John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO IRISH CATHOLICISM?

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist, based in Germany for the last 20 years, and he has written “The Best Catholics in the World, The Irish, the Church and the end of a Special Relationship” which was published recently.

His perspective on the subject is shown in the dedication of the book to his parents, “with thanks for their belief”. 

 Aged 44, he says he is “a member of the last generation to have a full Irish Catholic childhood”.

 He served as an altar boy at Mass in his North Dublin parish, but now admits to having a “shaky grasp on Roman Catholicism”.

This is an honest book and painful reading, all the more so because the author is not fundamentally unsympathetic to Irish Catholicism. He sees that it had given meaning and purpose, to the lives of successive generations of Irish people.

He conducted hundreds of interviews with members of Church, from Cardinal Sean Brady, to the head of the Sisters of Mercy, to the people still active in his own old parish in Edenmore. He draws them out  on their understanding of the events that influenced the decline in practice and faith among Irish Catholics over the past 60 years . He also interviewed victims of clerical sex abuse, inmates in mother and baby homes, and women who lived out their lives in places like the Magdalen laundries. 

Inevitably the picture is selective. The focus is on those who suffered, or were treated unjustly in church settings. 

There is no counter factual in the sense  that the book does not explore what might have happened if these church run institutions had never existed, and people were left to their fate. 

There are no international comparisons either. The book deals with early twentieth century Irish Catholicism, as if it was something completely unique for its time. Many of the abuses and cruelties the book identifies were found in other cultures too. 

 It is hard for a reader to quantify how uniquely “Irish”, or “Catholic”, the problems were. My own view is that none of the abuses cited are unique either the Catholicism or to Ireland.

The author accepts that priests and nuns have taken the blame, not only for the failings of some among them, but also for the failings of wider Irish society. 

 Ireland was much poorer financially when some of the abuses occurred. But lack of money is never an excuse for turning a blind eye to rape or cruelty.

 Class distinctions abounded, and “respectability” was at a premium. This encouraged silence about embarrassing things. It allowed “knowing,” but simultaneously not “really knowing”, that certain things were going on. In a sense, people decided not to “know” things that they had persuaded themselves they could do nothing about.

 In this, the church reflected the evasions of Irish society, just as much as the other way around. But it is human nature that, when failings are finally exposed, the anger is often directed at others, or at the system, rather than channelled into an examination of one’s own assumptions.  

 It is true that Irish society was shaped by strict, and sometimes unforgiving, notions of sexual morality, which were inculcated by the Catholic Church. But such notions were not a particularly Irish, or even Catholic, thing. Victorian morality, and Victorian hypocrisy, was to be found on our neighbouring island, and further afield too. It just survived a decade or so longer in Ireland.

It was Irish families, not Irish priests or nuns, who banished unmarried daughters, when they became pregnant.   

It was cash strapped Irish governments which, in the early years of the state, were content to allow  religious orders to take on the responsibility for running reformatories, and  other institutions to shelter people, whose families  who could not, or sometimes would not, look after them. 

This book is impressionistic rather than scientific. The author allows the interviewees to tell their story. It does not provide a roadmap to redemption for the Irish church, or for Irish society, but it contains some hints.

 Although the author thanks his parents for their belief, he admits that religion was never discussed in his home when he was growing up,” let alone personal faith”. That job was left to the school. 

So it is no wonder that, when the scandals came along, people could stop going to Mass and feel good about it, without thinking what they might be losing. The role played by religious practice in providing guard rails within which one could live a good and sane life had never been discussed, or even put into words, and was thus too easily cast aside.

 As Bishop Paul Tighe told the author, the church discouraged people from asking questions. 

“We became a lazy church, and we are reaping that legacy now” he said.

The author, who lives in Germany, might usefully have studied the Catholic Church there over the last century. That might show whether there are lessons Irish Catholicism could learn, or could have learned. Equally he might have established if the Irish case is really as exceptional, as his provocative book title implies. 

While this book will annoy some people, it may be a spur to the necessary heartfelt and rigorous discussion about the role of faith in our society, a discussion Irish people have been postponing for a long time.

It should also prompt us to ask whether this generation of Irish families, like the previous ones, is also capable of turning a blind eye to family responsibilities. The example comes to mind of elderly relatives and neighbours left unvisited in nursing homes. Now the running of these homes is no longer delegated to nuns, but to for profit corporations!

THE PRESIDENT’S TAKE ON THE EUROPEAN UNION

The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins has recently published a collection of his speeches entitled  “Reclaiming the European Street, Speeches on Europe and the European Union 2016-20” . The publisher is the Lilliput Press      

Drawing on a lifetime of reading in sociology, philosophy and history, President Higgins makes his case for European unity and for Ireland’s participation in it. 

 As might be expected of a man of the Left, he is critical of capitalism, and sees  state or collective action, whether at national or EU level, as capable of playing a bigger role in helping  the people of Europe to flourish and achieve their potential. 

 For similar reasons he is against what he calls “austerity”, but does not address what is to be done if the interest rate at which a state can borrow becomes unaffordable, which is where Ireland found itself in 2010.

 No politician chooses austerity for its own sake! But sometimes it is necessary to preserve a country’s freedom of action.

AN INTELLECTUAL JOURNEY

 Michael D Higgins was not always enthusiastic about European integration.

 In their introduction to this collection of speeches, his editors, Joachim Fischer and Fergal Lenehan , point out that he campaigned against the Single European Act of 1987, and  also campaigned against the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. 

These two Treaties provided the legal basis for the EU’s biggest achievements, namely the creation of Single Market, and the establishment of the Economic and Monetary Union and the Euro. They also enhanced the role of the democratically elected European Parliament.

 It would have been interesting if the editors of this collection could have elaborated upon President Higgins’ intellectual journey on European integration, from the sceptical positions he adopted in 1987 and 1992, to the more favourable ones he adopts today. President Higgins journey is one many left leaning politicians have followed and it would have been interesting to tease this out.

In an attempt to understand the evolution of his thinking, I reread some of the speeches he made in the Senate and Dail in the 1980’s on moves to closer EU integration. 

