Opinions & Ideas

Category: Northern Ireland


The Backstop is not just about the border. It is not a technical matter. It is not just about what happens at 200 crossing points.

It is about the people of Northern Ireland, and giving all of them (not just a majority) the freedom to be who they are, and a sense of belonging.

But the present debate in the UK Conservative Party about replacing the backstop, seems to assume that it is all about technical fixes and invisible border posts , and that some yet to be discovered combination of IT and lasers would remove the need for physical customs posts, and that would then solve the entire problem. That is a mistake.

The backstop is about far more than this.  It is a recognition of the fact that, in Northern Ireland there is a population some of whom feet they have exclusively British identity and allegiance, some of whom feel they have an exclusively Irish identity and allegiance, and some of whom combine these allegiances comfortably enough.

The backstop is a recognition of this fundamental divide, which has led to so much suffering in the past, and an attempt to sustain the arrangements that ended that suffering.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 transcended these divisions through provisions for intense North/ South and East/West cooperation, that would allow all three groups, described above, to feel fully at home in Northern Ireland under any present, or future , constitutional arrangements.

This was easy to envisage as long as both parts of Ireland remained in the EU, because EU rules facilitated and underpinned free and easy cooperation both North/South and East/West.

In such a context, territorial “sovereignty” became less of an issue, because it was overlaid by structures of free cooperation enshrined in EU law.

Brexit changes all that in a radical way. It brings territorial sovereignty back into the centre of stage in a way that threatens the Belfast Agreement settlement in a deeply fundamental way. I believe that Theresa May came to understand this, and that that explains her acceptance of the backstop.

Most of those contending to take her place in the Conservative Party leadership do not seem to do so.

In the agreement of March 2019, the EU side has given the UK very strong assurance of its good faith in seeking to find an alternative to the backstop.

But that will only work if the UK side really understand why the backstop was put there in the first place.

I do not believe that the contenders for Conservative Party leadership have taken this on board.


We seem to be sliding inexorably toward a “No Deal” Brexit.

Mrs May’s decision to prioritize a deal with the Brexiteers in her own party, over a possible deal with the Opposition, and the time limits imposed on all of us by Article 50, make a No Deal much more likely than it was a week ago.

The EU is a rule based organisation, and it cannot afford to break its own rules if it wants to maintain its moral and political authority. The technical fixes, advocated by the Tory Brexiteers, cannot be worked through between now and 29 March.

At this late stage, Mrs May can afford to gamble, because, politically, she has little left to lose.

The EU cannot do so.

Its credibility is vital to its trade agreements with the rest of the world. Its internal cohesion depends on consistent application of common rules.
Where will a No Deal leave Ireland?

On the 1 April, the UK will be a non EU country. By law, the EU will have to treat it as such.

Ireland has opted to stay in the EU, and will have to continue to apply EU law, including the EU Customs Code, in all its dealings with non EU states, including the UK and Northern Ireland. That is a clear general principle.
The detail of how this might be applied at Irish ports and land boundaries, on traffic arriving from the UK, should now be clarified in minute detail.
There is no negotiating advantage now in withholding this information at this late stage, in light of Mrs. May’s choice to prioritize a deal with the Conservative Brexiteers over a deal with Labour.

In an article last month, the UK journalist Quentin Peel quoted a recent opinion survey in Northern Ireland on how people might vote in a referendum on leaving the UK adjoining a United Ireland.

I have to say I found the results he highlights to be quite surprising.
The opinion poll, conducted in early December by the Belfast-based pollster Lucid Talk, asked respondents how they would vote in a border poll in three different circumstances:

  • If there were a “no deal” Brexit crash-out of the EU: 55 %  said they would either certainly or probably vote for a united Ireland, against 42 % certainly or probably opting to stay in the UK.
  • If there were a Brexit based on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement: the outcome would be wide open, with 48 % opting to stay in the Union, and 48 % wanting Irish unification.
  • Only if Brexit doesn’t happen, and the UK stays an EU member, is there a clear majority for remaining part of the UK: 60 % in favour, against 29 per cent for a united Ireland.

