By Gerry O’Shea
Sovereignty was at the heart of the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations 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 1922-23.
The issue of Irish sovereignty is now at the heart of the Brexit negotiations that have engulfed the British leadership since their 2016 referendum to leave the European Union. The plebiscite to get out of the EU was driven by a belief that Britain had yielded 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 manoeuvering 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.
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 in order to maintain their constitutional ties to London. Their core belief centres on their sovereignty as part of the United Kingdom which their leaders assert is “the reddest of red lines” and cannot be compromised. Brexit, they say, 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 summarised 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 much 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 accounts for more than 40% in the North, 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 bedevilling 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 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 English citizen. 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 income 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 a room of china ware!
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.