John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

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.

A Difficult Birth: the early years of Northern Ireland, 1920-25

We are approaching the centenary of the coming into existence of Northern Ireland, whose Parliament was opened by King George the fifth on 22 June 1921. This event took place just three weeks before the Truce of 11 July 1921 that ended the Irish War of Independence.

 The creation of the Parliament of Northern Ireland had already been authorised by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. It had also authorised the creation of a Parliament of Southern Ireland, with similar devolved powers.

 Elections to both parliaments were held on 24 May 1921, but the Southern Parliament only met once, because the Sinn Fein members refused to sit there, and sat instead in what constituted itself as the second Dail. The Dail was considered to be an illegal assembly by the UK authorities.

When the Northern Parliament met, a substantial majority of those who were elected DID take their seats.  The Unionist Party had won 40 seats of the 52 seats with 66% of the vote, against 6 seats each for Sinn Fein and for Joe Devlin’s constitutional Nationalists who had respectively won 20%, and 11.8%, of the vote. The size of the Unionist victory caused surprise in some quarters, although the voting had taken place against a background of continuing violence. The Sinn Fein and Nationalist MPs did not take their seats in the Northern Parliament at this stage.

The powers of the Northern Ireland Parliament were quite limited, as pointed out at the time, by Lord Donoughmore  and others.

 He said it was “unsound” to set up a Parliament without the usual powers of taxation. Over 90% of the taxes in Northern Ireland (NI) were, he said, to be set and collected by the Imperial Parliament in London.

 To grant the new NI Parliament the power to spend, without also having the responsibility of raising taxes to finance that spending, lent itself to gesture politics and to the systemic avoidance of responsibility. That problem remains to this day in Northern Ireland and other devolved UK administrations.

The Unionists, led by Sir James Craig, who became Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, did not regard the establishment of Northern Ireland as an end in itself. In theory at least, they would have preferred if there had been no devolution of powers at all, and if the whole of Ireland continued to be governed directly from Westminster. In establishing an administration in NI, Ulster Unionists saw themselves as taking on a duty, rather than enjoying a newly conferred freedom.

While they had opposed Home Rule for a united island of Ireland, they were willing to live with Home Rule for two separate parts of Ireland, as provided for in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920.

This arrangement prevented their part of Ulster being subject to Dublin rule, which was their overriding objective.  

Northern Ireland did not enjoy a peaceful birth, as we all know. Violence had  already commenced in 1920. The first casualty was a Clareman, Denis Moroney, an RIC sergeant, who was killed by the IRA in Derry city on 15 May 1920.

But the violence was more overtly sectarian, and lasted much longer, in Belfast. It was am intensification of six similar sectarian outbursts that had occurred at different times in the 19th century.

There were particular reasons for the outburst after the end of the Great War.

Military recruitment had led to a labour shortage, and many Catholics had been recruited, during the War, to fill jobs in Belfast that had previously been filled by Protestants, in places like the ship yards.

The end of the war in November 1918 meant that many Loyalists returned from the Front, and wanted their jobs back. This led to violent evictions of Catholic workers from their jobs. The Dublin Castle government refused to intervene, on the ground that these were “trade union issues”, and the displaced workers were even initially denied unemployment benefits.

This led to retaliatory attacks on trams carrying Loyalist workers to or from their jobs, whenever the tram route passed through a predominantly Nationalist neighbourhood. Once one knew the terminus of a tram, one could work out the likely religious affiliation of most of the passengers on it!

Several Protestants, who worked in predominantly Catholic workforces, such as the docks and the brewing industry, were also edged out of their jobs.

The IRA murder of RIC commander Gerald Smyth in Cork in July 1920 led to retaliations against the small Catholic community in Banbridge, Smyth’s home town.

Catholics and Protestants in mixed neighbourhoods were burned, or intimidated, out of their homes.

As in the early 1970’s, fugitives sought refuge in Dublin and Cork.

 An ill judged and ineffective boycott of goods manufactured in the North was organised in the South, as a response to the attacks on Catholics.