On the whole, the vote splits clearly on ethno/religious lines:

80 % of self described unionists would opt for the UK even with a no-deal Brexit.

93 % of nationalist/republicans would opt for Irish reunification.

What makes the difference in the poll is the crucial swing vote of the “neutrals”, who are neither self described unionists nor self described nationalist/republicans.

  • If there is no deal, ONLY 14 % of these “neutrals” would vote to remain in the UK!
  • If there is Brexit on May’s terms, that rises to 29 % choosing to remain in the UK.
  • Only if the UK as a whole opts to stay in the EU, do 58 % of the “neutrals” (Alliance, Greens, etc) vote in favour of the Union.

This poll should be read by the MPs of the Conservative Party who stress their support for the “Union” as one of their reasons for opposing the Irish Backstop.
According to a study by University College London, support for the Union of Northern Ireland with Britain is given by many Conservative MPs as the reason for their opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement, and their willingness to contemplate a “No Deal” Brexit. This is perverse.

If this poll is to be believed, in the name of support for the Union, these Conservative MPs are opening the way to a No Deal Brexit, the very outcome that would make a breakup of the Union most likely.

By backing Brexit at all costs, including a no-deal Brexit, the Democratic Unionist Party has enhanced the likelihood of a border poll that would end the Union. This is not a wise course for a “unionist” party to have followed. It plays into the hands of Sinn Fein.

This DUP approach shows how the politics of identity can lead sensible people to adopt policies that lead to the very outcome that they do not want.

The poll data also raises questions about how the vast UK Exchequer subsidy towards public services in Northern Ireland could be met from the much smaller Irish Exchequer, in the event of a United Ireland being chosen by voters in a referendum in Northern Ireland. The implications for tax, and for public services and pay, in both parts of Ireland would be substantial.

There is also the question of how Loyalists, who passionately support the Union and who have a record of violence, might react to a referendum decision that did not go the way they wanted, and how the Garda Siochana and the Irish Army could  cope with this.

Neither of these points is addressed by those, who refuse to take their seats where they could do some good, and who are instead constantly demanding a border poll. As Brexit shows, making a big decision on the basis on the basis of a 58/48% vote can have dire consequences.

Mrs May, by prioritizing Conservative Party unity over a cross party approach, is leading these two islands into constitutional and emotional territory that has not been mapped, and that is highly dangerous.


Brexit is a British decision.

It means that Britain is seeking to withdraw from a contract it made with the other EU members, on the basis of which those countries opened their markets to British business, in a way it was not opened to other countries. That was the deal.

In business, if one unilaterally withdraws from a contract, one does not normally expect to continue to enjoy all the benefits of the contract, afterwards.  One expects to have to make good some of the losses incurred by the other party.

But that is not how British public opinion sees Brexit. It IS how it is seen by the 27 partners of the UK in the EU.

This difference in perspective is at the root of the difficulties in the present negotiation.

The EU has developed, and maintained, an integrated Single Market for business because it has a single unified system for making, interpreting and enforcing a single set of rules.

The Single Market is deepening all the time and new fields of business are being made the subject of common rules, thereby opening new markets. This will not stop when the UK leaves.

Common rules are what keeps the EU together.

They derive from the EU Treaties, which is like a written constitution. It is difficult to amend. The UK, in contrast, has no written constitution, and there is no similar constraint on the UK Parliament.

So UK often looks at problems purely politically, while the EU has first to look at them legally. This causes misunderstandings. UK Ministers sometimes think that a political understanding with France and Germany will be enough to overcome its problems with the Commission, but that is not the way the EU works. France and Germany, and the Commission, are all subject to a common set of rules. This rule based system protects smaller countries and has been the secret of the EU’s success.

The recent Chequers decision by the UK Cabinet says the UK will keep to the  common EU rules for goods, but goes on to say that the

“UK Parliament would still have a lock on incorporating these rules in the UK legal order by not passing the relevant legislation”.

This is giving with one hand, and taking away with the other.

So, even if the UK and EU standards were the same at the outset, they could diverge substantially, depending on the vagaries of British politics. Ultimately the UK Parliament can do what it likes.

The UK will not be part of the EU legal order. This builds uncertainty into the proposed arrangement, and is bad for business.

