by Frank Schnittger
Fri Dec 11th, 2020 at 03:10:47 PM EST
Despite the likelihood of a "No Deal" in the main EU/UK trade talks, the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement will come into force on January 1st. The working party on its implementation, chaired by European Commission Vice-President Maro efčovič and the UK Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Rt Hon Michael Gove have agreed the details of its implementation, which includes a grace period to allow supermarkets to adapt to the new customs and quality controls that will apply.
While it was hoped the agreement would build some momentum towards a broader Free Trade Agreement, its more immediate effect is to provide the UK government with some cover to withdraw clauses 44, 45 and 47 of the UK Internal Market Bill, and not introduce any similar provisions in the Taxation Bill which were in breach of international law and threatened to de-rail relations with the incoming Biden administration in the USA.
Newton Emerson has a piece up on the Irish Times (subscriber only) discussing the DUP's confusion as to how to respond to the Protocol's creation of "a border down the Irish sea" which they had so bitterly opposed. I have drafted a letter to the Editor in response:
A Chara, Newton Emerson writes that the DUP is at a loss as to how to respond to the reality of "a border down the Irish sea" brought about, in large measure, by their own support for Brexit and intransigent opposition to Theresa May's proposed deal which required no such border. (Foster's lack of control over DUP is one of Brexit's original sins, Opinion, 10th. December)
He expresses the hope that the border will end up being "so boring in operation" that everyone will forget about it, or that the DUP "will embrace the sea border straight away, spin it as positive, and insist that their leadership can make it even better".
Northern Ireland has indeed gotten the best of both worlds (thanks in no small measure to the robust negotiating stance of the Irish government) but that is only if you compare it to the rest of the UK. The Scottish Nationalists, not surprisingly, want something similar.
But compared to the pre-Brexit status quo, unionism has lost out, because while trade with the EU will remain relatively seamless, trade with Britain will face increasing barriers as the trusted trader grace period runs out.
This means that the N. Ireland economy will gradually be weaned from its over-dependency on Britain, and re-orientated more towards Ireland and the EU. Also, we can expect a lot of Irish companies, seeking to protect their market access to Britain, to invest in subsidiaries in N. Ireland.
Having once controlled the Northern Ireland economy (and most employment) through control of the linen, whiskey, shipbuilding, bus building and aircraft manufacturing industries, unionists will become increasingly beholden to Irish employers and investment decisions made in Dublin.
Economically, if not politically, we will see is an increasingly integrated economy on the island, leading, slowly, to a more integrated society, at least for the middle classes. It will not be like the protestant versus catholic employers as of old, more like a requirement to be able to get on with people of all types and backgrounds in the workplace.
Employees who engage in sectarian one-upmanship inside or outside work will find their career paths strangely curtailed. Unionists who wish to progress their careers will increasingly look to HQs in Dublin and elsewhere in the south for advancement and guidance.
Those Unionists who prefer a more British ambience will migrate to Britain as they have often done in the past in any case. More nationalists will tend to stay as job prospects in N. Ireland improve, and go on to build careers and businesses in the North.
The Alliance Party, Greens and SDLP will become the parties of choice for the increasing numbers who want to get on with business and avoid sectarian entanglements.
It won't be a fast process, but rather a generational process of accommodation and change, in which the churches and sectarian organisations will play but a very marginal role.
It would help if the states, north and south, stopped supporting segregated schools, but ultimately, it will be the economy which will drive social change, not the political parties. We in the south will have to embrace a lot of change as well, and it will not go well for some.
Remarkably, the closer we get to a united Ireland, the less relevant Sinn Fein will become, and the main driver will become English disengagement and Scottish independence rather than Irish nationalism.
Unionists may even look to Dublin to save them from the tyranny of rule by Sinn Fein and look to form alliances with the Alliance party, Greens, SDLP, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.
If the DUP really want to embrace a leadership role, they can conclude that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have sold them down the Irish Sea, and that their future lies with people and parties who really want them to have a positive future on this island.
My guess is we will have to wait for that for some time yet. As Newton Emerson notes "The talent shortage [in the DUP] is only getting worse, with Brexit having tainted the top ranks while sabotaging or demoralising the next generation."
But surely, at some stage, a new generation of leaders must emerge?
Basically I am arguing an economic determinist case for long term change in N. Ireland, in sharp contrast to the general media focus on the antics of the political parties. My argument is a reprise of a more complex argument I made in my masters thesis in 1988, predicting the end of Apartheid on economic rather than political or moral grounds.
Unlike many here, I do not see a united Ireland coming about in the immediate aftermath of even a disastrous Brexit, and see Sinn Fein's tribal drumbeat for same as being largely counter-productive, driving unionists further into their bunker mentality.
Neither do I want to see a united Ireland based solely on a 50% +1 tribally base referendum headcount, as that could be disastrous for inter-community relations, economic development and the maintenance of peace.
But I do think that the "border down the Irish sea" now agreed by the UK government, allied to a growing trend towards Scottish Independence marks a seminal change in the dynamics of how the N. Ireland Economy will work and where the future economic self-interest of many unionist families will ultimately lie.
Northern Ireland could become a hub for Irish and EU companies seeking to ensure seamless trade with the UK market, and also for British Companies seeking to secure seamless access to the Single Market. Both will be tempted to set up manufacturing operations there to comply with customs "rules of origin" and facilitate free, or at least freer trade with their respective markets.
This is not something that will happen overnight or change widespread political attitudes in a year or two, but longer term it could change the whole dynamic and provide N. Ireland's people with a more secure and prosperous future within Ireland and the EU. The loss of CAP subsidies for N. Ireland farmers will only accelerate this trend.
Irish unity will not happen unless people, north and south, can be assured that it can deliver a more peaceful and prosperous future for all or at least the large majority. Arguments over flags and anthems, are at best, a distraction from this larger goal. I will not be putting my trust in Princes, but in the horny handed sons of toil who need to work for a living and who may eventually see a better future for themselves and their families in a non-sectarian and economically successful union.