Under the Truce of 11 July 1921, the IRA had agreed that attacks on Crown forces and civilians were to cease, and there was to be no interference with Government or private property.

Apart from some score settling and house burning, the Truce held in the South until the outbreak of the Civil War a year later. This Truce created space in which it was possible to negotiate a Treaty that led to the creation a Free State government for Southern Ireland (a government that did have the responsibility of raising taxation!).

 But the Truce of July 1921 did not hold in Northern Ireland.  In fact the conflict intensified there, for reasons partially explored in this book.

 Attacks on Catholics continued, and the James Craig’s government took little effective action to stop it. They did establish special constabularies, but these were recruited mainly among the Protestant community.

 In fact, some noteworthy sectarian killings were carried out by people wearing police uniforms.

 60% of the fatalities in this conflict were Catholic, although Catholics were only 35% of the population. Thanks to the pre War gun running, the Loyalist community had more arms and ammunition than Nationalists had.

In early 1922, after the signing of the Treaty, but before the outbreak of the Civil War here, meetings were arranged between Michael Collins and James Craig, in an attempt to reduce the violence. The very fact of such meetings taking place place showed political courage on the part of both leaders.

 In return for an end to the boycott of Belfast goods in the South, they agreed that there would be a reorganisation of policing on non sectarian lines. A Police Committee and a Conciliation Committee were to be set up.  But grassroots Unionist opinion did not take kindly to the pact.

 Neither Collins nor Craig was fully in control of their own side. As a result, false hopes were raised.

 The “Irish Independent” even hoped that the Collins/ Craig pact would be “a great and decided advance towards Irish union”. This optimistic interpretation was without foundation, but it was guaranteed to annoy Unionists. The same excess of optimism is being repeated in some quarters today, in respect of the Northern Ireland Protocol. It could have similar malign results.

 In fact, sectarian killings intensified in the wake of the Craig/Collins pact, on an escalating tit for tat basis.

Six people, some elderly, were killed in Lisdrumliska near Newry by the IRA in June 1922, in an attempt at ethnic cleansing of Protestants from that townland. Three Catholics were shot dead in Cushendun by police, in a futile search for arms.

 When the Civil War started in the South, in August 1922, with the shelling of the Four Courts, the trouble subsided somewhat in the North, as many (but not all) of the Northern division of the IRA (like Charles Haughey’s father) went south to join the pro Treaty National Army.

Alan Parkinson gives a thorough account of the suffering on all sides in these years.

 He gives the victims a name, and in so doing restores their humanity. They are no longer just statistics, but people who came from somewhere, lived a life, and then had that life deliberately cut short, by someone who still enjoys the unearned privilege of anonymity.

The circumstances of its birth determine what Northern Ireland is today. Those pressing for a border poll should read this book.

HOW TO COPE WITH CHINA’S RISE

Above (on the image) is a link to a policy statement on relations with China prepared by Radek Sikorski MEP and approved by the members on the EPP group in the European Parliament.

The economic rise of China has been accompanied by a much more assertive political stance on its part.

Chinese policies are causing disquiet by the claims it is making to hegemony over the South China, its attitude to Taiwan and Hong Kong, and its assimilationist policies towards Tibetans, Uighurs and its intrusive and illiberal relations with religious minorities.

On the other hand, the positive economic contribution of China has been substantial.

It helped mitigate the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on the global economy and it has lifted a billion of its own people out of poverty. It is investing in infrastructure abroad and is making vaccine supplies available to poorer countries.

The rise of China has led to anxiety in the United States.

China’s GDP ( a poor measure of welfare) may exceed that of the US by 2028 and this worries Americans.

China’s military spending is rising, but is still well below that of the US. Some Americans feel a military confrontation of some kind with China is inevitable (possibly over Taiwan which China has said it wants to reintegrate by 2049).

The paper written by Radek Sikorski sets out how the EU might respond to all of this. I believe it is well worth reading. I would welcome your views on it

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