The nightmare scenario

Both the British and Irish Governments have this week warned their people of the dangers (however seemingly remote) of a no-deal Brexit. No doubt there have been junior staff on both sides beavering away in basements to plan for the possibility, whether or not their superiors took them seriously. And the probability of those contingency plans being dusted off has surely increased in the last few days.

But we must also entertain the even smaller chance of a perfect storm, of which a catastrophic Brexit is merely the first act. Consider that, with hindsight, betting on the worst possible outcome at every major decision point over the last two years would have net the pessimistic punter a hefty profit; and that political chaos can set in motion a domino effect of system failure unthinkable in more stable times.

So let us borrow Jason O’Mahony’s crystal ball and peer into the cosmic accumulator.

Imagine that Brexit talks drag on for so long that the EU cannot possibly ratify in time. This will become inevitable before the end of 2018. A motion to extend the Article 50 negotiation period by six months passes unanimously in the European Council, but the UK government fails to get legislation through the Commons to alter the legal Brexit date. Theresa May loses a vote of confidence among her own MPs and the negotiations collapse. In a last desperate bid to avoid a general election that could return a Corbyn-led government, Jacob Rees-Mogg is elected PM.

An emergency deal covering uncontroversial matters such as aviation and medical isotopes is patched together at the last minute, but without a transitional trade deal or an agreed backstop a hard border is now inevitable. Northern Ireland polarises, with Unionist politicians now entirely backing a hard border, and Nationalists calling for an immediate border poll. A last-ditch campaign to locate customs controls in the Irish Sea gets no traction. An opinion poll comes out showing 52% (discounting don’t knows) in favour of a United Ireland. Senior members of the Alliance and Green parties join the campaign for a border poll in advance of the Brexit date in March 2019.

The new Secretary of State is a hardliner, like the rest of the freshly-purged cabinet, and refuses to grant a poll – but that decision goes to judicial review and is overruled. By this stage Brexit is six weeks away. A border poll is organised in haste and passes by a hair breadth in NI on the eve of Brexit.

But despite (or perhaps because of) universal political backing, the simultaneous poll in the Republic is defeated by the same wafer thin margin. The Irish Government’s popularity is on the slide, in large part over its inability to force a backstop deal past Brexiteer intransigence and EU realpolitik. Plans are immediately put in place for a second referendum. But since Brexit is inevitable, “temporary” customs posts have already been put in place on border roads, manned by dew-faced young recruits with barely a week’s training in inspection procedure.

Barely a week into April 2019, the M20 in Kent and the A16 in France have become the world’s largest vehicle parks. Several hundred acres of Anglesey are being covered in hard infill at high speed. The Dublin Port Tunnel is gridlocked for four hours each morning, and queues at the Carrickcarnan border are tailed back as far as Loughbrickland in the north and Castlebellingham in the south. The Irish Government issues an order forbidding lorries from using the overtaking lane. This helps ease car traffic delays but doubles the length of the lorry queues overnight.

Paddy Power unveils a publicity-stunt sweepstake over the date when the ends of the M1 northbound and Port Tunnel customs queues will back up past each other.

All work to restart the Northern Ireland Assembly has ceased. Republicans argue that the changed context of the border poll means that devolution will need to be renegotiated in a new all-Ireland framework, which the DUP naturally rejects. Ken Clarke, Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve and Philip Hammond quit the Conservatives to set up a new pro-EEA party, and the government collapses again. A general election is called for June 2019, and this will include Northern Ireland because it hasn’t left the UK yet.

Unionists rally behind the flag, while post-victory nationalism is divided and complacent. In a shock result, the DUP wipes out all other unionist candidates and actually increases its seat count. Nevertheless, Jeremy Corbyn becomes PM and pledges to withdraw from NI immediately. The DUP are now in open revolt against their own government and demand that the border poll be annulled.

There have been several instances already of vehicles refusing to stop at border checkpoints, in one case running over a customs officer and crushing his leg. Both governments quietly increase armed police support at customs, and reinforce checkpoints with concrete chicanes. The Polish and Hungarian governments bring Ireland to the ECJ, citing vast discrepancies between Irish border controls and the ones they are required to implement on their borders with Ukraine. The Irish government loses and, to howls of delicious outrage from the Brexit press, begins stopping up minor border roads.

The second referendum squeaks through in October, but the DUP argue that the result is invalid since it was not held on the same basis as the one north of the border. Nationalists are horrified because another border poll cannot be held in NI for a further seven years. Legal challenges are brought before both the UK and Irish Supreme Courts.

By now there are almost daily protests and counter-protests calling for the border poll to be either annulled or implemented immediately. And despite it being October, the usual Belfast flashpoints have been burning more or less continuously since July. Meanwhile, the Republic’s newly-refurbished Department of Unification has been sitting empty for six months. An inner-city Alphabet-Left TD demands that it be repurposed for housing the homeless.

