Ulster’s European border

Theresa May’s instant pact with the Ulster Unionists is incompatible with hard Brexit.

Theresa May has lost no time in forming an electoral pact with the DUP, the Northern Irish Protestant/Unionist party, to give her a Commons majority of one.

This has consequences. Northern Irish politics is one-dimensional: it’s about the border, stupid. Republicans want to get rid of it and unite with the Republic, Unionists to keep it and stay in the United Kingdom.  That’s it. But there is a wrinkle. One of the gains of the Good Friday peace deal was the end of border controls, which also depended on both the UK and the Republic of Ireland being in the EU.  One of the very few things both factions in Northern Ireland can agree on is that the open border is just fine and should be kept. The DUP is now in a position to insist on this.

How is this possible after Brexit? Logically Brexit involves re-establishing immigration and customs controls at all EU borders. There are two ways to get round this in Ireland. One is a NI carve-out where Ulster is in a customs union with the Republic, but not the rest of the UK. The DUP will see this as handing Republicans at least half of the reunification they want. Not on. The other is for the whole UK to stay in the EU internal market, accepting Brussels rules on everything, all interpreted by the ECJ. This is what the City of London wants, but it’s been losing the argument against the “hard Brexit” ideologues. Now they have an ally in a position to impose its wishes. (Actually every single DUP MP can too. If one of them demands a large orange statue of Edward Carson in Parliament Square as the price of a key vote, it will go up.) Hard Brexit is dead.

The EU negotiator Michel Barnier knows this too, and his hand has been strengthened.

Sinn Fein won 7 seats too but by longstanding practice will not take them up, as every new MP must swear a oath of allegiance to the Crown. American readers note that the sitting President of the United States has less integrity than a bunch of retired Irish terrorists. I wonder though. If it came to a really critical vote about the border, perhaps Sinn Féin MPs could find a way to take the oath and become loyal subjects of the Queen for a day, vote, then resign their seats, get reelected in the by-elections, and return to the boycott.

Allegiance does not have to be a lifelong thing, and oaths can expire. I took an oath when I joined the Council of Europe not to take instructions from any government. I’m retired now, and the oath has surely ended with my service. I can write blogs (like this one) at the bidding of the Prince of Liechtenstein if I want. He hasn’t offered me enough yet.

Update: If you want to know where the DUP stands on other issues,  see here and marvel. The party could be called “The making Neanderthals look good party”. That’s on top of the ties to loyalist terrorists. Look at Noel Little, the charming father of one of the new DUP MPs, Emma Pengelly.

In court it was said the loyalists were trying to get guns from South Africa in exchange for information about advanced missile systems after parts of a Blowpipe missile and a model of a Javelin missile went missing from a Short Brothers plant at Castlereagh and from a Territorial Army depot in Newtownards.



Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

9 thoughts on “Ulster’s European border”

  1. The danger is that the Ni vote was virtually 100% tribal – all the smaller Unionist and Nationalist parties were wiped out leaving only a single Independent anti- Brexit Unionist in Westminster. The centre is not holding and there is less reason for Sinn Fein & DUP to form a devolved administration (on hold since Assembly elections in March). May''s government is no longer now an "honest broker" but in the DUP's pocket. Events in Europe (WW1) destroyed Home Rule 100 years ago, and history may be repeating itself.

    It may help if May sees that "hard Brexit" is a goner, but she also made herself a prisoner of the worst anti-European wing of her party. She needs to tear all her plans up and start again, but will she?

  2. Before the election I was fairly sure there would be no agreement at the end of 2 years (It took Brussels a decade to work out a deal with Canada, and they weren't mad at Canada). The odds of no agreement have now gone up sharply, and I find it bizarre that anyone thinks a nuanced, soft, well thought out agreement is now much more likely with a hung parliament. A crashout to WTO rules seems more likely than ever.

    1. Article 50 has the rigid 2-year clock, and the new trade deal will as you say take years (though both sides will be rather more motivated than with Canada). Doesn't it all depend on the transitional arrangements? Under soft Brexit, these could look remarkably like EU membership without a vote, as with Norway.

  3. Quite. The Tories also need their 13 new Scottish MPs, the only bright spot for them in the election. But these are on the completely opposite wing to the DUP & led by married Lesbian Ruth Davidson. Davidson was a prominent Remainer, and has already laid down markers for no dimunition of gay rights, and a change to the Brexit conditions. May has somehow to square the circle.

    Also, the DUP are not really "alt-right", more like the US Republican party which has its share of nutters and moderates. You could match Pengelly with a number of Sinn Feiners, so the the big two NI parties are alike in that.

    Suddenly, the Irish UK border is the most important in Europe a century after Churchill was moaning about "the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone". The whirligigs of time …..

  4. A niggle – the historic province of Ulster contains 3 counties in thr Republic. So the thread title is incorrect. "Ulster" does not exist as a political entity, Northern Ireland does.

    1. Point taken, but I'm not changing it as the usage (if tecnically mistaken) is common. Protestants in NI have in the past referred to themselves as Ulster Unionists, Ulster Freedom Fighters, etc.

      1. Nationalists' derisory name for Unionists' "Ulster" is "The Six Counties", so I propose an alternative "The Six Counties' European Border" in the interests of balance. 🙂

  5. The other problem is of course that May can't afford to lose a single vote from the other side of her party either and her position to whip people right now is … not strong. I think her only option at this point to avoid a crash to WTO rules and 1.2 million pissed off British expats (as well as the sudden need to deport 2 million EU nationals) is to go to Corbyn on her knees and make labor the lead negotiators. There are probably 30 Tory MPs who if released by the party would vote for a Labour/SNP negotiated "technical" Brexit where the UK basically keeps all of the EU rules and continues paying into EU funds, but loses any say in how they get made

    1. I always had a feeling the UK will end up a fudged version of the now-forgotten Tusk-Cameron deal which gave the UK opt-outs on free movement (with a time limit) and on "ever closer Union". Elements of that single market customs union financial settlement would probably get a large Parliamentary majority, but utterly infuriate the Eurosceptics. A Corbyn led campaign would probably even win a 2nd referendum.

      I stiil cannot forgive Corbyn for his lackadaisical and dilatory attitude to the first referendum. If he had rallied Labour voters as he just did, Remain might have won. His referendum fiasco (like taking a vacation mid-campaign) convinced me he was an ineffectual waste of space. Maybe, some redemption for him.

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