The border between Northern and Southern Ireland has become the most important factor preventing a clean exit for Britain from the European Union. Yet British statesmen sacrificing the needs of the entire country to fulfil a 1998 commitment of the odious Tony Blair are omitting one consideration: even if Britain sacrifices everything to keep Northern Ireland as part of the Union, that sacrifice, for demographic reasons, is likely to be wasted within less than a generation. Far better to recognize the demographic reality now and get Britain’s EU exit right.
Ulster came into existence as a separate entity in 1922 because of its strong majority of mostly Presbyterian Protestants, who were prepared to take up arms to avoid living in a Catholic Ireland. Even though Britain was largely secular, and its Protestant Established Church was also distasteful to Northern Ireland’s Protestants, continued union with Britain seemed to Ulster’s Protestant majority a preferable alternative. In 1968-69, when violence flared up again, the demographic position was largely unchanged, but by that time the Catholic birthrate was higher than the Protestant birthrate and the demographic balance was altering. In any case, Ireland was at that time much poorer than Britain, so there was still little economic argument for joining the south. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 recognized the growing Catholic strength in Ulster, balanced the province’s future governments accordingly and appeared to provide peace on that basis.
At the 2011 Census, the Northern Ireland balance still tipped slightly towards the Protestants, with 48% of Northern Ireland’s population to the Catholic 45%. However, as reported by the BBC in April, current projections are that by 2021 the Catholics will be in the majority. They still will not be in a majority of the electorate, because their main strength will be among children, but a decade later, around 2031, they must inevitably form a majority of the electorate — even in 2016, 51% of schoolchildren were Catholic and 37% Protestant. Since the Northern Ireland electorate of 2031 are all now born, there is a high degree of certainty to this projection.
The EU has placed obstacles to Britain obtaining its independence, as federations always do. Apart from presenting Britain with a ludicrous divorce bill of £39 billion, and attempting to reopen the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, the Irish border has been their most useful weapon. The argument is, that since Tony Blair guaranteed an open border in 1998, when both Ireland and the U.K. were safely in the EU, then that agreement must be sacrosanct for all time, whatever the inconvenience to Britons as a whole.
Since Teresa May and her government naturally don’t want to restart the Northern Irish civil war, and don’t want to cut off Northern Ireland economically from the rest of the United Kingdom, their only option is a quasi-perpetual Customs Union, with Britain being subject to EU regulations for all time, and unable to arrange its own free trade treaties with the United States, India, Australia, Japan and other countries who may wish to trade with Britain, but don’t wish to subject themselves to the EU’s pettifogging rule-makers.
It is however absurd for Britain to regard the union with Northern Ireland as determining its fate forever, when that union may only last another 13 years. After 2031, it is likely that Sinn Fein and other Catholic parties will have a majority in any Northern Ireland assembly, and in elections to Parliament. In those circumstances, it is more than likely that Northern Ireland will want to rejoin the south in the European Union. After all, the south is no longer a Catholic confessional state, as it was in 1970, and it is now considerably richer than the north.
It is not however necessary to anticipate the wishes of the Ulster electorate of 2031 in an agreement coming into effect in 2019. Britain can simply arrange to leave the EU properly, while leaving Northern Ireland in the Customs Union with the EU. Yes, there would be a customs barrier in the Irish Sea, but the logistics of that crossing imposes delays on goods transit in any case. Politically, Ulster would continue to remain part of the United Kingdom, but economically it would continue to have a Customs Union with the EU, while the remainder of Britain would trade with the EU and with Ulster under a Canada-style free trade agreement.
In 2031, this arrangement could be looked at again; at that time Ulster could either become part of a united Ireland, remain part of Britain (with or without a customs union with the EU) or become a small independent EU member, with the rights of Slovenia or Malta. In any case, the demographic realities would be recognized and the Ulster question could be solved separately, without bedeviling Britain’s own Brexit.
As for Britain’s own relationship with the EU, if the bloc wants the £39 billion, it can negotiate a suitably attractive free trade treaty with Britain before March 29. Otherwise, we will trade with it on WTO rules, which will doubtless be somewhat painful, but nowhere near as painful as the FT, the Economist and other whiners are pretending. With the problem of Ulster solved as set out above, the alternatives will be quite clear and easy to implement.
I wrote a few months ago (Take the half-loaf Brexit, then come back, August 6, 2018) that Britain should take Theresa May’s “Chequers” deal, getting the country half-way out of the EU, rather than risk being locked in it by either a failure to leave next March or a rigged second referendum. Once half-way out, it would be easier to push for the remaining necessary freedoms, while the alternative of being permanently trapped in the EU was unbearable. Unfortunately, May’s team of closet and open “Remainers” have now given away yet more to the EU in the form of a “backstop” that permits the EU to block Britain’s eventual full exit and ability to negotiate trade deals with third parties. Under the original “Chequers” deal, Britain’s membership of the Customs Union would automatically have ended on December 31, 2020, still well this side of the next election; under the proposed deal, there is no such hard termination date.
Under the EU’s agreed deal, Britain can be locked in after December 2020, which would prevent it negotiating meaningful free trade agreements with other countries, since it would not control when any such treaties would come into effect. Truly May’s minions are abominable negotiators, so bad that one suspects their real objective is to make Brexit so difficult that Britain will be forced humiliatingly back into permanent membership of the EU’s emerging Comecon bloc. As the Marxist centralizers of France and Germany gather speed in their activities, with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel rolling out plan after plan to suppress the despised “nationalism,” permanent EU membership becomes ever more intolerable. What in 1995 seemed a moderately threatening future in the EU with the Maastricht Agreement has become a truly black denial of all human freedom as the bureaucrats aim for absolute power.
The EU’s Gordian knot can be cut quite simply, by accepting the demographic realities in Ulster. It is politically impossible to buck those realities anyway, as Britain found out to its cost during the Irish Home Rule agitation of 1886-1916 and the subsequent civil war. To condemn all Britons to a vassal status against which they have clearly and courageously voted, for the sake of a Northern Irish demography that is about to disappear is an act of foolish self-destruction that only a British Tory government could commit.
I shall have my fingers tightly crossed for Britain’s future at least until March 29, 2019, and for as long after that as any damaging “transitional” provisions are in force. I have no confidence in any of the politicians involved; with the notable exception of Margaret Thatcher the British political tradition since World War II, on both sides of the aisle has been one of abject compromise and failure. If Jacob Rees-Mogg were truly the “MP for the 18th Century” I would have some confidence that he might offer salvation, for Britain was very much better governed in the 18th Century, but I fear that on closer inspection he will turn out like his colleagues to be deeply rooted in the ineptitudes of today. Still, if Britain can take responsibility for its own future, it will at least be free to continue the search for something better.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)