The Irish Abyss

Truss and the Backstop

The Tories believe they’re the most consistent party in British politics.

The Troubles are never far away. Bombed building, Belfast.

Or so they thought until Boris Johnson became premier, and exchanged three decades of austerity for Keynesianism. 

Liz Truss represents an attempt to revive Tory orthodoxy and return to libertarianism, as though she were a latter-day Margaret Thatcher.

Sadly for Truss, the stars have not quite aligned in such a way as to permit the salutary cruelty that was Maggie’s stock in trade. Not yet, at any rate.

While my colleague Josh White explained how the premier’s fiscal policies look more to Ronald Reagan than Thatcher, her foreign policy remains consistent with that of her predecessor.

Race to the Bottom

Boris may have been a failure, but he retains the title of the man who delivered Brexit and used it as a tool for legitimacy. Perhaps his only one.

No point giving that up when you can still rally the faithful around the Northern Ireland Protocol. Especially for Johnson’s former foreign secretary.

The backstop, as it’s also called, was an exception to the border regulations meant to recognise the north’s historical and political conditions.

A propagandistic exercise meant to disguise the UK’s failure to become fully independent of the European Union, the Protocol’s ideological utility is complex, to put it mildly.

It would be one thing if this was territorial Britain, not Northern Ireland. But it’s often forgotten that UK politicians have spent much of the last two centuries wishing Ireland would go away. 

Ireland has never been an ordinary colonial holding in the UK imaginary. The island has always been a land of poverty and violence, where one’s friends are often as turbulent as one’s enemies. 

Here one recalls the revealing moment in 1974 when Prime Minister Harold Wilson referred to loyalists as “spongers” during a utility workers’ strike. 

It later turned out that Wilson had concocted a secret plan to sever the constitutional ties between the UK and the north. 

Wilson’s scheme spoke reams about how much Britons wanted to emancipate themselves from Ireland. It’s unlikely that he was the last official to whom such an idea occurred. 

This was the tail-end of the era of decolonisation, in which the United Kingdom divested itself of most of its colonial holdings. 

The brutal era of tit-for-tat atrocities referred to as The Troubles was part of the zeitgeist, though they would not be quelled until the Good Friday agreement in 1998.

While it was not a perfect solution, the US-brokered agreement was definitely an improvement on what had gone on in the preceding thirty years. 

Though economic development in Northern Ireland still lagged behind other parts of the UK, the accord created conditions in which limited growth could replace the stagnation and squalor, and sectarianism of the 1970s and 1980s.

One consequence of the Good Friday Agreement was the softening of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. 

During the Troubles, the border was an area of high tension, with the British and Irish governments trying (with limited success) to staunch the flow of arms and activists. 

Since 2005, the boundary between the two countries has, in effect, been invisible. But it became an issue again with the advent of Brexit. 

When the UK and the EU were part of a single customs area, commercial traffic across the Irish border could flow freely. 

Britain’s departure threatened to transform the Irish border, taking it in the direction of the bad old days. The “backstop” was created as a means to prevent this.

Birthed in the fraught negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union in 2017 and 2018, it quickly became a stepchild. 

The Brexit vote had intensified interregional conflicts in the UK, and the situation with Northern Ireland was the most prominent case.

A week and a half after the vote, Northern Ireland played Wales in Paris in the European Championships. 

The two regions had come down on opposite sides of the Brexit vote, and the Northern Irish fans could be heard singing, “We voted remain! WE VOTED REMAIN! We’re not stupid! We voted remain!”

The effect of the Protocol was to shift the hard border from that with the Republic to the Irish Sea. 

This was crucial for Northern Ireland not only symbolically, but also in the sense that a significant proportion of their trade was with the South. 

Trade surged with the advent of Brexit, for reasons that are not difficult to grasp.

But much as the Protocol made sense from the perspective of Ireland, it was always a thorn in the side of British conservatives. 

For the Tories, Brexit was a black hole: once stuck in its gravitation, no deviation has been permissible. Liz Truss clearly understands this and makes no bones about staying in it.

Her authorship of a measure calling for the unilateral alteration of the Protocol, which has passed Commons and is under consideration by the Lords, is an indicator of her commitment.

The fact that the implementation of such a measure will likely result in a freezing of trade negotiations between the UK and the EU seemed less significant before Truss was elected premier.

It must have come as a shock to Liz Truss that in her first conversation with US President Joe Biden, she was warned about the possible consequences of unilateral action on the backstop.

Biden is a Catholic and is as much concerned with the vicissitudes of Irish politics as any US president since Bill Clinton (and perhaps since Kennedy). 

Although it is a little difficult to read the tea leaves, it seems likely his focus was on the possible regression in the situation of Northern Ireland that could result from the return of the hard border. 

Still, the EU dimension is also an issue. 

The talk in European capitals over the last couple of weeks is how Truss’s elevation to the premiership could provide a pause in which both sides might reconsider their positions.

The UK claims the right to unilaterally alter the treaty if it is required by threats to its “essential interests”. 

Brussels, by contrast, is simply demanding that London continue to implement an agreement to which it was unequivocally a party.

On the one hand, Premier Truss seems called upon both by the inclinations of her party and by her own legislative history to take a hard line on the issue. 

On the other hand, the UK’s problem is now what it has been throughout the Brexit process. The EU’s bargaining position is simply much stronger.

The United Kingdom is much more reliant on the European Union than vice versa. The EU’s two largest trading partners are China and the United States.

Truss is being driven along by two incompatible impulses: the Brexit hard line and the need to maintain stable trading relationships. 

The expressed disapproval of the United States for the former course significantly intensifies this conflict.

The so-called “special relationship” may not be what it was. But the goodwill of the United States is crucial to the United Kingdom’s geopolitical and economic position. 

Things are better now than when Donald Trump was offering to buy the NHS. But maintaining Washington’s goodwill must still be categorised as a matter of national interest.

This is one of those situations that looks rather like a snooker table with all the balls clustered in the middle. 

It’s clear that some sort of breaking apart must happen. But how (and with whom) the break will happen is hard to predict given the available information.

Liz Truss has risen precisely because of her commitment to a certain ideological line. 

But toeing such a line is a lot more difficult at the top than it is when firing off criticisms from the government benches of Parliament. 

It may be, indeed it probably is, impossible to satisfy all the interests at play here. Somehow the balls will be broken up. 

But there is an irony to be savoured here that once again Ireland may be the shoal on which a British government founders.

Photograph courtesy of Lauren. Published under a Creative Commons license.