 One major concern he had then was the effect of the new EU Treaties on Irish neutrality. He opposed confining Irish neutrality merely to military matters. He believed Ireland should be politically as well as militarily neutral. Such a position is not sustainable nowadays. The EU is now adopting common positions on geopolitical issues, on a daily basis. As an EU member, Ireland is not politically neutral. States are now so interdependent, that complete political neutrality is almost impossible. The recent cyber attack shows how we need common defences that work.

 Michael D Higgins was also sceptical about the EU Single Market, and feared it would lead to job losses. These fears have not been realised. The contrary proved to be the case. Employment here is much higher than it as in 1992 when the Single Market was inaugurated.

ALTIERO SPINELLI

A clue to the influences that led Michael D Higgins, over the past 20 years, to a more favourable view of European integration may be found in the careers of the people he quotes in the speeches in this book.

The most frequently cited is Altiero Spinelli, author of the European Parliament’s 1984 Spinelli Report, which was the precursor of the Single European Act of 1987. 

Spinelli had been a member of the Communist resistance to Italian Fascism and was imprisoned on the island of Ventotene. There he co wrote the Ventotene Manifesto.

 This Manifesto is mentioned dozens of times in this book.

 Learning from the lesson of the World War, then in progress, the Ventotene Manifesto called in 1941 for a wholly new Europe. It sought 

 “the definitive abolition of the division of Europe into national sovereign states”

 because it was

 “impossible to maintain a balance of power between European states”.

It argued for a revolution, with a goal of the emancipation of the working classes. But, interestingly, it added that  

“the working classes must not be left at the mercy of the economic power  of monopolistic trade unions”. 

This may have been a reference to the corporatist trade unions set up under Fascism, but it could be seen as a general argument against the closed shop.

After the War, Spinelli pursued the goal of European Unity, and supported the unsuccessful attempt to set up a European Defence community in 1954. 

From 1970 to 1976, he was a member of the European Commission, and came to Dublin in 1972 when Ireland was debating whether to join the then European Common Market. On that occasion he met Michael D Higgins, and sought to persuade the Irish Labour Party that support for European Unity should not be left to “conservative” parties. 

Spinelli did not achieve his goal at first attempt, as Labour opposed Ireland joining the Common Market at that time.  But Spinelli left a lasting impression on Michael D Higgins, which is evidenced by the contents of Michael D Higgins speeches over 40 years later.

WHAT ECONOMIC ROLE FOR THE STATE?

Another Italian intellectual influence, acknowledged by the author, is the economist Mariana Mazzucato.

 She argues for an “Entrepreneurial State”, claiming that many important technological advances originate in decisions by the public sector, and that economic development cannot be left to the private sector. I agree with this. Indeed free markets themselves can only exist if a state in there to make and enforce rules. 

But when the state itself gets involved directly in managing businesses, it can be slow to adapt to new realities, because of political pressures, including  from monopolistic trade unions, of the kind identified in the Ventotene Manifesto. 

Looking to the future, President Higgins says 

 “EU Institutions must be adequate and sufficient to enable the restoration and protection of social cohesion”. 

This asks too much of the EU.

 The EU is only allowed to spend 1% of EU GDP, and there is no sign that limit will be raised soon. So restoring social cohesion must primarily be the responsibility of member states, which spend 40% of GDP or more, and have the power to levy taxes, in a way that the EU cannot do. 

It is interesting to note that, on the eve of the pandemic, the Economic and Social Research Institute found that income inequality in Ireland was at its lowest level for many years, and 16% below the level it was in 1987. It is notable that this report got little or no coverage in the Irish media.

GREEN AUSTERITY.

The President is right when he condemns the 

“uncritical pursuit of ever accelerating growth without consideration of the consequences”.

That must change if we are to meet the challenge of climate change.

 Lower economic growth will mean less tax revenue and less money to spend. Green living will mean more austere living, and a more limited range of choices.

 It is to be hoped that we will take responsibility for this ourselves as a people, and avoid blaming it on external agencies like the EU.

 The issues raised  in this book are important, and  they reflect a serious and engaged mind.

WHAT IS EU POLICY ON CHINA?

Some scholars have warned about the likelihood of rivalry, leading to conflict, between a rising power, China, and the incumbent super power, the United States.

Alarm about this may be premature.

The table in the file posted here shows that US military spending equals the combined military spending of China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, the UK, Japan and South Korea.

This puts the rivalry of China and the US in proportion. It is not, at this stage, a competition between equals.

That said, Chinese military spending is rising more quickly albeit from a much smaller base.

Over the past thirty years the Chinese economy has also grown more quickly and its GDP already equals that of the US.

The US has already banned the export of certain technologies to China if these could have a military application. It is a small step from this to actively trying curb China’s natural economic growth. China could be expected to resent this deeply, if the US were to adopt such a stance.

China is thinking in a long perspective. Its goal is to have a “world class military” by 2049, the centenary of the Communist takeover of China. This is worrying for Taiwan in particular. Although the US recognizes Taiwan is legally Chinese, it backs its retaining its independence.

China’s population is beginning to age. The number of births in China in 2020 was 18% less than in 2019. The Chinese population of working age is beginning to decline.

By 2049, China may face a really hard choice between maintaining high levels of spending and supporting its large elderly population. In the west, where the elderly can vote, it would be able to influence such a choice in favour of elder support by voting for a party that prioritized spending on pensions over spending on the military. But China is a one party state so that option is not there.

Even so, the ageing of the Chinese population will tend to move China in a more peaceful direction.

I think Europe should make a clear distinction between its opposition to specific Chinese policies, both internally and in relations with its neighbours, and its acceptance of China’s right to become more prosperous in a peaceful and sustainable way.

WHY BREXIT AFFECTS IRELAND

Lecture given to a webinar organised by the University of East Anglia in Norwich on Tuesday 11 May 2021 at 6.30pm;

Ireland is more affected by what happens in the UK than is any other country. 

This is due to the facts that

  •  Ireland is host to the UK’s only land border with another state
  • Geographically, Ireland’s easiest route to the Eurasian land mass is through UK territory
  • Politically, Ireland has been intertwined with the UK for most of the last millennium, including to this day under the mutual  Treaty obligations we and the UK share under the Belfast Agreement of 1998.