Sinn Féin reiterate their demand that the UK should continue to support NI with cash transfers for the next 25 years. But Treasury estimates of the cost of Corbyn’s renationalisation programme have turned out higher than anyone had predicted, and the post-Brexit economic forecast is catastrophically grim. The UK replies that it has no money to spare and suggests that if the EU wants a United Ireland as a member it should be willing to pay for everything. But the EU budget has already been agreed, and repeated attempts to get negotiations reopened are blocked by a small group of creditor states. Ireland’s GDP forecast is revised downwards, again.

The Irish Supreme Court finds in favour of the DUP, quoting a narrow reading of Article 3; but the UK Supreme Court finds that the poll results in NI alone are sufficient for the British government to legislate for unification. A third referendum is scheduled for March 2020, this one explicitly revoking Article 3. The DUP pledges a fresh legal challenge regardless of the result.

The British Government passes the Northern Ireland (Withdrawal) Act 2019, but delays its implementation until the result of the third referendum. After a particularly fraught day of negotiations at Stormont aimed at reducing tensions on the street, thirteen young loyalists barricade themselves inside the disused Assembly chamber, elect a Speaker, and declare unilateral independence. An eight-hour standoff ends when one of the rebels tries to sneak out a side door for a toilet break. All are arrested and removed by the PSNI. A riot breaks out that evening in East Belfast, and six families are burned out of their homes.

Two days before Christmas 2019, at a minor border crossing, a 23 year old Revenue officer is shot in the neck. She survives. The 3 year old in the back seat of the car she was inspecting does not.

This article was originially published on Slugger on 2018/07/20.

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The Rorschach Test

I argued in an earlier piece that the word “Unionism” should be handled with extreme care, because it has become overloaded with far too many overlapping yet inconsistent meanings. For slightly different reasons, we should also avoid using the phrase “United Ireland”.

“Unionism” refers to a collection of existing things that can, with effort, be distinguished from each other. “United Ireland”, or its modern euphemism “New Ireland”, means nothing much at all, because it refers to a hypothetical something that has never existed or even been clearly defined.

Because it means nothing, the reader or listener is free to choose what to perceive in it. And just like a meaningless Rorschach inkblot, the reader’s perceptions are determined by the reader’s mind alone. If the reader is inclined to favour Irish Nationalism, then the ideas evoked are likely to be favourable, even Utopian. If the reader is not so inclined, then the phrase “United Ireland” will prompt unease, distaste and even fear.

Because what comes to mind when a vague phrase is uttered is equally vague. Nobody believes for a second that a United Ireland would lead to Protestants being driven into the Bann. But such associations are stored in the subconscious and, even if not remembered explicitly, their presence colours and shapes the reaction to even marginally related ideas. How many people reading the words “United Ireland” involuntarily hear it in an Andytown-accented inner voice?

The art of persuasion is mainly the art of minimising the number of negative associations while maximising the positive ones. And a speaker who wishes to persuade, to sell, must work backwards from what he wants the listener to think, not forwards from what he himself wants to say.

Brexit was such an inkblot. There were well-informed people on both sides, but the majority would freely admit to being ignorant (to varying degrees) of the workings of the EU and the consequences of leaving it. The question was deceptively simple, but it has become painfully obvious in hindsight that those who campaigned for it and voted for it had wildly divergent perceptions of what Brexit actually meant in practice.

Free-traders looked upon the inkblot and saw great ships bestriding the waves. Libertarians saw a bonfire of statutes and judgements. Others saw the return of jobs to provincial towns, or an end to demographic change. Not all of these could possibly be true simultaneously. Maybe none of them will end up being true. The inkblot remains inscrutable.

The 8th amendment referendum could have been as confusing, but the Irish Government took the decision to avoid a Rorschach calamity by publishing the heads of their proposed legislation. No matter what way the result falls next week, nobody can seriously claim that they were not informed.

Now obviously, full legislation could not and should not have been drawn up in advance of the result, and no amount of written detail could ever completely insulate a debate from misinformation or partisanship. But it was rightly recognised that allowing a referendum to go ahead without any constraint on the collective imagination of the electorate would have left the government with no defence against the wildest excesses of Project Fear.

And a border poll will be fought entirely on the basis of Project Fear. Fear of Brexit versus fear of a United Ireland. By the time any such poll eventually comes around, the shape of Brexit will have become much more concrete. And unless a “United Ireland” has also become more concrete, the devil that Northern Ireland knows may not seem so fearsome by comparison.

