By Alex Callinicos
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Tories bank on Brexit divides in Ireland

This article is over 2 years, 11 months old
Issue 2759
Boris Johnson negotiating Brexit last year
Boris Johnson negotiating Brexit last year (Pic: Number 10/Flickr )

Why did the Northern Ireland protocol to the Brexit agreement between Britain and the European Union figure so large at the G7 summit in Cornwall?

Winston Churchill famously complained about how, at the end of the First World War, “as the deluge subsides and waters fall, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.”

This remark is typical of the hypocrisy of the British ruling class, as Kieran Allen shows in his excellent new book 32 Counties.

They despise the Protestant Loyalists in the north of Ireland as their social inferiors, but use them to keep Ireland and its working class divided. Boris Johnson is no different in this from his hero Churchill.

But Brexit may mark the beginning of the end. The latest war caused by the partition of Ireland was ended by the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

This then promoted power-sharing between Loyalist and nationalist parties in the North, and closer economic links between the two parts of Ireland facilitated by the European Union membership of both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

Brexit could have meant more than this
Brexit could have meant more than this
  Read More

Inevitably the Brexit referendum threw this arrangement into crisis. The Tory government interpreted the vote to leave as a break with the European single market. In the past, this might not have been a problem, with the kind of ad hoc arrangement that kept Switzerland economically close to—but politically independent of—the EU.

But the EU is driving to build hard borders around it. This is reflected by the expansion and militarisation of the Frontex border agency. But it isn’t just about keeping migrants and refugees out.

The EU’s chief success in recent decades has been the construction of the single market. This is now so large and attractive that outside states have been prepared to accept Brussels’ regulatory regime to gain access.

But the European Commission and leading EU member states are terrified that Britain’s departure will undermine this regime. It might allow firms based here to undercut those in the EU. This made a hard Brexit more or less inevitable.

But everyone agreed that there could be no return to a hard border in Ireland. This left two alternatives. The whole of the UK could effectively stay in the single market and subject itself to the supervision of the Commission and the European Court of Justice.

Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor, accepted this in the original Withdrawal Agreement struck in November 2018.


But this was much hated by Johnson and the Tory right. After he had replaced May, Johnson opted to keep the North of Ireland in the single market, which meant a hard border between the six counties and the rest of the UK.

In doing this Johnson ditched the dominant Loyalist party, the Democratic Unionists, who oppose anything that sets Northern Ireland apart from the rest of the UK. The protocol also made inevitable considerable disruption in trade between the North and Britain.

This is now visible in, for example, the so-called “sausage war”. This is about the EU requiring British chilled meats to be imported frozen into Northern Ireland.

Johnson now wants, in effect, to ditch the protocol. This is typical of his political style—to duck and dive, solving crises piecemeal and leaving the problems these solutions create for later.

The EU won’t let him. Preserving the integrity of the single market is paramount— they’ve just pushed Switzerland into a Brexit-like economic break for the same reason.

But I don’t think Johnson will back down. His only genuine principle seems to be sovereignism—reclaiming the autonomy of the British state from Brussels.

This leaves US president Joe Biden in a pickle. He was vice-president to Barack Obama, who opposed Brexit because Britain was a useful ally in the EU. But Britain remains a more reliable partner in US inter-imperialist rivalries with Russia and China than Germany, for example.

On the other hand, the US helped to broker the Irish peace and doesn’t want to see it collapse.

Expect yet another Brexit car crash.

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