So it is important for citizens on my state to understand what is going on in the UK, and why it is going on.

While most people in the world were surprised by the UK decision to leave the European Union, Irish people were shocked.  

THE EU IS A HABIT OF MIND, MORE THAN IT IS A LEGAL STRUCTURE

 But before going into that, let me say a word about that the EU is, and what it is not. 

 EU is not a state, and is not about to become one.

 It is, instead, a habit of consultation and common action between states, underpinned by legal and institutional arrangements. These arrangements are evolving in response to needs as they arise. More than it is a legal structure, the EU is a habit of mind. That is what a political institution is, a habit of thinking together.

 Ireland will remain within that institution, with some influence on its evolution. 

The UK will not, which is unfortunate. I say this is unfortunate because the security of much of Ireland’s infrastructure is dependent on links through the UK and its territorial waters.

 The sea is no longer the barrier to hostile forces, that it was in 1939, in 1804, or 1745.

 Increased Global interdependence has brought increased vulnerability. 

Close and well structured relations with ones near neighbours across the sea, is important to the security of any island state, including Britain and  Ireland.

 A DECISION TAKEN WITHOUT A PLAN

Irish people were, as I said, shocked by the UK decision to leave the EU in 2016. 

This was partly because it seemed the decision was taken without any regard to the effect it might have in either part of Ireland, and on the peace of the island.  

But the shock was  all the greater, because the decision seemed to have been taken, without a clearly articulated plan, for the new relationship that the UK would have with the EU, or, for that matter, with Ireland.

 Given our own experience with referenda, this struck us as reckless.

Taking an irrevocable decision on principle, without first negotiating what it might mean in practice, is like a pilot taking off without a flight path.

 Incidentally, this is also why I have reservations about the drafting, of the provisions in the Belfast Agreement of 1998, for calling a referendum on Irish unity. It could simply put the cart before the horse.

 The UK voters agreed to “take back control” from the EU in 2016, but without an agreed project for using the control they were taking back. Even now, five years after the decision, the plan is not yet visible.

WAS ENGLAND EVER COMFORTABLE IN THE EU?

It was the more elderly section of the UK electorate that were strongest in their support for leaving the EU. This was surprising because these were electors, who were old enough to have had had a vote in 1975 referendum, when they decided the UK decided should remain in the EU. 

Perhaps the UK was never comfortable being associated with continental Europe, even in 1975. 

Churchill favoured a United States of Europe, but with Britain staying aside from it.

Churchill’s successor as Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, wanted free trade with Europe, but initially, he wanted no part of a Customs Union and no political Union. 

He did not believe the Common Market, when it was launched in 1957 by six countries without Britain, would work. But it did work.

 Meanwhile the UK lost its Empire, its links with the Commonwealth were weakening, and the Suez debacle of 1956 had reminded it that its alliance with the US was not based on equality. 

 So, in 1961, Macmillan changed his mind, and made what he called  at the time the “grim choice” to join the Common Market, only to have the application vetoed by de Gaulle. 

 De Gaulle felt that Britain was too close the US, and was not wholehearted in its commitment to Europe.  He was not wrong on the latter point.

Eventually, another Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, did succeed in persuading France to allow the UK to join the European Communities.

It is important to recall what the British people were told in the 1970’s about what joining the Common Market would mean.

 Many Brexit supporters have recently claimed that the UK only ever wanted to join a common market, without any political strings, and that they were misled by their leaders. This is simply not so.

Edward Heath, who had fought in the Second World War himself, told the House of Commons, in April 1975, that the European Communities 

“were founded for a political purpose, the political purpose was to absorb the new Germany into the structure of the European family”. 

So the political goal was not hidden, and the British people formally accepted continued EU membership on that basis, in their 1975 Referendum.

Gradually, the UK had come around to the view that it should not stand aside from the growing common endeavour of the Common Market/European Union. As the newly appointed Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher put it in a speech in Luxembourg in October 1979;

“Britain could not turn away from a voluntary association designed to express the principles of Western Democracy……Nor (she said) could any enterprise properly lay claim the proud name of Europe, that did not include Britain….. “

She continued

“  It took the British the whole of the 1950’s to realize these simple truths. It took the Six (Six Common Market members) the whole of the 1960’s to respond”

These words of Mrs Thatcher suggest that at last, in 1979, Britain was comfortable as a member of the EU.

WHAT CHANGED BRITAIN’S ATTITUDE TO THE EU?

What happened to undo the lessons the UK had, according to Mrs Thatcher, learned in the 1950s?

On the surface, four issues led UK public opinion to turn away from the EU.  

+ the rows about the UK’s financial contribution from 1979 onwards, 

+ the ejection of the £ from the European Monetary System, 

+ immigration, through the interaction of  the free movement provisions of the EU Treaties, and the EU’s enlargement to include the poorer countries of post Communist Europe and

 + the upsurge in identity politics, in the wake of the financial crash of 2008.

I think there also were deeper reasons than these.

 The memory of the First and Second World Wars had faded. The importance of maintaining a structure of peace and interdependence in Europe  slowly diminished in the public mind in Britain. Communism was no longer a threat.

 Indeed there is some evidence for the suggestion that long periods of peace encourage peoples to indulge in separatism. 

One can perhaps see this even within the UK itself. UK solidarity was greatest during the World Wars and diminished after they were over.  All states are synthetic and imperfect creations, and  are subject to change.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF IMAGE

England’s self image played a part in its increasing discomfort with the EU. 

 Britain sees itself a 

“a fortress built by nature for herself”, as  “ a scepter’d isle”, surrounded by seas controlled by Britain.

The religious divisions of the sixteenth century underlined this sense of separateness.

 Roman jurisdiction over the King’s marriage was rejected.

 This religious dimension was reinforced by the fact that Britain’s main continental rivals, over three centuries up to 1900, were Catholic powers, Spain and France, and Britain was emphatically Protestant. Legally it still is.

From the 1760’s to mid 20th century, Britain had the world’s biggest Empire.

 And Let us not forget that that Empire stood with Britain in 1940, when France had been defeated, America was neutral, and Russia was still on the sidelines.

