Skip to main content

Sovereignty and the Brexit negotiations

Sovereignty and the Brexit Negotiations                  Gerry O'Shea

Sovereignty was at the heart of the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations that took place in London in the fall of 1921. Who would exercise political power in the proposed new state? The Irish delegates, led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, wanted complete freedom from Great Britain, but Lloyd George and his colleagues demanded limitations on the power of the emerging new government in Dublin. In particular, they insisted that members of the new parliament would take an oath of allegiance to the English monarch.

This limitation on Irish sovereignty whereby Irish revolutionaries who had sworn allegiance to an Irish republic would have to sign a document stating their subservience to the Crown was the main cause of the disastrous civil war in Ireland in 1922 and 1923.

The issue of Irish sovereignty is still at the heart of the Brexit negotiations that have engulfed the British leadership since their referendum to leave the European Union passed in the summer of 2016. The plebiscite to get out of the EU was driven by a belief that Britain had yielded far too much power to Brussels. While the vote to leave was soundly defeated in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the "Leave" ballots  in England and Wales carried the proposal over the line for a narrow victory.

In the political maneuvering before the Anglo-Irish Agreement nearly a hundred years ago, the Unionist community in the North asserted their position by arming and threatening all-out war if they were forced to give allegiance to any kind of unitary government in Dublin. They successfully persuaded the British leaders in Westminster to legislate for a parliament in Belfast, subject, of course, to the sovereign government in London - a  Protestant parliament  for a Protestant people.

Where do they stand now that the rest of the island, the Irish Republic, is fully committed to membership in the European Union?  Despite the clear vote in Northern Ireland against leaving Europe, they must support the breach with Brussels, Brexit, in order to maintain their constitutional  ties to London. Their core belief  centers on their sovereignty as part of the United Kingdom which their leaders assert is "the reddist of red lines"  and cannot be compromised. Brexit has to mean exactly the same for Belfast as for Birmingham.

However, they no longer have an army to assert their prerogatives, and they don't have a strong hand in a game that now includes European leaders, who are not impressed by religious or tribal affiliations that counted in past eras.

 A century ago the central Unionist argument against full Home Rule for Ireland was summarized in the slogan that Home Rule would be Rome Rule, an assertion that proved prescient because in the new state that emerged in Ireland the Catholic leadership had an effective veto on all legislation.

Today in an Ireland with liberal abortion laws and same-sex marriage on the books and the Catholic church in disarray even a staunch Orangeman could not point a finger of interference at any bishop.

The nationalist population in the North constitute more than 40% and most children in the primary schools come from non-Unionist families. The Belfast Agreement, which ended the Troubles, includes a clear statement that the British Government will withdraw completely from Ireland when a majority in the Six Counties vote for that.

European leaders fully support the Irish Government's position that whatever Brexit agreement is worked out cannot involve a hard border between both parts of the island. There won't be a return to checkpoints or any kind of physical infrastructure. The British Prime Minister has also signed off on this principle - as indeed have Unionist leaders.

Nobody wants to go back to the bad old days, but they face a major conundrum, which is bedeviling the whole Brexit negotiations. After Britain departs from Europe - scheduled for March next year - the island of Ireland will have two jurisdictions. British sovereignty will extend to the 310-mile border with the Irish Republic; the rest of the country will continue to follow European laws and directives.

The Unionist leaders, always suspicious of a British sell-out, have become increasingly dogmatic in their demand that any negotiation must guarantee that Northern Ireland will be treated exactly the same as England or Wales. Their strongest argument is an emotional one that hearkens back to an earlier era and still resonates with many hard-line Tories but has little meaning for the majority of Britons.

 The backdrop to all the Brexit discussions includes regular talk about the economy in Northern Ireland. Unionist politicians wince when they are told that the economy in their corner of the United Kingdom is justifiably viewed as a long-term basket case, drawing over ten billion pounds sterling more from the British Exchequer annually  than it contributes.

 On an individual basis people in Northern Ireland get about 30% more in monetary benefits from the Westminster coffers than the average for English citizens. Predictably, polls show that British voters do not approve of these hefty subsidies for Northern Ireland and confirm the view expressed by many commentators that the Brexit shakeout will inevitably lead to serious questions about sovereignty issues.

Another economic dimension of Brexit emerges from the fact that no less than 60% of farm incomes in the North comes from Brussels. Will the British taxpayer take on this extra burden?

The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, claims that the negotiations for a clean British exit from Europe are close to completion, except for what is called the backstop, which is an agreed position of last resort, protecting an open border on the island of Ireland in the event that the United Kingdom leaves the European Union without a wider agreement. That is the elephant in the room!

The Treaty settlement almost a hundred years ago led to the Irish Civil War; the outcome of the backstop talks over the next few months could be just as momentous.



Popular posts from this blog

    Unionist Isolation in Northern Ireland              Gerry OShea Joe Brolly, known as a fine footballer and lively commentator on big Gaelic matches on Irish television, writes a regular column in the Sunday Independent in Dublin. Recently, he penned an uncharacteristically bitter essay about the celebrations in Belfast following the victory of Glasgow Rangers in the Scottish Football League. Joe had no problem with fans celebrating the win, their first in ten years, but the carry-on by Rangers supporters in the Shankill Road area left him in a foul mood. The old gutter anti-Catholic tropes were heard throughout the crowd. Hurrah! Hurrah! We are the Billy Boys   --- Up tae yer knees in Finian blood.   Surrender or ye’ll die. He noted that the following day the police superintendent responsible for the area, Nigel Henry, expressed his “disappointment” about a large crowd partying in clear breach of the Covid restrictions on gatherings in the city. A few weeks previously Mar


Neoliberalism                Gerry OShea The story is told that shortly after the great trade union leader Mike Quill arrived in New York, he inquired about what kind of government existed in America. After someone gave him a brief explanation, he replied “well we are against the government anyway.” Mike had just come from a family that fought the British in the Irish War of Independence and that was equally hostile to the Free State Government which took over in Dublin in 1922, four years before he left for the United states from his home in Kilgarvan, County Kerry. President Reagan’s oft-quoted statement that “the most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I am here to help” always evokes   loud applause from conservative audiences. His words encapsulate the belief that the less state involvement in all aspects of life the better. They always make one exception for military spending, and so they endorse the present defense budget in the U

Anger in America

  Anger in America                     Gerry OShea Rage is dominating the American body politic. The culture has become so toxic that we can no longer just agree to disagree.   In April of this year, reputable pollsters revealed that 70% of Republicans declared that the presidential election was stolen and Donald Trump should be re-installed in the White House. A September gauge of opinion showed that the figure of Republican disbelievers in the Biden presidency has grown to a whopping 78%. It is important to explain that there is not a scintilla of evidence supporting this erroneous contention. Mr. Trump’s lawyers’ claims of electoral impropriety were considered by close to sixty judges, some of whom were appointed by the former president, and none of them even allowed the case to be heard because no evidence of wrongdoing was presented in court. The Supreme Court with a strong influence of Trump appointees refused even to consider the case. The Department of Justice under Wil