This let out clause means that border controls might not be there at the outset, but might have to be reintroduced.

This is a critical issue for Ireland, where the reintroduction of border controls on the 300 mile boundary would be both provocative and impractical.

That is why the EU wants the Northern Ireland issue agreed before the UK leaves the EU.

The UK wants to take back control, but EU needs to have control too.  This point is not always understood in London.

The EU is 27 countries, and all their Parliaments will have accepted any eventual trade deal with the UK. This makes the sort of” flexibility”, the UK says it would like, difficult to obtain. Getting unanimous agreement of all EU Parliaments to a future EU trade deal with the UK will not be easy.

That was illustrated by the difficulties in ratifying recent Agreements with Ukraine and Canada, when extraneous domestic issues were used in Belgium and the Netherlands to delay ratification.

If the Commission wants a deal with the UK that will pass in all 27 Parliaments, it will have to exercise great care.

Patience will be required. Sound bites will not always be a help.

But before we even get down to detail on trade, there will have to be a Withdrawal Agreement.

80% of the text of the Withdrawal Agreement is already agreed, but 20% remains to be settled. Among the issues that are not settled is the

“backstop” to prevent a hard border in Ireland.

Here the EU has put forward the proposal that

“Northern Ireland remains in a common regulatory area for goods and customs with the rest of the EU”.

It has said it is ready to improve the text of this proposal, if the UK has suggestions to make. But such suggestions need to be within the parameters of what the EU has proposed.

This is difficult for the UK for various technical and political reasons, not least because England and Wales, but not Northern Ireland, voted in the Referendum to leave the EU’s common regulatory area.

Opinion on this in the UK is changing, but only very slowly.

The implications of a hard Brexit are only now being contemplated by most of the people who voted Leave in 2016.

In 2016, these people saw Brexit as an emotional assertion of national identity, rather than as a concrete proposal that would change their lives and livelihoods irrevocably.

I believe UK public opinion needs more time to consider if Brexit is really the best way to express their national identity, and more time to fix some of the inequities in British society that prompted people to vote Leave in 2016.

That why I have argued, in an earlier column in this paper, that the period of negotiation under Article 50 should be extended.

This could happen if the UK asked for it, but asking for it would require both immense courage on the part of the UK government, and a constructive response from the UK opposition.

It is hard to see evidence of either yet, but they could emerge if there is a crisis.





In the recent Northern Ireland elections, the Democratic Unionists got 28.1% of the vote, Sinn Fein 27.9%,the Ulster Unionists 12.9%, the SDLP 11.9% and the Alliance Party 9.1%.

The fact Sinn Fein increased their share of the vote by a substantial 3.9 percentage points has led some commentators to  interpret this as a mandate to start negotiating towards a united Ireland.

There is some wishful thinking going on here. Of the 90 seats in the new Assembly,

  • 49 were won by parties that broadly support the continuation of the Union with Britain, while only
  • 39 were won by parties who want to replace that with a union with the rest of Ireland.

Incidentally the Alliance and Ulster Unionist Party, both moderate parties, but supportive of the existing constitutional position, increased their vote shares too,  by  2.1 and 0.3 percentage points respectively.

Putting a choice between the two unions, at the heart of the current political debate in Northern Ireland is likely to deepen sectarian divisions there, and make day to day compromise even more difficult to achieve.

To use a word Gerry Adams often used in another context, it is

“not helpful to the peace process”,

if , by ”peace process” we mean, in the first place, a reconciliation between the two communities in Northern Ireland.

Centering debate around whether one is for against a united Ireland, would make any attempt at creating an alternative to the Sinn Fein/DUP duopoly of power in Belfast, like the one attempted without success in the recent elections by the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, next to impossible.


Indeed that may be one of the reasons the drum is being beaten for a united Ireland.

It is a good way of freezing politico/sectarian divisions. And that suits both Sinn Fein and the DUP.

Of course, as a tactic, it may also help Sinn Fein electorally in the Republic, because distant, unattainable, objectives, like a united Ireland or the restoration of the Irish language, have been useful, and reusable, rallying cries for other parties in the Republic in the past(notably by Fianna Fail when Mr  de Valera led them).