 For this valid historical reason, the Commonwealth still has an emotional appeal in Britain, out of all proportion to its present political or economic importance.

The Monarchy has also given Britain a sense of self confidence, and an emotional bond, that makes compromise with European neighbours, including with Ireland, seem a little less necessary.

These factors were as much in play in 1975, when the British people decided to stay in the Common Market, as they were in 2016, when they decided to leave it. So the different decisions remain puzzling, to outsiders like me.

UNTRAMMELLED SOVEREIGNTY……THE GOAL OF UK NEGOTIATORS

Turning to the more recent negotiation, the organising principle of Brexit, from a UK perspective, seems to be to have been the restoration of untrammelled sovereignty to the Westminster Parliament, and to it only. 

For the UK, Sovereignty apparently must reside in one place, and ONLY in one place. 

 Even the minutest issue, such as the health standards for plants, or the safety and content of food, must be decided in Westminster only, and not in common with Brussels.

 This concern with indivisible sovereignty is the only reason  the UK has declined to have a Plant and Veterinary standards agreement  with the EU, and is thus the reason we have problems with supplies to garden centres and Supermarkets in NI, through the outworking of the agreed Irish Protocol.

 Sovereignty is everything, and trumps everything.

But, in this thinking, if sovereignty cannot be delegated upwards, to an international treaty based organisation like the EU, it is  also difficult to conceive of it being delegated downwards,  internally to nations within the UK itself. 

SOVEREIGNTY AND DEVOLUTION…….UNEASY BEDFELLOWS

Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister, claimed in a Guardian article last year, that it would soon be

” impossible to hold together a UK of nations and regions in the straitjacket of a centralised state.”

 His main criticism was that the UK government was taking decisions, like setting the terms for Brexit, without ,properly and formally, taking into account the views of the devolved parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

 Two of these had clearly stated that they wanted to stay in the EU Single Market, but the Westminster government ignored them. It was guided instead by the opinion of English MPs.

 The contradictions here are profound and enduring. 

In a speech in which she spoke of the 

“precious union” 

of the four nations, that the then PM, Theresa May, also announced that the UK would leave both Customs Union and Single Market( something to which the people of  2 of the 4 nations were opposed).

 Later she felt free to go outside the long settled Barnett formula for dividing up finance between the devolved administrations, so she could give an extra £1 billion to Northern Ireland, in return for the support of the DUP for her minority government in Westminster. 

She only showed the devolved administrations the text of her Article 50 letter, initiating UK withdrawal from the EU, on the day she sent it to Brussels.

The European Union operates according to a written rule book, the Lisbon Treaty, which is a sort of constitution, which is interpreted by a single Court system.

 In effect the UK Union has only one rule….”Westminster decides.”

 The durability of this arrangement will be tested in future.

THE BREXIT TEST FOR EUROPE

The EU will also be tested in coming years too.

 Many advocates of Brexit in the UK saw it as loosening the unity of the EU. This has not happened. In fact the fiscal integration of the EU has deepened since the UK left,

 Even though there have been policy failures, as on vaccination, the unity of the EU has not weakened. Indeed some the supposedly anti EU parties, in Italy and France, have actually modified their positions in a more favourable direction. This is not what the Daily Telegraph expected.

 But let us wait and see. 

“IN POLITICS, BEING DECEIVED IS NO EXCUSE”

Who won in the Brexit Trade negotiation?

 The fact that there is any agreement at all, after all the brinkmanship and bad blood, is a tribute to all involved.

 It is in the nature of a divorce, like Brexit, that both sides actually lose.

First let us look at the British side.

 For them, the goal was “sovereignty”. 

 While traditionally sovereignty has been seen as the unfettered power of the British Parliament to legislate, Boris Johnson interpreted it as taking back control into the hands of British Ministers, rather than Parliament as such.

 From a British point of view, the Agreement goes some way towards meeting this goal. British Ministers have ”taken back control”, at least on paper,  of many issues, at least as far as the island of Britain is concerned.   But not as far as Northern Ireland is concerned! 

This is because UK voters, in 2016, simply forgot about Northern Ireland and ignored the problems of the UK land border there with the EU. There were reassured there would be no problem, but as the Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolokowski said;

“In politics, being deceived is no excuse”

 Future EU rules, in which neither the UK, nor the people of Northern Ireland, nor their elected representatives,  will have a direct or indirect  say, will continue to apply in Northern Ireland under the Protocol the UK Parliament  agreed with the EU, in its haste to leave. 

 In sum, Boris Johnson and the UK Parliament traded more UK sovereignty over the island of Britain, for LESS UK sovereignty over Northern Ireland. 

 In future, the more British rules diverge from EU rules, the more will Northern Ireland diverge from the rest of the United Kingdom. And more divergence is the declared goal of the current UK government.

 This creates a political mine field.

 The implications for NI unionists could be quite destabilising if the UK government , in order to justify Brexit,  decides to  diverge  radically from the EU, on trade and regulatory matters. 

MORE DIVERGENCE IS THE “WHOLE POINT” OF BREXIT

In a letter to EU leaders last year, Boris Johnson said British laws would diverge from those of the EU and added

“That is the point of our exit, and our ability to enable this, is central to our future democracy”.

Divergence from the EU is central to the future of British democracy according to the Prime Minister.

Where will that leave Northern Ireland under the terms of the Protocol he signed, and which was endorsed by Parliament?

 The Joint EU/UK Committee, set up under the Withdrawal Agreement, will need to monitor the political and security consequences of this  rush to diverge.

 Title X of the Agreement requires advance notice, and consultations, of changes in regulations as between the UK and the EU. It will be important for peace and security that these consultations include representatives of all major interests in Northern Ireland.

WHAT THE UK ACHIEVED

That said, the Agreement contains significant gains for the UK side, at least as far as the island of Britain is concerned. 

 Firstly, there will be no direct application of decisions of the European Court of Justice on the island of Britain. 

Secondly, while the UK has accepted that it will not regress from present high social, environmental and quality standards, it will be free to set its own UK standards for the island of Britain. These will, as I have said, be different from those applying in Northern Ireland and in the EU. 

