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Brexit’s Irish Question

François Lenoir/Reuters
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at a summit of the EU, Brussels, June 2017

People, money, Ireland. These are the three big questions on which the immediate future of the Brexit project hinges. When European Union leaders meet in October, they will decide whether “sufficient progress” has been made in talks with the British to allow for the opening of substantive negotiations to determine the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU after it leaves in March 2019. As the EU’s lead negotiator Michel Barnier put it last May:

I…made very clear that the [Irish] border issue will be one of my three priorities for the first phase of the negotiation. Together with citizens’ rights and the financial settlement. We first must make sufficient progress on these points, before we start discussing the future of our relationship with the UK.

By the border issue he means the question of whether a hard customs and immigration border is to be imposed between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

And so the Irish Question rises yet again, looming on the road to Brexit like the Sphinx on the road to Thebes. It threatens to devour those who cannot solve its great riddle: How do you impose an EU frontier across a small island without utterly unsettling the complex compromises that have ended a thirty-year conflict? The “people” part of the preliminary Brexit negotiations concerns the mutual recognition of the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and vice versa. The “money” part concerns Britain’s outstanding obligations to the EU budget and the calculation of the final divorce bill. Both are awkward and politically divisive issues, but it should be perfectly possible to reach a settlement.

Ireland, however, is quite another matter. Winston Churchill famously surveyed the dramatically altered landscape of Europe after the Great War and claimed that “as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.” The Brexiteers forgot the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone as they waged their glorious European war in last year’s referendum. But as the deluge of euphoria subsides, their bells are sounding a wake-up call.

The European Union’s guidelines for its negotiations with the British, published last April, implicitly acknowledge the ferocious difficulty of the riddle: “In view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required.” That is a diplomatic way of saying: “We don’t know how this thing is going to be solved.” And it is hard to blame the European leaders. For at its heart, this is not really a technocratic problem of borders and customs, of tariffs and passports. Running beneath it is a problem of national identity—how it is to be conceived and expressed, how it is to be given political and institutional form. It is not a problem on which the two sides in the negotiations can simply set their masters and mistresses of the arcana and minutiae of the laws of trade. It is a large-scale conceptual clash. To put it bluntly, Ireland has evolved a complex and fluid sense of what it means to have a national identity while England has reverted to a simplistic and static one. This fault line opens a crack into which the whole Brexit project may stumble.

The simplest way to understand how radically Irish identity has changed is to consider the country’s new prime minister, Leo Varadkar. He is thirty-eight and in many ways a typical politician of the European center-right. He is also part Indian—his father Ashok is originally from Mumbai. And he is gay. When Varadkar was born in 1979, over 93 percent of the population of the Republic of Ireland was born there and most of the rest were born in Northern Ireland or in Britain (often as children of Irish emigrants). Ethnic minorities were scarcely visible—just one percent of the population was born in what the official figures charmingly described as “Elsewhere.” Now Varadkar leads an Ireland in which over 17 percent of the population was born Elsewhere. The ultraglobalized Irish economy sucks in migrants from all over the world, notably Poland, Romania, the Baltic states, and Nigeria.

And in 1979, when Varadkar was born, Ireland retained the laws against acts of “gross indecency” between consenting adult men under which one of its most famous sons, Oscar Wilde, had been prosecuted in 1895. As late as 1983, when Varadkar was four years old, the Irish Supreme Court upheld that repressive law

on the ground of the Christian nature of our State and on the grounds that the deliberate practice of homosexuality is morally wrong, that it is damaging to the health both of individuals and the public and, finally, that it is potentially harmful to the institution of marriage.

The law was repealed only in 1993, under pressure from the European Court of Human Rights. Yet in 2015 Ireland became the first country to introduce same-sex marriage by referendum—62 percent voted in favor. It was in the run-up to that vote that Varadkar, already a senior government minister, came out as gay. The public reaction was overwhelmingly supportive.

The Republic of Ireland was one of the most ethnically and religiously monolithic societies in the developed world. Its official ideology was a fusion of Catholicism and nationalism. The anti-homosexuality laws reflected the dominance of the Catholic Church, which was also manifest in extreme restrictions on contraception, divorce, and abortion. While the vast majority of its population was repelled by the savage violence of the Irish Republican Army’s armed campaign against British rule across the border in Northern Ireland, most agreed with the IRA’s basic aim of ending the partition of the island and bringing about what the Irish constitution called “the reintegration of the national territory.”

But the Irish radically revised their nationalism. Three big things changed. The power of the Catholic Church collapsed in the 1990s, partly because of its dreadful response to revelations of its facilitation of sexual abuse of children by clergy. The Irish economy, home to the European headquarters of many of the major multinational IT and pharmaceutical corporations, became a poster child for globalization. And the search for peace in Northern Ireland forced a dramatic rethinking of ideas about identity, sovereignty, and nationality.