The case that Sinn Fein is making, for immediate agitation towards a united Ireland, was summed up in an article by an Irish Independent columnist, Martina Devlin.

She said

“The Border has to go. The case for Irish reunification is overwhelming – over time, the two parts of this island will be more prosperous together than apart.”


This seems to ignore the huge subsidy Northern Ireland receives from the UK (20% of its GDP), which the Republic, with a much smaller population and tax base, could not replace, especially if it itself  is suffering the huge dislocation of its trade pattern that will result from the island of Britain leaving the EU

Martina Devlin continued

                 “A united Ireland is the clearest way to minimise the fallout from Brexit, provided it can be handled sensitively and a carefully plotted, long-term approach taken.”

I fear this is not so.

A United Ireland would, in the context of Brexit, simply move the border from Newry to Larne. The costs on East/West trade between Ireland and Britain, caused by Brexit would all remain, but the British subsidy to Northern Ireland would be gone.


Now I know money is not everything. If the people of Northern Ireland are united in wanting to make new constitutional arrangements (whatever they are) work, they will work.

But Irish unity imposed by a simple majority of the population, overruling a large minority, who still want to stay in the UK, would NOT leave behind a united people, willing make big sacrifices for the common good of a united Ireland.

In my view, a united Northern Ireland must come first, and only when we have such unity can wider constitutional options be considered in a pragmatic way.

The recent Election did not help in that regard, and a Sinn Fein campaign for a united Ireland, will deepen divisions further.  We should recall the futile anti partition campaign of the late 1940’s, which did just that.


Martina Devlin does try to address the financial problem of replacing the UK subsidy in the event that Northern Ireland  left the UK and joined a united Ireland.

She says

                                       “ An economic stimulus package needs to be put in place and Britain would have a responsibility to contribute. But, however expensive,  there would be an end in sight. The EU would have financial obligations, too. Perhaps Irish-American well-wishers might also put their hands in their pockets. The financial support package would need to cover at least one decade and possibly two, with a variety of targets including reorientating the entire business culture in the North.”

Given the current attitudes in Britain, this seems to me to be wholly naive.

The UK is reluctant to pay its share of the EU bills, contracted while the UK was a full voting member of the EU.

A post Brexit UK will, I believe , be a poorer country than it is today, something Ms Devlin does not address.

So it is hard to see it contributing for years to a place that had seceded from the UK, at the very time when the UK was also trying to prevent the secession of Scotland.

If the UK is unlikely to subsidise the secession of Scotland it is also unlikely to subsidise the secession of Northern Ireland.


Ms Devlin thinks there could be savings

       “On the financial front, it’s not all a drain. Economies of scale and merged services could achieve savings – one parliament, one health service, one education service, and so on.”

This is theoretically possible, but it is contrary to the scenario envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement, which provides for the retention of separate Northern institution and guarantees, even if ultimate sovereignty  is transferred from London to Dublin.


One also needs to consider the potential security risks, and consequent increases in police and military spending by our state, if a significant minority in Northern Ireland decided to resist the arrangements Ms Devlin advocates.

Resistance would be geographically concentrated. For example, parties supporting a united Ireland  received

  • only 3% of the vote in East Belfast,
  • 10% in Strangford and
  • 14% in Lagan Valley and East Antrim.

These security costs would fall on the Irish taxpayer.


Finally Ms Devlin  says

             “Meanwhile, there are moderate Unionists who could be convinced about the benefits from reunification. Some of them realise the British have no interest in Northern Ireland and, after all, why be loyal to a government which feels no loyalty in return?”

This is true. I do not sense a deep emotional commitment in Britain to any part of Ireland or to its interests, as the Brexit vote has shown.

Loud talk, and flag waving about a united Ireland by Sinn Fein will undermine these very “moderate” unionists, of whom Ms Devlin writes so hopefully.

One would not just be asking “moderate Unionists” to be reasonable about a pragmatic arrangement. One would be asking them to cease to be Unionist. That would be asking them to change their identity, as they see it. That is no small matter.  There is more urgent work to be done.