This right to diverge is what UK Brexiteers saw as an expression of UK’s sovereignty, and they have got it.

But, thirdly, the UK also accepts that divergence will not come for free.

 As one advocate of Brexit, Dr Liam Fox MP, put it in Westminster during the debate on the Agreement

“If we want to access the Single Market, there has to be a price to be paid.  If we want to diverge from the rules of the Single Market, there has to a price to be paid”

The Agreement establishes detailed mechanisms to negotiate the  ”price” will  have to be paid, mostly by consumers in the form of higher prices,  for divergence.  It will going on for years to come.

These mechanisms in the  Trade and Cooperation Agreement ( A Partnership Council, Joint Committees, and Arbitration Tribunals) are completely untested at this stage. A great deal will depend on the particular use the UK decides to make of its new freedoms.

ARBITRATION TRIBUNALS…..OUR JOINT FUTURE

If problems arise and these cannot be settled in the committee system, there is an agreed provision for arbitration. Three person Arbitration Tribunals which will operate on strict time limits will be set up. If the Arbitrators find that either the EU or the UK has breached the agreed principles, the other party will be allowed to impose tariffs or prohibitions, to compensate for losses it has suffered. 

Incidentally, these tariffs, if imposed, will have to be paid on goods going from Britain to NI or vice versa.

 This aspect of the Agreement is valuable from an EU point of view.

 In its absence, any disputes would have had to be referred to the disputes resolution system of the WTO.   That WTO system is both cumbersome and narrow. Parties before the WTO can stall, adopt delaying tactics, or ignore rulings. Disputes there can drag on for years, as we have seen with the US/EU dispute about subsidies to Boeing and Airbus. So reaching agreement on a customised EU/UK disputes resolution mechanism was an important achievement for Michel Barnier.

But there are potential downsides in the Agreement for the EU too.

 We will be replacing a single set of rules, interpreted by a single judicial authority, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) with individual Arbitration Tribunals, operating under tight deadlines. This could lead to inconsistent decisions in different areas of trade. If a Tribunal interprets EU law differently to the interpretation later made by the ECJ on the same subject, there could be real difficulties

The UK will be free to negotiate trade agreements of its own with non EU countries. These negotiations may create additional pressure for even more divergence between UK and EU standards. 

 The UK may come under pressure to allow the imports to the UK,  that would not meet EU standards.

 For example, the UK may come under pressure to accept chlorinated chicken, hormone treated beef, or foods that have been genetically modified. If these products are then incorporated into processed foods, which are then exported to the EU, there could be big problems. We have experience of food quality scares in the past.

 There are separate and detailed provisions for imports which could upset the playing field on which EU and British producers will compete.  This could arise if there are hidden subsidies or monopolistic practices. 

HOW THE EU MUST RESPOND TO BREXIT

In global terms, the continent of Europe has been weakened by Brexit.

Brexit will force the EU to up its game.

 As a single entity, the UK will be able to move more quickly to set new regulations for new sectors, based on the technologies of the future. The EU, with 27 members to satisfy, and budget of only 1% of GDP, may move more slowly. That must be addressed.

I hope that the Conference of the Future of Europe, meeting for the first time this week, will not be afraid to streamline EU decision making procedures, including, in necessary, by targeted Treaty Amendments.

 A Union that is unable to amend its constitution eventually gets into trouble, as the US is finding.

PEACE AND STABILITY, RATHER THAN A CHANGE IN SOVEREIGNTY, MUST BE THE FIRST PRIORITY FOR IRELAND

Although legally speaking the issues are unconnected, Brexit has led to speculation that there might soon be a poll, under the terms of the Belfast Agreement of 1998, on Irish unity.

 The 1998 Agreement says that there should be such a poll if the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland believes such a poll would result in a vote for Irish unity. It assumes there would also be poll in Ireland as well.The relevant text in the Agreement is as follows; 

“The Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.”

A majority for this purpose could be as little as 50.5% to 49.5%.

According to some of those present in the final days of the negotiation of the Agreement, the organisation and consequences of holding such a poll were not much considered at the time. But the text is there, and it has legal force.

That said, the history of Northern Ireland, since 1920, demonstrates the danger of attempting to impose, by a simple majority, a constitutional settlement, and an identity, on a minority who feel they have been overruled. If, for example, a 49.5% minority in Northern Ireland votes to stay in the UK, and resolutely rejects rule from Dublin, one could expect there would be difficulties, not least for the government in Dublin. 

 A poll in those circumstances could repeat the error of 1920, and add to divisions, rather than diminish them.

 I was a bit surprised then to see Bertie Ahern,  a former Taoiseach, call for the border polls to take place in 2028 (the 30th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement). 

Target dates tend to be misinterpreted as promises, a sense of inevitability takes over, opinion becomes polarised, and rational discussion of the risks becomes impossible.

 Reducing a complex issue, with many nuances and gradations, to an over simplified Yes/No question is risky anyway, and deciding such a matter by referendum, irrevocably, without first negotiating the details, is not wise. It can lead to unforeseen results. This is, perhaps, a lesson of the 2016 Brexit Referendum.

 Strangely, the Belfast Agreement, does not require the UK government to consult with the Irish government before calling such a poll, even though a poll on the same subject would have to take place in the Irish Republic. 

The result of the poll would have major financial, security and cultural consequences for the Republic.

 This omission, therefore,  of a provision to consult the Irish government gives weight to the suggestion that this part of the Agreement were not examined in depth by the negotiators in 1998.

Even though all other legislative decisions inside Northern Ireland must, under the same Belfast Agreement, be agreed by a procedure of parallel consent of both nationalists and unionists, this, possibly irrevocable, existential decision on sovereignty could be made by a  simple majority, of as little as a single vote, in a referendum.

This may be the law. But it sits uneasily beside the principles set out in the Agreement itself which say the parties will

“endeavour to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangement”

It seeks something “agreed”, rather than something “decided” by a simple majority.

 Deciding the biggest question of all by a simple majority runs up against the principles in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, agreed by Albert Reynolds and John Major.