These very questions had tormented Ireland for centuries and were at the heart of the vicious, low-level, but apparently interminable conflict that reignited in Northern Ireland in 1968 and wound down thirty years later. If that conflict was to be resolved, there was no choice but to be radical. Things that nation-states do not like—ambiguity, contingency, multiplicity—would have to be lived with and perhaps even embraced. Irish people, for the most part, have come to terms with this necessity. The English, as the Brexit referendum suggested, have not. This is why the Irish border has such profound implications for Brexit—it is a physical token of a mental frontier that divides not just territories but ideas of what a national identity means in the twenty-first century.

In retrospect, there is some irony in the fact that the Conservative Party in Britain, now the driving force behind Brexit, was crucial to the conceptual revolution that led to the Belfast Agreement (colloquially called the Good Friday Agreement) of 1998. Traditionally, the Conservative and Unionist Party (to give it its full title) held to the line succinctly summed up by Margaret Thatcher in 1981: “Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom—as much as my constituency is.” But by 1990, the Conservatives were articulating a position in which Northern Ireland was very different from Thatcher’s English constituency of Finchley. It was (and is) inconceivable that any British government would state that Finchley was free to go its own way and join, for example, France. In 1990, however, the then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, announced, in a carefully crafted phrase, that “the British government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.”

This phrase, since embedded in international law through the Belfast Agreement, is remarkable in itself: sovereign governments are not in the business of declaring themselves neutral and disinterested on the question of whether a part of their own state should ultimately cease to be so. Even more remarkable, however, is that this fundamental shift in British thinking was mirrored in a similar shift in the Irish position. Since Ireland became independent in 1922, its governments had always looked on Northern Ireland as a part of its national territory unjustly and temporarily amputated by the partition of the island. Now, Ireland too withdrew its territorial claim—in 1998 its people voted overwhelmingly to drop it from their constitution and replace it with a stated desire “in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions.” Those plurals resonate.

This reciprocal withdrawal of territorial claims has recreated Northern Ireland as a new kind of political space—one that is claimed by nobody. It is not, in effect, a territory at all. Its sovereignty is a matter not of the land but of the mind: it will be whatever its people can agree to make it. And within this space, national identity is to be understood in a radically new way. In its most startling paragraph the Belfast Agreement recognizes “the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose.” It accepts, in other words, that national identity (and the citizenship that flows from it) is a matter of choice. Even more profoundly, it accepts that this choice is not binary. If you’re born in Northern Ireland, you have an unqualified right to hold an Irish passport, a British passport, or each of the two. Those lovely little words “or both” stand as a rebuke to all absolutist ideas of nationalism. Identities are fluid, contingent, and multiple.

When these ideas were framed and overwhelmingly endorsed in referendums on both sides of the Irish border, there was an assumption that there would always be a third identity that was neither Irish nor British but that could be equally shared: membership of the European Union. In the preamble to the agreement, the British and Irish governments evoked “the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union.” The two countries joined the EU together in 1973 and their experience of working within it as equals was crucial in overcoming centuries of animosity.

Particularly after the creation in 1993 of a single EU market with free movement of goods, services, capital, and labor, the Irish border had itself become much less of an irritant. The peace process allowed the British to demilitarize the border region to such an extent that today travelers are generally unaware of when they are crossing it. The idea of a common European citizenship has real substance, and it has made it much easier for people to feel comfortable with the notion that a national identity can have many different dimensions.

What no one really thought about when all of this was being done was the emergence of another force: English nationalism. There were two nationalisms, Irish and “British,” and they had been reconciled in a creative and civilized way. But the United Kingdom contained (in every sense) other national identities: Scottish, Welsh, and English. Scotland and Wales were asserting a sense of difference in devolved parliaments and, in the Scottish case, in growing demands for independence. What could not be predicted, though, was that the decisive nationalist revolution would occur not in Scotland or Wales, but in England. Brexit is a peaceful revolution but it is unmistakably a nationalist revolt. It is England’s insurrection against the very ideas that animated the Belfast Agreement: the belief that contemporary nationality must be fluid, open, and many-layered.

Brexit is, in a sense, a misnomer. There are five distinct parts of the UK: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the global metropolis that is Greater London, and what the veteran campaigner for democratic reform Anthony Barnett, in his excellent new book The Lure of Greatness, calls England-without-London.* In three of these parts—Scotland, Northern Ireland, and London—Brexit was soundly rejected in last year’s referendum. Wales voted narrowly in favor of Brexit. But in England-without-London Brexit was triumphant, winning by almost 11 percent. It was moreover a classic nationalist revolt in that the support for Brexit in non-metropolitan England cut across the supposedly rigid divides of North and South, rich and poor. Every single region of England-without-London voted to leave the EU, from the Cotswolds to Cumbria, from the green and pleasant hills to the scarred old mining valleys. This was a genuine nationalist uprising, a nation transcending social class and geographical divisions to rally behind the cry of “Take back control.” But the nation in question is not Britain, it is England.