Let us hope, now that the elections are over, that a pragmatic and united case can be agreed between Unionists and Nationalists about how to deal with Brexit, and then put  by them to Brussels, London and Dublin.

That is the job of new Assembly, and it should get on with it.


I write about the following matter with some feeling because like others, I have devoted a significant amount of time and effort over 10 years or more to creating conditions in which, as part of a wider settlement, nationalists and unionists would share power and responsibility in Northern Ireland. Responsibility goes with power, and recent events suggest that some people want the power, but prefer to dodge the responsibility that goes with it.

The debacle over welfare reform in Northern Ireland, and the resultant severe risk that the power sharing institutions themselves will collapse, raises a doubt as to whether Sinn Fein is a serious political party, capable of exercising government responsibility in any jurisdiction. 

On 23 December last, after months of brinkmanship and suspense, Sinn Fein and the other parties agreed a package of measures in the Stormont House Agreement. Everyone knew, in those talks, that the Agreement was framed within a block grant from Westminster that was limited.

Yet three months after they made the agreement, Sinn Fein are backing off the part of it concerning welfare reform, saying the DUP did not give them the figures (as if there was no Sinn Fein person capable of doing the relevant arithmetic, notwithstanding their huge taxpayer funded staff in Stormont!), and without making any proposal as to how the funding shortfall might otherwise be bridged within the budget. 

Last December, Sinn Fein and the other parties agreed to the following, including specific figures:

“The (UK) Government has developed a comprehensive financial support package to help the Executive deliver across its priorities. The total value of the Government package represents additional spending power of almost £2 billion. Details of the financial package are in a financial annex attached to this agreement.”  

“A final balanced budget for 2015-16 needs to be agreed in January.” 

“Legislation will be brought before the Assembly in January 2015 to give effect to welfare changes alongside further work” 

“ Implementation of these welfare changes will begin to take place in the financial year 2015-16 and implementation will be complete by 2016-17.”

None of this was new. The issue of welfare reforms had been the subject of exhaustive debate in the Assembly, over the previous years, so everyone should have known the sums involved. 

For example, a Committee of the Assembly issued a final report on the Welfare Reform Bill in 2013 which said:

“While the Committee agreed the general principles and aims of the Bill it had serious concerns about its potential negative impact, particularly on vulnerable groups. Therefore, in its engagement with stakeholders the Committee specifically asked what mitigating measures needed to be put in place in order to minimise the impact on the most vulnerable in society. In drawing up these recommendations the Committee was acutely aware of the arguments relating to parity with GB and the potential cost implications. While social security arrangements are devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the costs (approximately £3bn per annum) are covered by the Treasury and are separate from the NI Block Grant.
The Minister made it clear to the Committee that any deviation from parity that had an associated cost would have to be borne by the Block Grant i.e. the Treasury would not make any additional funding provision to accommodate these changes.”

That was back in 2013!

If the welfare cuts were to be mitigated, the funds would have to be found elsewhere, so those who wanted changes had two years to work out how to pay for them.

So the idea, now being peddled by Sinn Fein that they did not understand the figures involved, when they made the Stormont House Agreement last December, and now that they have been told them, even have no proposals for making up the shortfall of about £200 million, is just incredible.

It would suggest that they do not take their responsibilities seriously, and regard the whole business of government as a game, the purpose of which is to say what your supporters want to hear all the time, and blame someone else for everything. 

This is a juvenile approach to politics. It is just not serious, and voters deserve politicians who are serious about their work.

It is a mystery to me that the SDLP, which did so much in the past to bring power sharing into being ,has gone along with this exercise.

It is also a warning to any parties in the Republic who might contemplate negotiation with Sinn Fein…If you agree something with them in December, they will go back on it in March!


It is disappointing that the talks between the parties in Northern Ireland, chaired by former US diplomats Richard  Haase and Meghan O Sullivan, achieved no agreement.

These two people are professionals of the highest quality, with wide experience of conflict situations. I worked with both of them during my time as EU Ambassador in Washington. 

The fact that they would devote so much time to the remaining problems of Northern Ireland is testament to their spirit of public service. They were invited to devote this time by the parties in Northern Ireland themselves, which makes the failure of the parties to take the opportunity to agree all the more dispiriting.