It said that Irish unity should be achieved

“by those who favour it, persuading those who do not, peacefully and without coercion or violence”

This type of persuasion of the opposite community, is not taking place within Northern Ireland  at the moment, in either a pro Union or a pro United Ireland direction.  Thanks to Brexit, positions are more polarised now than ever. 

In the Downing Street Declaration in 1993, the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds said on behalf of the Irish people

“Stability will not be found under any system which is refused allegiance, or rejected on grounds of identity, by a significant minority of those governed by it”.

Let us face facts. A poll on unity, carried by a narrow majority of say 51% to 49%, could not be guaranteed to deliver a system that would not be

 “at risk of being rejected, on grounds of identity, by a significant minority”

“The consent of the governed is an essential ingredient of stability” was what John Major and I agreed in the Framework Document of 1995.

Irish unity, carried by a 51/49% margin, might not obtain the requisite consent of the defeated 49%., who would still have to be governed.  That is practical politics.

 So, I say that peace and stability, tolerance and gradualism, should be our guiding principles in approaching the question of sovereignty over Northern Ireland.

The focus now should  be on making all the three strands of the Good Friday Agreement yield their full potential, rather than fixating on territorial sovereignty through a border poll. 

We must first build sustained reconciliation, and shared goals, between the two communities in Northern Ireland. 

That is a commonsense precondition for success of any of the many constitutional options that might be considered at some stage in the future.

DOES SINN FEIN ACCEPT THE IRISH CONSTITUTION?

The above article by Stephen Collins raises a very serious issue.He says “Sinn Fein was, and remains, the political mouthpiece of the IRA.”

He says “Sinn Fein was, and remains, the political mouthpiece of the IRA.” The IRA is illegal. It is a criminal offence to belong to it.

It is also unconstitutional. The Irish Constitution was adopted in a Referendum in 1937 and remains the supreme law of our state.

Article 15 (6) of the Irish Constitution plainly says

“The right to raise and maintain a military or armed force is vested exclusively in the Oireachtas.”

and it adds

“No military or armed force , other than a military or armed force raised and maintained by the Oireachtas, shall be raised or maintained for any purpose whatsoever”

The IRA has thus existed, and continues to exist, in direct defiance of the Irish Constitution.

Yet Sinn Fein members of the Oireachtas, serving under the same Irish Constitution, continue to extol the IRA and its actions.

This is hypocritical, but it is also subversive of the institutional basis of the Irish state.

Sinn Fein needs to say if it is willing to be loyal , in word and deed, to Article 15 of the Irish Constitution.

UNDER WHAT RULES DOES THE UK UNION WORK?

IS DEVOLUTION BEING UNDERMINED?

“Can the British State handle the challenges of devolution?” is the question asked by Michael Kenny, Philip Rycroft and Jack Sheldon in a recent paper published by the Bennett  Institute of Public Policy in Cambridge University.(see below)

Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister, asked a similar question, in a Guardian article last year, claiming that it will soon be

” impossible to hold together a UK of nations and regions in the straitjacket of a centralised state.”

His main criticism is that the UK government takes decisions, like setting the terms for Brexit, without ,properly and formally, taking into account the views of the devolved parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

All three of these clearly stated that they wanted to stay in the EU Single Market, but the Westminster government ignored them. It was guided instead by the opinion of English MPs.

 The contradictions are profound. It was in a speech in which she spoke of the 

“precious union” 

of the four nations, that the then PM, Theresa May, also announced that the UK would leave both Customs Union and Single Market( something to which 3 of the 4 nations were opposed).

 Later she went outside the  long settled  Barnett formula for dividing up finance between  the devolved administrations, so she could give an extra £1 billion to Northern Ireland, in return for the support of the DUP for her minority government. 

She only showed the devolved administrations the text of her Article 50 letter, initiating UK withdrawal from the EU, on the day she sent the letter to Brussels.

When Boris Johnson replaced Theresa May, he weakened the consultative structures she had used to avoid conflicts with the devolved governments.  He left it to Michael Gove to consult them and stayed away personally from the issue.

 Subsequently, in its (UK) Internal Market Bill, designed to replace the EU Internal market,  the Johnson government took back powers to London from the devolved administrations in areas of transport and education.

 It is believed Boris Johnson said privately that devolution has proved to be a “disaster”, which is hardly reassuring for those who want to preserve and strengthen devolution, to prevent a complete break up of the Union.

The underlying problem with the UK Union is that it is not underpinned by any written constitution or rule book, with which civil servants and Ministers in London could familiarize themselves.

 Every problem is tackled on an ad hoc basis by bilateral bargaining. This is in contrast with the EU, which has a very detailed set of rules, most recently updated in the Lisbon Treaty.

Just as most English MPs never understood the multi level system of government through which the EU worked when they were in the EU, they have not yet come to understand the multi level and variable system, under which the UK Union itself is supposed to operate. They still think of the UK as a centralised unitary state.

 For them, the unlimited “sovereignty of parliament“  over rules everything else.

 Devolved powers can simply be taken back at the will of the Westminster parliament (often after minimal debate there).

 This might work if everybody trusted everybody else. But that is no longer so. Now that power is held by different and often antagonistic parties in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, the casual “make it up as you go along” model of governance of the UK has run out of road.

The London civil service is not designed to cope with a union of four nations (of radically unequal size) .

Legally speaking, the problems of the UK Union are not the business of other countries, like Ireland. 

But we have problems, with which we need the active cooperation, and intellectual engagement, of the UK government, notably but not solely to do with Northern Ireland.  So we have an interest in ensuring that the internal governance of our neighbouring island is settled and stable.

THE LIFE, AND AFTER LIFE, OF A SPY

I have enjoyed reading “The Happy Traitor, the extraordinary story of George Blake” by Simon Kuper.

Kuper writes regularly in the Financial Times and it was my sense of his talent as a writer, rather than the subject , that initially drew me to this recently published book. 

Blake, although portrayed as a traitor to Britain, was not really British by allegiance. He was Dutch, with a Dutch mother and a father who came from an Egyptian Jewish family. Behar, not Blake was his real surname.

He was brought up as a Calvinist and retained the strict outlook of that faith throughout his life.

