Scotland, Ireland and Brexit
8th February 2017
How is the Scottish border question tied to the Irish one?
To understand Irish politics you must first master the acronyms. In the beginning there was the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) which begat the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and now we are bedevilled by the IRC (Ireland’s Really Complicated). Like their predecessors the IRC are secretive, well organised and fanatically committed to a 32 County Republic, a 32-county-republic-of-its-all-the-Paddies-fault.
Their leadership (I am looking at you Kenny Farquharson, and you Iain Martin) are currently waging a propaganda campaign arguing that Scotland-in-the-European-Union (EU) cannot, should not, must not ‘argue’ for an Irish style-deal on the border. The problem is of course that there is no ‘Irish’ deal under discussion. Their precious bloody 32 county republic doesn’t exist and isn’t a signatory any European Treaties.
But first some history
…and history matters because the EU position will be based on their view of our history.
Back between 1918 and 1922 the old Europe broke apart: a host of new nations were born including Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Ireland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary and more.
Across these disputed boundaries violence flared with Poles fighting Czechs in Teschen, Germans fighting Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians around the Baltics, Irish and British and of course Transylvanian Hungarians versus Romanians.
Para-statal organisations of ex-servicemen roamed the continent dressed up in hodge-podge uniforms from daddy’s wardrobe: Freikorps, fascisti and Black & Tans. 500 died in wild killings in 1922 in the British city of Belfast alone.
As the violence dried up it left pockets of broken binational pockets, the Åland Islands, Memel, Danzig, Teschen, the Sudetenland, Süd Tyrol, eastern Poland and western Ukraine, Transylvania.
The League of Nations drew up elaborate schemes to manage minority and double minority problems. The Minorities Treaties created civic protection for national minorities who differed in nationality, race, religion or language from the majority.
These hotspots achieved prominence in the run up to the second war, the Germans driving the issue on the Sudetenland, Memel and Danzig, but both the Poles and Hungarians getting spoils at Munich and the Lithuanians getting Vilnius from the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
A lot of these issues were ‘solved’ by German murder during the war and Allied ethnic cleansing afterwards (a teacher of mine walked from Czechoslovakia to Germany as a kid).
The post-war European communities were started by people who learnt the lessons of both wars the hard way: Robert Schuman had been in the German Army in the First, and the French Resistance in the Second.
It is in this context that the current debate stands. The last land border in the EU to be settled was the British-Irish one (the sea border remains disputed).
The post-1922 history of the two states in these islands is different.
The Irish Republic and its British minority
The Irish Republic was 9% British/Protestant in 1922 — its first President was a Protestant. The British minority collapsed — only 2% of the native-born population are Protestant now, due to emigration and Ne Temere. The hundreds of thousands of UK passport holders now resident there are fully integrated.
The dominant national parties have long engaged in rhetorical irredentism but traditionally have combined that with with an iron fist and internment against actual irredentists.
The UK and its national minorities
The UK however never managed to find an adequate solution to this problem. A subordinate parliament in Belfast was set up — a clone of Westminster from benches to Hansard, to terms of address in the chamber — the full constitutional bhuna.
It failed miserably: in the trade argot “it was a cold house for Catholics”. The northern state retained an elaborate ethnic militia (the ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Specials). There was a short-lived guerrilla war (which started with with burning of customs huts).
A civil rights movement sprang up as the irredentist Irish nationalists tried to dig themselves out of their own hole, and the political situation spiralled out of control with wild killings, large scale ethnic cleansing running to the high-ten-thousands as pro-British ethnic militias fought it out with pro-Irish ones. (The street muscle on the Irish side was initially provided by the Catholic Ex-Serviceman’s Association, the UVF, the UDA and the Provos had ex-British serviceman among their founders.)
Despite the same party being in power in both Stormont and Westminster, the constitution was so broken that the Westminster parliament had to abolish its child and novate its power to a Ministerial pro-consul through the ingenious mechanism of the pre-1066 old Normandy Privy Council (I blame the French, me!)
