Special cases

Northern Ireland is a post-conflict region with a unique border challenge. Don’t use it as a grievance or a rhetorical trick

As discussions about a revised Northern Ireland backstop in all but name intensify, calls for other parts of the UK to get a look-in have unsurprisingly resurfaced. In fairness, this time round it’s come from commentators more than politicians. But the line resurfaces far too often and deserves to be called out properly.

Three parts of the UK voted to remain in the EU: Scotland, London and Northern Ireland. But the EU is not willing to treat Northern Ireland differently because of its referendum vote. It is willing to treat Northern Ireland differently because Ireland, a continuing EU member state, deems it a vital interest. Ireland regards a backstop as crucial to its view of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, its full place in the EU and its strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the UK.

Others, notably most Northern Ireland unionists and the current UK Government, dispute Dublin’s view of the 1998 Agreement. The competing merits aren’t my point here. However, it is hard to dispute that a clear majority in Northern Ireland want to avoid a hard border. And opposition to a visible land border, checks and controls is overwhelming among border communities. This border raises challenges rooted in lived experience, logistics and deep-rooted ties which don’t exist anywhere else in the UK.

The economics of different backstops vary. May’s probably would have minimised barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in practice as well as protecting North/South goods trade. It might even have provided an advantageous niche for Northern Ireland with access to EU and UK markets, though claims of a bonanza have been more asserted than evidenced. A Northern Ireland-only backstop — meant to allow Great Britain to go its own way — is much more likely to raise barriers to trade as divergence grows.

There is, however, no serious case for a different Scottish EU relationship within the UK. 60% of Scotland’s external sales went to the rest of the UK in 2017, compared to 18% which went to the EU27. Exports to Ireland weigh in at somewhat under 2%. There is no equivalent to the challenges of Northern Ireland’s trade with Ireland. The economics of Scottish independence are dire — but diverging from the rest of the UK without leaving causes a lot of the economic damage and offers less democratic say in the relevant rules.

The backstop is, furthermore, designed to prevent a visible land border. Treating Scotland (or Wales, or London) differently would create one. The Anglo-Scottish border does at least make some geographical sense — hammered into shape through wars between kingdoms. Unlike the Anglo-Welsh border, it wasn’t finalised when creating 13 counties in an act of administrative incorporation. Unlike the border on the island of Ireland, it didn’t spring from a bitterly-contested hiving-off of six counties. Far fewer people live beside it than the other two.

Nonetheless, creating checks on the Tweed and barriers to most of Scotland’s trade in return for fewer checks in the North Sea and less than a fifth of its trade is the kind of thing you want because of ideology, not practicality. It’s also moot. The EU is obviously not especially enamoured of the UK at present. Its members are, however, considerably less enamoured of giving other separatist movements ideas. Spain (including Catalonia and the Basque Country), Belgium (Flanders) and others have no proactive interest in setting precedents.

Further, Brussels has no reason to make special arrangements outside Northern Ireland. The EU is a membership club, and the interaction between its rules and Ireland’s stated interests, modified a bit to try to get it past the UK, is the source of the backstop. No EU member has a vital national interest in helping tweak EU rules for Scotland, whether via a ‘Scottish backstop’ or the kind of Liechtenstein solution the Scottish Government mooted in 2016.

So ‘If Northern Ireland, then what about Scotland?’ fails on logistics, economics and geopolitics. The same applies elsewhere in Great Britain. I’ve focused on Scotland in this piece, largely because its case is the one most fleshed out since 2016. But that isn’t entirely fair, partly because the other cases are even weaker and partly because ‘If Northern Ireland, then what about us?’ has spread a bit. We’ve seen it as a rhetorical trick from some in London. We saw it when Adam Price said any deal for Bangor, Northern Ireland must apply in Bangor, Wales.

And that, for the most part, is what all this is: a rhetorical trick. It’s using Northern Ireland as leverage in other political battles — Remain vs Leave and Yes vs No. It may well often be thoughtless rather than calculated. Either way, Northern Ireland’s case deserves to be considered on its own merits. The region is not an excuse for Scottish (or Welsh) nationalists to whip up grievance against Westminster. Nor it is a chance for Remainers to claim unfairness to Great Britain.

Northern Ireland is uniquely harmed by leaving the EU. There is a powerful argument for trying to stop Brexit on that specific basis. But too many people died in conflict, and the settlement built to resolve it is too important, for it to be used as a grievance or a tool. Politicians and commentators elsewhere should stop doing it.

Update, November 2019: I wrote this piece a few days too early. Shortly after I published it, Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP more generally played the politics of grievance with Northern Ireland even more shamelessly than I’d have expected. The substantive arguments stand.

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