Aged 20,he escaped from Nazi occupied Holland to Britain in 1942, via Belgium , France and Spain.

In Britain he joined the Royal Navy and, because of his talent for foreign languages, he was assigned to the intelligence services. He served on Korea during the Korean War, and was captured and imprisoned by the Communists.

It was there, in a North Korean prison, that he began to transfer his allegiance from Calvinism to Communism. 

After his release and return to Britain, he returned to the British intelligence services, but made contact with the Soviet Embassy and stated copying large quantities of top secret material and handing it over to the Soviets. As a result of his activities, hundreds of British informers in the Soviet Union were identified and executed.

His activities were eventually uncovered in 1961 and he was sentenced to 42 years in gaol, a much more severe punishment than that suffered by more upper class traitors like Blunt, Philby and McClean.

As Irish readers will recall he was helped to escape from prison in 1966 by an Irish man he had come to know in prison, Sean Bourke.

He got to Russia via East Berlin and was provided with accommodation and a pension by the KGB.

According to Kuper, in old age, Blake 

“acquired something he had lacked in his youth; the ability to find happiness in the here and now, beyond either power or ideas.” 

He died late last year.

clear glass candle holder

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS RIP

I was really sad to hear of the death, at 90 years of age, of Shirley Williams.

Shirley was a sincere believer in the European Union, and in Britain’s place at the heart of Europe. She sacrificed her career in the Labour Party because of her belief in this cause.

She continued to be active in European causes in the Social Democrat and Liberal Democrat parties.

She was one of the least cynical people I ever met.

She was warm hearted, and interested in others, and tireless in her pursuit of justice.

I met her a number of times, when we were both in ministerial office, in the house of mutual friends, and at public events.

I was  due to campaign with her, in 2016, to persuade the British people to stay in the European Union. We were to speak together in Birmingham at a pro Remain meeting on 16 June 2016, and had both arrived in the city for the meeting, when the news came through that Jo Cox, a young Labour MP, had been murdered while campaigning for Remain in her constituency.

As a result of this shocking event, all meetings in the referendum campaign were called off that night.

On that occasion, and on many others, I was impressed by Shirley Williams’ deep sincerity and optimism, qualities of the first importance in political life.

A NO DEAL BREXIT ON 1 MAY?

©AP Images/European Union-EP 

The risk that we will wake up on 1 May, to find we have a “No Deal “Brexit after all, has not disappeared.

The deadline for ratification by the European Parliament of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) with the UK was to be 28 February 2021.But the European Parliament postponed the deadline to 30 April. It did this because it felt it could not trust the UK to implement the TCA properly and as agreed and ratified. 

This distrust arose because the implementation of the Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement had been unilaterally changed by the UK.

If any party to an international agreement takes it upon itself unilaterally to alter the agreement, the whole basis of international agreements with that party disappears.

The matters in dispute between the UK and the EU( the Protocol and vaccines) remain unresolved.

The EU is taking the UK to court about the Protocol , but the court is not likely to decide anything before the new deadline of 30 April.

In the normal course of events, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the UK and the EU would be discussed in the relevant Committee of the European Parliament, before coming to the Plenary session of the Parliament for ratification.

The next meeting of the Parliament’s Committee on International Trade is due to take place on 14th and 15th April, and the agenda for the meeting has been published.

It includes a discussion on the enforcement of trade agreements, the General System of Preferences, and (significantly) trade related aspects of Covid 19.

It makes no mention at all  of the TCA with the UK!  

Trade related aspects of Covid 19 will inevitably include a discussion on vaccine protectionism, a highly contentious issue between the EU and the UK that has poisoned relations and led to bitter commentary in the media.

The fact that the Committee has not even included a discussion of  the TCA with the UK, on its agenda for what may well be the only meeting it will have before the 30  April deadline is potentially very significant.

The TCA runs to 2000 pages , and its contents, if ratified,  will take precedence over EU law.

To ratify such an agreement, without proper scrutiny in the relevant committees of Parliament, could be seen as a dereliction of Parliament’s responsibility of scrutiny. We should not forget the scrutiny that was applied to the much more modest EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement with Canada. The same goes for the deal with Mecosur.

Furthermore, the TCA would, if ratified, set up a network of committees to oversee its implementation. These will meet in private and their work will diminish the ongoing oversight by the European Parliament  of a host of issues affecting all 27 EU member states.

The TCA also contains a system of disputes resolution mechanisms that will quickly be overwhelmed by work.  The TCA has  many items of unfinished business, on which the European Parliament will want to express a view. It is hard to see how any of this can be done before 30 April!

The UK government of Boris Johnson has adopted a deliberately confrontational style in its negotiations with the EU.  The more rows there are, the happier is the support base which Boris Johnson is seeking to rally to his Conservative Party. Johnson’s European strategy has always been about electoral politics, not economic performance. This has led to almost complete mutual incomprehension between the UK government and EU.

If the European Parliament ratifies the TCA, without their  first having been seen to be a satisfactory outcome to the  EU/UK negotiations about the Ireland Protocol and about the exportation of vaccines, it will be a political setback for the Parliament and a source of  immense satisfaction for Boris Johnson.

One should never underestimate the role emotion can play in politics. The entire Brexit saga is a story of repeated triumphs of emotion over reason. And the European Parliament is not immune to this ailment.

Boris Johnson could be pushing his luck a bit far this time.

CAREFUL THOUGHT NEEDED ON BORDER POLLS

The history of Northern Ireland, since 1920, demonstrates the danger of attempting to impose, by a simple majority, a constitutional settlement, and an identity, on a minority who feel they have been overruled.

Those pressing for an early border poll on Irish unity, which would have to take place in both parts of Ireland, should reflect on this. Such a poll could repeat the error of 1920 and add to divisions, rather than diminish them.

 I was a bit surprised then to see Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach, call for the border polls to take place in 2028 (the 30th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement). He knows how fraught things could become.

 Setting target dates, without having first done all the groundwork and collected all the data, can lead to unintended consequences.

Target dates tend to be misinterpreted as promises, and a sense of inevitability takes over, and rational discussion of the risks becomes impossible.

This is what happened with the 2016 UK Referendum on Brexit.