Of course, the three issues to be settled…flags, parades, and crimes of the past… were not easy ones. 


The Irish tricolour, and Union Flag of the UK, were both explicitly designed to express unity, not division.

In the case of the Irish tricolour, the aim was to symbolise peace between nationalist and unionist communities in Ireland. 

The Union flag of the UK incorporates three Christian crosses, the cross of St Patrick, the cross of St Andrew, and the cross of St George, symbolising harmony between Ireland, Scotland and England.

On the face of it, it is perverse that these symbols, of themselves alone, should be offensive to anybody. In fact the flags could be interpreted to represent two of the three strands that underlie the Irish peace process and the Good Friday Agreement….the tricolour, with its idea of peace between Orange and Green, symbolising the North/South strand, and the Union flag, merging the three allegiances on the two islands, representing the East/ West strand of the peace process.

But, of course, that is not how they are regarded on the streets and flagpoles of Northern Ireland. Both are used by some, and resented by others, as party or sectarian symbols. They are used as a means of marking off territory, and of indicating welcome for some people and exclusion for others. They are left flying day and night until tattered and torn by the wind, to a degree that shows scant respect, by those who put them up , for what the flags represent.

National flags are expressions of the sovereignty of states. As such they could, and perhaps should, be seen as the political equivalent of the business concept of a “trade mark”.

A trade mark indicates the origin of a product and can only be used with the consent of the originator of the product. A national flag is similarly the expression of the sovereignty of a state, and should be reserved for use by the state itself or with its consent. It should never be used for a commercial, sectarian or party political purpose.

If the Union Jack could only be flown, at home or abroad, when, where, and in conditions of  which the London Government approved, and if  the  Irish tricolour could   only be  flown when, where and in a way of which the Dublin Government  similarly approved, that, if enforceable,  could eliminate the use of either flag  as a  sectarian symbol.


A legal remedy of this nature does not address the underlying problem, which is the emotional response that particular flags evoke in particular groups of people.

That arises, in part, from the contested and provisional nature of Northern Ireland. 
It is part of the UK, as long as a majority there wants that, but if a majority once changes its mind, it is irrevocably absorbed into a united Ireland, and there is no provision for that question being revisited. 

That is the current expression of what is known as the “principle of consent”. In a sense, the “principle of consent” is a one way street, and that contributes to a sense of insecurity in the Unionist community.

That sense of insecurity is added to by the doubts about whether the United Kingdom itself will long remain united, and by a gradual change in the religious balance within Northern Ireland itself.

Flag waving would be less important, if the future was clearer and more secure.


Parades have been a divisive factor in the life of Northern Ireland for a very long time.
They are debated nowadays in the context of rights….the right to free expression, the right to use of the highway, and the right not to be gratuitously offended by parades by others. 
Rarely is the language of responsibility in the exercise of these same rights used…….the responsibility not to abuse others through public speech, or through parades, and the responsibility to turn the other cheek, and keep a sense of humour, even if offended.  
Common sense is not exercised about parades because of the burden of the past.


Part of the problem is that some of the terrorist organisations have never apologised for the deaths and injuries they caused. In one case, this is because they consider their “armed struggle” to have been justified, even though it never received any sanction from the people on whose behalf it was supposedly being waged. An apology would be seen as an admission of a lack of legitimacy. 

The other difficulty is the modern conception of victim’s rights. A victim of a crime is frequently presented in the media as having a right to see the perpetrator of the crime against him or her punished, and is assumed to achieve “closure” when this happens. 
I have always had doubts about this concept of the purpose of criminal justice. It is too close to vengeance for comfort.

As I see it, it is society, not the victim as such, that has an interest in the punishment of crime, because society needs to deter or prevent future crimes, and that justifies and requires, a system of punishment. Society is entitled to make pragmatic judgements on something like this, and if an amnesty for past crime of a particular type is in the interests of the greater good of society, then  it is probably  better that victims  be recompensed in some other way.
It may be that the Irish and UK Governments now need to assist the Northern Ireland parties by clarifying the wider context in which the Haase/O Sullivan process might be resumed.

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