24 November 2020

Forget Covid or Brexit, keeping the Union together is Johnson’s toughest challenge

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During its first year in office, this government has struggled to manage the coronavirus crisis and negotiate a Brexit trade deal with the EU. These are both serious problems with which any administration would struggle, but, in the background looms an even more important, longer term battle – keeping the United Kingdom together. If Boris Johnson cares genuinely about the Union, and he says that he does, then every Conservative policy must be measured against the risk it poses to the integrity of our country.

Last week, the Prime Minister spoke about the constitutional “disaster” that devolution inflicted upon the UK, which shows that he understands how governments can cause huge damage unintentionally, by pushing poorly thought out, short-termist plans. Then again, it is his administration trying to steer the Internal Market Bill through the House of Lords, partly because a year ago it did not seem to take seriously the provisions of a Withdrawal Agreement that creates a trade border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

As the upper chamber debated this legislation, Lord Caine, who was formerly the Conservatives’ expert on Northern Ireland and a long-serving special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office, deconstructed the arguments used to defend this extraordinary internal frontier. Its proponents say that the province must remain tied to EU regulations and customs rules in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and they claim the Belfast Agreement supports this position. Caine, however, points out that the Good Friday accord is built round a “consent principle (that) underpins Northern Ireland’s position as an integral part of our United Kingdom”.

He notes that the agreement included three ‘strands’. The first laid out arrangements for dealing with Northern Ireland’s internal affairs, with the Republic of Ireland expressly excluded from that decision-making process. The second set up all-Ireland institutions, with limited responsibilities for specific common policy areas. The third created an ‘east-west’ dimension, to encourage cooperation across the islands of Great Britain and Ireland. During the debates about Northern Ireland’s future after Brexit, Caine believes, the second ‘all-Ireland’ strand of the Belfast Agreement was emphasised, while the other two were ignored.

This is, unfortunately, partly the fault of governments under which he has served. When Theresa May visited Belfast in July 2018, she made the completely baseless assertion that anything other than a ‘seamless border’ on the island of Ireland would “breach the spirit of the Belfast Agreement”. It was the type of claim that led Lord Bew to express astonishment at “the way in which the British Government has allowed the Irish Government to control the narrative around the Good Friday Agreement unchallenged”.

Mrs May saw Northern Ireland and her version of the ‘backstop’ as a way of selling a Brexit deal that kept the whole UK bound closely to the EU’s single market and customs union. But these tactics, and the language that she used to justify them, made concessions to a hostile nationalist narrative and embedded the notion that an Irish Sea border was necessary. Boris Johnson, impatient to secure a new deal quickly, effectively accepted this idea when he negotiated his Withdrawal Agreement with Brussels. We cannot know for definite whether he knowingly risked Northern Ireland’s place in the UK for a harder Brexit, or whether he genuinely intended to barter away the Northern Ireland protocol later.

Viewed from Great Britain, the province can seem like an anomaly, whose fate need not necessarily determine the future of the rest of the nation. The Union between England and Scotland is the foundation of the United Kingdom and Scottish nationalism is the biggest threat to its integrity. However, on that subject too, Caine had something interesting to say. It is the responsibility of unionists from across the UK, he said, to come together and make common cause, “to defeat those who would tear it apart”.

This point is relevant on a couple of levels.

Firstly, while it’s common to claim that political divisions in the UK are deep and stark, the national parties are beginning to converge again on many of the most contentious debates. Keir Starmer accepts that Brexit must happen. Labour has occasionally challenged the Conservative approach to Covid-19, but always on detail and extent, rather than broad principle. The Tories are spending enormous amounts of taxpayers’ money and, even if the virus had not intervened, Boris Johnson intended to rival his opponents on public spending.

There is no particular reason, any more, why the UK-wide parties cannot cooperate to counter nationalist threats, in Scotland in particular. For both parties, the idea that their rivals in London are more dangerous than the SNP is becoming less credible. Separatists across the UK have used Brexit, and then coronavirus, to encourage grievances and create constitutional uncertainty in a way that should make saving the Union the immediate priority for both Labour and the Tories, if they really have the national interest at heart.

Secondly, while Northern Ireland’s fractious politics are unique, they provide an insight, which is admittedly amplified, into the pitfalls of devolution across the UK. In the Stormont Assembly in Belfast, the political divide has always been determined by national allegiance, but that has become true in Holyrood and, to a lesser extent, Cardiff Bay. The Northern Ireland Executive’s instinct is to make ever greater financial demands of Westminster, while blaming its own policy shortcomings on London, and that pattern has been replicated in Scotland and Wales.

In devolved regions, there is always an incentive to encourage resentment against the national government, rather than accept genuine responsibility. That tendency is not limited to separatist parties, but it fuels regional separatism in the United Kingdom. While there are considerable differences between the devolved jurisdictions, there are commonalities too, and it would be naive to think that their destinies are not linked. If Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom is uncertain, Scottish nationalism and Welsh nationalism will draw inspiration and energy from that predicament.

Indeed, the way that Northern Ireland has been exploited in attempts both to dilute Brexit and to ensure a harder-edged deal with the EU has been a shocking example of how not to secure the future of the United Kingdom. A genuinely unionist government will test every policy against its likely effects on the Union and cooperate with its pro-UK opponents to counter separatism. A less rigorous approach does not take the existing threats to the integrity of our nation seriously.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.