 Reducing a complex issue, with many nuances and gradations, to an over simplified Yes/No question is hazardous in itself.

Setting target dates for a referendum, before any details have been worked out, is even more reckless.

As  the Brexit experience in 2016 has shown, it can also lead to the oppression of minority view points, lasting division, and to unforeseen consequences. .

For these reasons, I was also surprised to see Sinn Fein spending large sums in advertisements in the US, calling for early referenda on Irish unity, without reference to the lessons we have all learned from the Brexit referendum.

A SIMPLE MAJORITY POLL MAY BE LEGAL, BUT IS IT WISE AT THIS STAGE?

The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) does indeed provide for such a poll to be called, on the basis of a political judgement by the UK government that a majority in Northern Ireland would vote for Irish unity.

 But it does not require the UK government to consult with the Irish government, even though a poll on the same subject would have to take place in Ireland too, probably on the same day, and the effects of the polls would be felt across the whole island!

 This omission suggests to me that the provisions for border polls in the GFA were not thought through by the negotiators at the time.

Even though all other legislative decisions in Northern Ireland must, under the GFA, be agreed by a procedure of parallel consent of both nationalists and unionists, this, seminal and possibly irrevocable, decision to change  sovereign status is to be taken for Northern Ireland, by a simple majority of  just one vote in a referendum. There is no room left for negotiation on that in GFA.

As Seamus Mallon recognised, this is a recipe for trouble.

 The notion of deciding to enforce Irish unity on the basis of a 51%/49% vote sits uncomfortably beside the principles in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, agreed by Albert Reynolds and John Major.

That Declaration is the foundation on which the GFA, and the entire peace process, was built by the two governments.

The wise words of the Downing Street Declaration should influence both

  • whether , and when, a border should take place, and
  • how voters in both parts of Ireland should vote, if such a poll is eventually called.

The Downing Street Declaration says that Irish unity should be achieved

“by those who favour it, persuading those who do not, peacefully and without coercion or violence”

I do not think a poll in favour of unity, carried by a small margin, and before a majority of the unionist community have been persuaded of the merits of Irish unity, could truly be said to meet that criterion agreed between the governments.

 It might be legally valid, but not politically wise.

There is little evidence that this type of persuasion is taking place within Northern Ireland between the two communities.  In some senses they are more polarised than ever, and are talking past one another rather than with one another.

For example, the Sinn Fein advertisements advancing arguments for unity should have been in the Belfast Telegraph or the Newsletter rather than in the New York Times!

It is the unionists, not Americans, who need to be persuaded.

I do not see much evidence that those who say they want an early border poll, are putting forward concrete ideas to persuade unionists to cease to be British unionist, and instead   embrace Irish unity.

 What have nationalists said to them so far, that would show them how their British heritage and ethos would be respected in a united Ireland?

THE GOAL MUST BE STABILITY

In the Downing Street Declaration in 1993, the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds said on behalf of the Irish people

“Stability will not be found under any system which is refused allegiance, or rejected on grounds of identity, by a significant minority of those governed by it”.

This was a humane and realistic statement.

I do not think a poll on unity, carried by a narrow majority of say 51% to 49%, could be guaranteed to deliver a system that would not be

 “at risk of being rejected, on grounds of identity, by a significant minority”.

 If it were passed on that basis, there would not be much stability afterwards.

UNIONIST ASPIRATIONS WOULD STILL HAVE TO BE RESPECTED AFTER ANY POLL

It is also important to recognise that the GFA itself says that, regardless of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, there must be

“full respect for , and just and equal treatment for, the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities”

Those who favour a border poll have an obligation to spell out exactly how the British identity, and monarchist ethos, of the unionist population might given the required

“equal treatment and respect”,

 across the whole island in the wake of Irish unity.

 This will not be easy. Some the changes required might go against public opinion here.

 The recent furore about commemorating the dead of the RIC, 100 years after they were killed, is a foretaste of the sort of resistance that might be encountered. Symbols can be very divisive.

There could also be implications for levels of domestic taxation here, as the UK subsidy to public services in Northern Ireland at present, comes to 20% of GDP there.

It is also important to stress that a border poll in favour of unity in both jurisdictions might not necessarily settle the constitutional issue finally, especially if the margin was narrow.

Paragraph (v) of the GFA will oblige the government of a united Ireland to continue to respect the “aspirations” of the unionist community, in what was Northern Ireland.  It is quite likely that, in certain areas, large local majorities would continue to aspire to rejoin the UK. North Armagh, East Belfast, Antrim and many other places come to mind.

 Even if such a continuing existence of such an aspiration did not pose a security risk, it is an aspiration that the authorities would, in any event, be obliged to respect under paragraph (v) Good Friday Agreement.

 On the face of it, this is not a recipe for stability.

IS THERE A BETTER WAY?

I believe the focus now should instead be on making all the three strands of the Good Friday Agreement yield their full potential, rather than fixating on territorial sovereignty through a border poll. Personally, I would like to see Irish unity, but we must first build sustained reconciliation, and shared goals, between the two communities in Northern Ireland. That is a commonsense precondition for success.

The voters of the South of Ireland, who would also have to vote in a poll on Irish unity, would need to ask themselves, before they vote, if the criteria for Irish unity, set out on their behalf by Albert Reynolds in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, have been met, or are likely to be met as a result of the poll.

Voters ought not just ask themselves what they would LIKE to happen, but what would be LIKELY to happen, if Irish unity was carried by a narrow 51/49 vote and there was a large unhappy minority who felt they were being over ruled.

That will be a heavy responsibility.

Voters would also have to ask themselves if they are ready to take on the financial responsibilities that would flow from their decision on unity.

Dublin would have to take over the net subvention to support the Northern Ireland budget that currently is met by London. It comes to a large figure, which would be larger still, if salaries and welfare rates in Northern Ireland had to be brought up to levels south of the border.

 There are also issues of the national debt and pensions.

 The net costs, although substantial, need not be a obstacle to unity, so long as people know about them in advance, and can make an informed decision.

Let us think this thing through, and avoid precipitate commitments to dates for referendums, before every angle has been figured out.

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