So anyone in Ireland who would like to see a border poll in their lifetime would be well advised to propose a practical constitutional framework now. Like the 8th amendment, every detail cannot and should not be drawn up in advance. Blank space must be reserved for the meaningful input afterwards of those who will understandably demur at contributing beforehand. But equally, those in favour of change must clearly demonstrate that they have given the fullest consideration to the concerns of all sides, whether actively engaged or not.

That means publishing the constitutional equivalent of the heads of bill, setting advance constraints on the scope of any post-referendum negotiations, and defending these self-imposed limitations against cries of sellout from the back benches.

Start by ruling out the vast majority of options. Cast out the bogeymen, the fevered nightmares, the implausible and the irresponsible. In this context, “United Ireland” ceases to be useful, because it rules nothing out.

It doesn’t rule out the unitary socialist republic of the old Republican faithful, a vision so removed from modern Ireland that it would attract single figures support south of the border. So why allow that spectre to haunt the debate? Rule it out.

Same with anything that doesn’t preserve the minority rights so hard won in the GFA. The principles that protect one minority community while NI remains in the UK must also protect the other minority community in any future settlement. Republican leaders have at times declared that all identities should be protected and embraced, but aspirational statements can be easily dismissed as rhetoric. Be specific about the legal changes you could never support, and rule them out.

Rule out the things you know Unionists most fear. Rule out the things you know southerners won’t countenance. Rein in the starry-eyed ambitions and limit the scope of this particular change. Not because ambition is wrong, or because the horizon must never be admired. But because the future is a journey that will always be in front of us, and destinations will change with the wind and the seasons.

Baby steps.

Once you rule out the impossible, the fanciful, the unaffordable, only then can you give a meaningful shape to the thing that is left.

So what is the shape of that thing?

Northern Ireland will continue to exist. The Border will continue to exist. Jurisdictions cannot be simply bodged together, because a century of legal divergence would take decades to unpick. Stormont will continue to function, as will the rest of strand one. A Northern Ireland jurisdiction requires a Northern Ireland parliament, and that means a Northern Ireland executive. Direct Rule from Dublin would be no more democratic than from London. And meaningful formal ties to GB would be of crucial importance to keep everyone on board, so strand three will also survive.

The Republic will continue to exist in much the same form, because the only people who relish the thought of sixty crabbit TDs from the wee six overturning the political arithmetic of the Dáil are the Shinners. Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil will gift Sinn Féin a parliamentary plurality. Nor will Ireland be quartered into provincial states, as per Éire Nua. There is no burning desire for parliaments in Cork or Galway, and despite its frustrations with Dublin, Donegal has no love for dysfunctional Stormont.

Strand two will be enhanced, but not replaced. The President, the Supreme Court and a reformed Senate could be shared between the jurisdictions, with equitable representation for north and south. European and foreign policy would be delegated to a beefed-up NSMC. These newly shared bodies would form the successor state to today’s Republic. But whatever the details it will be a lightweight, Belgian form of unity, nothing whatsoever like the centralised UK. Stephen Hawking was once warned that every equation in his book would halve its sales. Similarly, every extra power granted to the new Irish state will halve its legitimacy in the eyes of the losing side.

And just as the current relationship between the two parts of Ireland can only be changed by simultaneous referendums, so will any future changes to that relationship be subject to a double referendum lock, effectively preventing a future Irish government from simply abolishing the troublesome North.

Would this satisfy everyone? Not a chance. It may not satisfy anybody at all. It would meet a strict legal test for “Irish sovereignty”, but it’s not what many people – perhaps any people – would understand from the phrase “United Ireland”.

Which is exactly why “United Ireland” must be cast aside.

Because whatever emerges from the far side of constitutional change, whatever future may eventually come to pass, it won’t be what anyone currently expects. The GFA was “Sunningdale for slow learners” because everyone already knew what the only practical solution looked like; it just took longer than expected to negotiate the price. A border poll won’t be like that, because nobody yet has a clue what shape the framework will be.

All we have to go on is an ambiguous smudge called “United Ireland”. And so any border poll will be as ill-informed as Brexit unless nationalists and others (and it will have to include Others) produce a proposal with an actual text, and an actual name.

Call it a confederacy. Call it a bizonal, bicommunal federation. Call it what you will, but call it what you mean. If that causes discontent within the ranks, then good. These arguments need to be settled sooner rather than later.

Or would you prefer to sell the Irish people a pig in a poke, without even knowing yourself what animal is inside?

This article was originally published on Slugger on 2018/05/17.

Would the real United Ireland please stand up? (Part 2)

I meant to continue the discussion from my previous post, but didn’t get around to it. Making amends now…

So we have outlined a “Minimal United Ireland” – one that I suspect most nationalists would hold is undeserving of the name. Nevertheless, from a technical point of view I believe it is valid, and therefore interesting.