The problem with this English nationalism is not that it exists. It has a very long history (one has only to read Shakespeare) and indeed England can be seen as one of the first movers in the formation of the modern nation-state. The English have as much right to a collective political identity as the Irish or the Scots (and indeed as the Germans or the French) have. But for centuries, English nationalism has been buried in two larger constructs: the United Kingdom and the British Empire. These interments were entirely voluntary. The gradual construction of the UK, with the inclusion first of Scotland and then of Ireland, gave England stability and control in its own part of the world and allowed it to dominate much of the rest of the world through the empire. Britishness didn’t threaten Englishness; it amplified it.

Now, the empire is gone and the UK is slipping out of England’s control. Britain’s pretensions to be a global military power petered out in the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan: the British army was effectively defeated in both Basra and Helmand and had to be rescued by its American allies. The claim on Northern Ireland has been ceded, and Scotland, though not yet ready for independence, increasingly looks and sounds like another country. In retrospect, it is not surprising that the reaction to these developments has created a reversion to an English, rather than a British, allegiance. In the 2011 census, 32.4 million people (57.7 percent of the population of England and Wales) chose “English” as their sole identity, while just 10.7 million people (19.1 percent) associated themselves with a British identity only.

What do you do with this renewed sense of Englishness? It is not surprising that it should be drawn toward anxieties about sovereignty: there is no English parliament and indeed there are very few English national institutions of any kind. The desire that was ultimately captured by the Brexiteers’ brilliant slogan—“Take Back Control”—was not in itself reprehensible. England, after all, has fine traditions of democratic egalitarianism to draw on. It was not inevitable that the desire to restate English sovereignty would be channeled into chauvinism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and a misplaced conviction that if you share sovereignty in a complex arrangement like the EU, you lose it. But without a more positive articulation of Englishness, the country that is struggling to emerge has ended up with a nationalism that is both incoherent and oddly naive.

Crudely, passionate nationalism has taken two forms. There is an imperial nationalism and an anti-imperial nationalism; one sets out to dominate the world, the other to throw off such dominance. The incoherence of the new English nationalism is that it wants to be both. On the one hand, Brexit is fueled by fantasies of “Empire 2.0,” a reconstructed global trading empire in which the old colonies will be reconnected to the mother country. On the other, it is an insurgency and therefore needs an oppressor to revolt against. Since England doesn’t actually have an oppressor, it was necessary to invent one. Decades of demonization by Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers and by the enormously influential Daily Mail made the European Union a natural fit for the job.

English nationalism is also naive. Wrapped up for so long in the protective blankets of Britishness and empire, it has not had to test itself in the real conditions of twenty-first-century life for a middle-sized global economy. Unlike Irish nationalism, it has not been forced to rethink itself and imagine how it might work in a world where collective identities have to be complex, ambiguous, fluid, and contingent. It does not know how to articulate itself without falling back on nostalgic notions of Britishness that no longer function. And since it is not sure what it is, it is not good at adding those crucial words “or both” and becoming comfortable with an identity that is European as well as English. It gives the most simplistic nationalist definition of “us”—we’re not them.

The question of the Irish border is thus as much about mentalities as it is about practicalities, even though the practicalities are formidable enough. It meanders for 310 miles, and it is not a natural boundary. It was never planned as a logical dividing line, still less as the outer edge of a vast twenty-seven-state union. It is simply composed of the squiggly boundaries of the six Irish counties that happened to have Protestant majorities in 1921. And it cannot be securely policed. We know this because during the Troubles it was heavily militarized, studded with giant army watchtowers, overseen by helicopters, and saturated with troops—and it still proved to be highly porous. It is an impossible frontier. At best, attempts to reimpose it will create a lawless zone for the smuggling of goods and people. At worst, border posts will be magnets for the violence of fringe militant groups who will delight in having such powerfully symbolic targets.

The British position paper for the negotiations with the EU, published in August, merely evaded all of these problems by suggesting that in the wonderful free-trading Utopia that will emerge after Brexit there will be no need for a physical border at all. This is not so much a serious proposition as a way of shifting the blame: if and when there is a hard border it will be the EU’s fault for not giving Britain free access to the market it is leaving.

Even if these practical problems can be solved, however, the larger question remains. Must the great Irish experiment in new, more open forms of national identity be undermined by the resurgence on the neighboring island of nationalism in an older and cruder form? The only way to answer that question in the negative is to double down on the double identity of Northern Ireland. It is, under the Belfast Agreement, both Irish and British, which means that it must, after Brexit, be both inside and outside the European Union. Its people have an irrevocable right under the agreement to be Irish, which now means that they have an irrevocable right to be citizens of the European Union—even after the UK, of which they are also part, leaves.

When the EU negotiators talk of the need for “flexible and imaginative solutions,” they are certainly not exaggerating. It is apparently insoluble riddles that create the most imaginative solutions: the radical shifts in Irish identity happened, after all, because there was no alternative. The Brexiteers will surely find that, if their project is not to be derailed, they too will have no alternative but to accede to those little words they are most afraid of: or both.

August 29, 2017

  1. *

    London: Unbound, 2017.