The sad litany of British political violence continued, two British Prime Minsters narrowly surviving death, a Westminster MP, Bobby Sands (who had as a kid been ethnically cleansed), starved himself to death. The UK’s leading Catholic Peer, the Duke of Norfolk, was sent on a quixotic mission to the British H-Blocks to chivvy the hunger strikers.
The Republic saw small flickers: loyalists murder gangs from north of the border committed atrocities in Monaghan and Dublin.
The Birmingham and Coventry brigades of the IRA distinguished themselves in slaughter and, horrified by their own conduct and moral vacuum, more or less collapsed.
It is to the credit of the yeoman character of the English that these were not met by counter atrocities on the resident Irish population — the torture and imprisonment of the Birmingham 6 and Guildford 4 notwithstanding.
By and large the Irish national minority on the larger island is well politically integrated now.
Peace at last
The failed statelet of the north was finally healed by applying all the lessons learned across Europe in the long, dark 20th Century: double-minority provisions, stable and proportional electoral systems, the abandonment of the feudal and uncollated British constitutional tradition — all embedded in a bilateral peace treaty and cemented with the banal and warm economic integration of the European Union. The Westminster model of the old Stormont has been comprehensively dismantled.
The lessons that the British political classes didn’t learn about itself in 1972 haunt it now: a lethal electoral system that throws huge intoxicating majorities on minority votes, fragile unreformed institutions and a relentless indifference to minority national rights. Westminster awaits its own constitutional reckoning.
And this is where we find ourselves
’Twas the Brits beshat the Belfast bed’ (try saying that at speed, in drink and en brogue).
Having trashed the Good Friday Agreement (an! international! treaty!), roused Enda Kenny to rhetorical irredentism (Enda! bloody! Kenny! — John Major’s more boring and milder kid brother) and snubbed the Dail, the UK seeks a special deal from the EU for the UK’s border problems in the UK’s most violent corner.
The European Union is being beseeched to make a special case for the UK to protect it from the consequences of its own actions — for all the IRC chatter there is no “Irish deal” — there has to be a British one.
So where stands the SNP on this?
Well as the ballad says “may the Lord in his mercy be kind to Belfast”. And if, as it happens, the EU makes not an agreement with the UK but the rUK, then the EU border should still be tempered by the rUK’s peculiar circumstances.
Even if the Good Friday Agreement is the League of Nations for slow learners we should not penalise the inhabitants of rUK for this setback.
The Brexiteers should concentrate on seeking the best deal from the EU for the UK’s border, the one that protects the UK’s fragile internal peace and keeps the endemic post-war political violence at bay. However things go, they won’t be firing volleys over graves in the EU.
The persistent floating of a putative double-border regime for the EU that the IRC and their shadowy minions promote is for the birds — if Scotland is a member of the EU at Brexit there will be one UK/EU border regime across both of these islands.
And Brexiteers should disabuse themselves of IKEA dreams of a smooth Nordic solution. Norway and Sweden are separated by a huge mountain range and their border is so lightly crossed that until 1967 they drove on different sides of the road.
The European Union is entirely familiar with the problems of national contestation: Armagh is as Corsica, Nice, Alsace, Pomerania, Schleswig and Holstein. They sympathise in general with this known problem and its well-kent solutions; but are wholly indifferent in the particular.
The idea that a special second-border opt-out can be finangled prior to Brexit to scare the jocks into line is absurd. Who would be the champion of this within the EU? the 26 County Republic? As one digital Roisin Dubh put it on Twitter immediately post-Brexit: “Irish national identity is 98% fuck the Brits and 2% Tayto crisps”.
What Dublin says the UK needs, Scotland and Europe will go along with — address yourselves there Brexiteers and gies peace, gies all peace. May the Lord in his mercy be kind to Belfast.
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