I’d now like to consider its corollary – the “Maximal non-United Ireland”. Where the Minimal United Ireland (mUI) involves a transfer of sovereignty and little else, the Maximal non-United Ireland (MnUI) will involve co-operation and integration on every matter under the sun, but without any sovereignty transfer or modification to the Agreements. The best pre-existing example of this in the world today is the relationship between France and Germany.

Under the current structure of the EU, sovereignty is pooled in several areas, but the member states retain the right to un-pool their sovereignty by leaving. France and Germany, or at least their political elites, are keen on further integration that many other states are either circumspect about or openly hostile to. To satisfy this desire they have entered into several bilateral agreements, mostly informal, with the goal of co-ordinating their national policies. This idea of both formal and informal co-operation between sovereign states could serve as a basis for the MnUI.

Formal co-operation is already legally enshrined in the N-S Ministerial Council (c.f. EU Council of Ministers). Several shared agencies already exist, and a MnUI would see these expanded to cover a wide spectrum of policy areas. This approach does have its limitations: it is not always desirable to create extra layers of bureaucracy on top of existing ones; full mergers of Northern and Southern agencies could run afoul of funding and oversight squabbles; it may be too costly to have any formal structure in certain areas. A culture of Franco-German informal co-operation could help to fill in some of these gaps: bills in each jurisdiction could be drafted to minimise disparities across the Border; Northern and Southern departments could agree to take a common line in European meetings; NI MPs could make it a matter of principle to stand up for the interests of Ireland as a whole in Westminster, and the Republic could do the same for NI’s interests (impartially!) in other fora such as the UN.

No doubt much of this is already happening. Interestingly, I can think of no policy area which is immune to such co-operation – not even the diplomatic service. The issue of sovereignty could quietly rust in the hayloft.

Would the real United Ireland please stand up?

I see there’s a fresh Sinn Féin campaign for a United Ireland. I seem to have missed the bit where they trot out the usual “32-county socialist republic” rhetoric. Together with an ongoing discussion on Slugger, sparked by Mack taking issue with one of my previous posts, I’ve been led to consider what people actually mean by the words “United Ireland”.

In many ways it’s similar to the term “United Europe” that causes blood to boil in the veins of the susceptible. To its detractors, it is the ultimate bogeyman – an unforgivable affront to freedom and democracy. To its proponents it is a self-evident and necessary condition for those very ideals. What gets lost in the ensuing carnage is the fact that the term itself is so loosely defined that it is almost meaningless.

Compare the United Kingdom with the United States, or for that matter the United Nations. The “Unity” proclaimed by each of these is of a vastly differing nature, and even the close “Unity” of the UK falls far short of the kind to be found in Sinn Féin policy statements of yore. Their new campaign talks of a single health service, transport policy etc., but these are quite technical matters far removed from the emotional, absolutist desire to completely erase the Border which was once the central plank of Republican ideology.

To most Unionists, the term United Ireland means this hypothetical unitary Socialist Republican state, the most extreme antithesis of Unionism imaginable. I sincerely doubt that many Unionists know of (and of those that do, believe in) the SDLP’s version of a United Ireland (thanks for the link, Mack) in which all the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are left untouched (what role the North-South Ministerial Council would play in this scenario is left unexplained). If there were to be a vote for a United Ireland, the people would surely need to be told in advance whose United Ireland they were voting for.

The emotional core of the UI debate is sovereignty. But in Northern Ireland the sovereignty of the UK is already highly constrained by international treaty. In effect the Agreements recognise the (limited) sovereignty of the people of Northern Ireland – it is they alone who hold the final decision over any constitutional change. This sovereignty is limited because independence for NI is not an option, rather like the situation in Gibraltar. Would the people of NI retain this limited sovereignty after a border poll in favour of a UI? Unionists would certainly fight tooth and nail for it.

So assuming that a necessary and sufficient condition for a United Ireland would be a (most likely constrained, as now) realignment of sovereignty, what would be the minimum changes required? With a transfer of sovereignty, some shared functions of state would by definition have to exist: head of state, foreign minister, diplomatic service, supreme court. All other matters could remain the competence of the existing jurisdictions, as in Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” arrangement. If we were to take the SDLP proposals at face value, meaning the ministerial council would be retained, it would be obvious forum to manage these shared functions – say a rotating arrangement where one jurisdiction would nominate the President and the other the foreign minister, and each a few judges to the supreme court. From a purely legal point of view, this would amount to a United Ireland.

The question would then be: would Nationalists be satisfied with such a UI? It’s far more lightweight than the arrangement proposed for Cyprus. If too many extra functions were transferred to the ministerial council, there would be questions about democratic oversight. But there would certainly be at least some Nationalists for whom this would be cake and anything more would be icing.