ireland wished to leave the UK, a majority in Northern Ireland did not. If the majority of people in Ireland could justifiably secede from the UK, there is no logical reason why the majority of people in Northern Ireland could choose not to do so, but rather remain in the UK. This was just one of the territorial changes that took place in Europe after the First World War sometimes due to plebiscite and sometimes due to war. Likewise, after the Second World War there were more territorial changes. No one questions these.
No one agitates for Italy to return South Tyrol even though the majority of people living there speak German. There is no serious prospect of reuniting the Tyrol and if there were the EU would oppose it. No one suggests that Hungarian speaking parts of Romania and Slovakia should be returned to Hungary, because if Europe began reopening border disputes there would be chaos and most probably violence. Only in Northern Ireland is irredentism acceptable. If Germany agitated for the return of its lost lands which are now parts of Russia and Poland it would be accused of reverting to its behaviour of 1938 when it annexed the Sudetenland because of the Germans living there. There is no obvious difference between this and what Ireland is doing when it seeks to find ways of annexing Northern Ireland because there are some people with an Irish identity living there.
The problem is that whereas places like Italy and Turkey view the lands they took after the First World War as theirs permanently, whether or not they are across a sea (European Turkey, Eastern Thrace is in a different continent to Anatolia), the British have always apologised for Northern Ireland. Churchill was willing to trade Northern Ireland with De Valera for Irish cooperation during World War 2. During the Troubles the British Government was always keen to come to an arrangement with Ireland, which would in the end trade land (Northern Ireland) for peace. Making peace with the IRA meant giving Ireland a role in Northern Ireland and the peace treaty, the Belfast Agreement, allowed for Northern Ireland to join Ireland if a majority on both sides of the border wished it.
No other country in the world would have signed such a treaty and the British Government would not have signed such a treaty about any other part of the United Kingdom. It is simply unimaginable that Italy would sign a treaty with Austria about South Tyrol that gave the Austrians a formal role in South Tyrol or which allowed a plebiscite for Tyrolean unity. The United States would not allow Mexico to interfere in the internal affairs of New Mexico nor would it sign a peace treaty with terrorists from Old Mexico, no matter how many children they bombed. But somehow Northern Ireland is different. This is why Mr Macron thinks it is not really part of the United Kingdom, because we do not treat it as if it is either.
It is of course outrageous that internal trade within the UK should in any way be disrupted by the EU. The regulatory border down the Irish Sea is the sort of thing that countries would be justified in fighting a war about. After all we were willing to fight world wars over Belgian neutrality and to protect Poland, yet we meekly agreed to the EU’s de facto annexation of Northern Ireland. What if the same regulatory border had been applied to Cornwall or to London? It is simply unimaginable that we would have allowed it.
The problem arose because Theresa May hoped that by agreeing to keep Northern Ireland within the EU/Irish sphere of influence she would force the whole UK to remain within it too. Boris Johnson was left with little choice but to make the best of a bad situation or else not leave the EU at all.
It might just have been possible to accept a regulatory border if it had been barely noticeable. The people of Northern Ireland after all voted for the Belfast Agreement and they are divided fairly evenly between those whose allegiance is to the UK and those whose allegiance is to Ireland. It is worth compromising to maintain peace in Northern Ireland. But the present situation is not maintaining peace but rather imperiling it.
The people of Northern Ireland have the same right to buy produce from the other parts of the UK as anyone else. I would be furious if I could not buy what I wanted from England, or if small parcels could not be sent from there. Mr Macron would not allow disruption of trade between the overseas regions and departments of France and mainland France. No one in the world would allow such an arrangement.
It is therefore time for the United Kingdom to trigger Article 16, as the EU briefly has already done. This can be justified if the protocol “leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist”. It has already done so. The EU are unwilling to seriously negotiate, because they are using the protocol to punish Britain, by striving to make Northern Ireland the price of Brexit.
Having triggered Article 16, the British Government can inform the Irish Government that we do not intend to have any border checks at all at the international border between our countries. We don’t massively care if any rogue Irish pies or sausages make it to Belfast or to Barnsley. What the Irish Government chooses to do on its side of the border will be up to them, as it will not be any of our business.
Let the EU do its worst. But let us also be clear that the whole package of relations would then be on the line. If the EU treats Britain as a hostile power it can no longer expect the UK to be part of its security arrangements. If they wish to be friends, then treat us as friends. If they don’t, then don’t expect our cooperation next time European security is threatened. We have fought too often on the European Continent and received precious little gratitude for it.
The UK is doing quite well thank you very much after Brexit. We will survive if the EU chooses to make it more difficult for us to sell our goods to the EU. We will simply sell elsewhere and buy our goods from elsewhere too. Whatever might happen would be a fraction to what we have already endured during the pandemic, so there is nothing to be afraid of.
We still allow free movement of people between the UK and Ireland though we allow it for no other EU member state. A little cooperation from Ireland would justify this arrangement continuing, otherwise it might be time to revisit it. Joe Biden can hardly complain as his country does not allow free movement between Old Mexico and New Mexico. The Irish Government could not logically complain either, the consequence of choosing independence is that you choose an international border. You have no right to demand it be kept open.
The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.