Tom Arms’ World Review

The Irish question has bedevilled British, European and American politics since… well, forever. It played a role in the Council of Whitby in 664. In 1169 England’s Norman rulers invaded and started centuries of direct conflict.

All this was supposed to end with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Well two events this week have brought it back from a shallow grave: The emergence of Sinn Fein as the largest party on both sides of the border and British refusal to accept the Northern Ireland protocol. The two political incidents have also brought the possibility of a united Ireland a giant step closer. Sinn Fein is totally committed to a referendum in the north on a united Ireland. The long-term stranglehold of the Protestants on the politics of the six northern counties has been a major stumbling block. That has ended.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is also pushing the two halves together. It has tied Northern Ireland economically to the EU and the southern part of the island and weakened trading ties with Britain. The Protestants are, of course, opposed to the protocol. The conservative Boris Johnson government is trying to reverse it because of their traditional links to Protestant parties and commitment to a divided island.  But the Protestant establishment – in the form of the Democratic Unionist Party – is no longer in the majority. And the majority of Northern Irish voters see their future in Europe and that means linked with the Republic of Ireland. But they still have to contend with die-hard Protestants, who, if they cannot win at the ballot box, could easily turn to the terrorist tactics of their IRA counterparts.

Britain was the driving force behind the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1949. It pushed for the alliance to quickly admit former Warsaw Pact members in the 1990s and has taken the lead in arming Ukraine. This week British PM Boris Johnson was in Sweden and Finland to sign “mutual assistance” treaties with Sweden and Finland. The three countries are now pledged to come to each other’s aid in the event of a crisis. The treaties are a symbolic first step towards full-fledged Swedish and Finnish membership of NATO which is expected to be finalised at next month’s heads of government summit.

Vladimir Putin is furious and has promised retaliation. NATO expansion, Putin has repeatedly asserted, is one of the main reasons for his invasion of Ukraine.  But for Sweden and Finland, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is THE reason for their decision to end 200 years of neutrality for the Swedes and 67 years for the Finns.

Ukraine’s Volodomyr Zelensky reckons his country has paid in blood for EU membership. It is fighting European democracy’s war against autocracy. The least that Western Europe can do is recognise Ukrainian sacrifices and fast track their membership application. Think again, says France’s Emmanuel Macron, the new self-appointed leader of Europe. It takes years for countries to jump through all the membership hoops related to corruption, economic and political stability, a free press, human rights and an independent judiciary. Shortcuts mean that you end up with thorns in the side such as Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Other countries such as Turkey and the Balkan states have been awaiting admission for years.

Macron’s response to the impatience of Zelensky and others is to suggest a halfway membership category which journalists have dubbed EU-lite. This completely new organisation proposed by Macron in a speech before the European Parliament, will coordinate European cooperation in sectors such as energy, transport and security. It will also allow existing members of the EU to get on with the stickier problems of political and economic integration. Members who have left the European club – ie Britain – would be allowed to join this new second tier. This is not the first time a French leader has proposed a two-speed Europe. Francois Mitterrand suggested a similar arrangement in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was rejected then and both Ukraine and Britain have thrown cold water on Macron’s proposal this time around.

Once a year the Queen sits on her throne in the British House of Lords and outlines the government’s proposed legislation. Not this year. Queen Elizabeth II was for the first time since 1959 conspicuous by her absence. Her role was taken by the heir to the throne Prince Charles. The fact is that at 96, the Queen is old and proud. She did not want to be seen being pushed into parliament in a wheelchair. In the opinion of many Elizabeth II is a vestigial anachronism of feudal Britain. To others she is the epitome of service and duty and the near-perfect physical embodiment of the British constitution, history and traditions.

She certainly has more political influence than many realise. Her experience and knowledge is immense. She is the head of the Commonwealth of 56 nations and the direct head of state of 16 others, including two G7 countries and three G20 countries. The British monarch can no longer issue decrees or make laws. But she has the right to be advised and to offer advice. She has weekly confidential meetings with the British Prime Minister and ad hoc meetings with other cabinet ministers. She is also in regular contact with political leaders in each of the countries with which she is head of state and communicates with hundreds of other major world figures. One does not turn down a telephone call with the Queen. With 70 years’ experience at this confidential pinnacle of world affairs her opinion is sought after. Queen Elizabeth II has carved out a new and important niche for the British monarch. Whether her successors can fill it remains to be seen.


* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • Laurence Cox 15th May '22 - 11:52am

    There is already an EU-lite, in the form of the European Economic Area (EEA), which at present includes only EU and EFTA countries but which could easily be extended to include non-EU, non-EFTA countries as well. One has to wonder why Macron did not mention this if he was being serious rather than just showboating.

  • Laurence Cox 15th May ’22 – 11:52am:
    There is already an EU-lite, in the form of the European Economic Area (EEA),…

    Being subject to three-quarters of all EU Law is not exactly “EU-lite”. Given Norway’s experience it’s hard to see who would want to join.

    ‘We pay, but have no say: that’s the reality of Norway’s relationship with the EU’:

    As an EEA member, we do not participate in decision-making in Brussels, but we loyally abide by Brussels’ decisions. We have incorporated approximately three-quarters of all EU legislative acts into Norwegian legislation – and counting.

    ‘Norway’s push for a change to ‘bad deal’ with EU’ [December 2020]:

    [Norway] struck a deal in 1994 to follow a swath of the bloc’s rules, and pay billions of euros in grants for access to the single market. […]

    It is dissatisfaction with this ever-evolving — new rules from the EU are also passed down to Oslo — outsourcing of political control that the Center Party is tapping into.

    Center Party: The UK’s Brexit agreement is better than Norway’s EEA agreement with the EU’ [December 2020]:

    “This agreement is qualitatively different and safeguards national sovereignty in a better way than the EEA does for us,…” [Heming Olaussen, SV].

  • Ukraine’s Volodomyr Zelensky reckons his country has paid in blood for EU membership.

    Ukraine would do better to retain their hard-fought for sovereignty and make Free Trade Agreements with other friendly countries that believe in free-trade.

    ‘UK shows up the EU on support for Ukraine yet again’ [14th. April 2022]:

    • The UK inherited the EU trade deal with Ukraine first signed in 2014

    • President Zelenskyy requested that the UK and EU abolish the remaining tariffs and quotas to help the Ukrainian economy

    • The UK agreed to abolish quotas and tariffs and reduce other trade restrictions

    • The EU would not agree to either request

    • Flights and ports are closed, so all trade must go by land through the EU – incurring tariffs

    • If the EU would not relinquish its quotas and tariffs Zelenskyy asked the EU to grant a ‘Green Channel’ through the EU to reach the UK

    • The EU refused

    • Number of EU quotas and tariffs remaining in place: 925 categories.

    • There are 350 EU quota categories

    • There are 575 EU tariff categories

    • The number of categories at the UK border is zero

  • There are some similarities between the post-independence experiences of Ireland and Ukraine. In 1912, Ulster unionists formed the Ulster Volunteer Force, with the intention of resisting Home rule. Irish Nationalists established their own military arm in response to the UVF and both sides began securing arms. The home rule bill was suspended during WW1.
    In 1919, the Irish War of Independence began. The Government of Ireland Act was enacted in 1920, and the island was partitioned into Southern and Northern Ireland the following year, but Home Rule never came into effect in the South. Instead, the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which ended the war in Ireland, allowed the self-governing Irish Free State to be created. As part of the treaty, Northern Ireland was entitled to opt out of the new Irish Free State, which it did. With Northern and Southern Ireland now separated into two jurisdictions by an almost 500-kilometre border, the ratification of the treaty led to a renewed period of civil war and years of hostility and violence between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland.
    The 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine followed the disputed presidential election. The Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko (who had survived a poisoning) was declared President, defeating Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych was elected in 2010 only to be ousted in the Maidan revolution in 2014 and an 8 year civil war was fomented by Russia following the annexation of Crimea.
    Ukraine might look to Ireland’s experience with its internal border as pitfalls to be avoided, if possible.

  • The emergence of Sinn Fein as the largest party on both sides of the border…

    Their vote share rose by 1% giving them the same number of seats as before (27 out of 90). The DUP lost three seats taking them to 25, as the unionist vote fragmented.

    …and British refusal to accept the Northern Ireland protocol.

    It’s the EU’s over-zealous and insensitive implementation of the Protocol which is not acceptable, not least to the people of Northern Ireland. The most recent LucidTalk opinion poll on the matter (Winter 2022) shows that only 18% of Northern Irish voters are content with the NIP as it is. 36% want to see it scrapped entirely. Even amongst Nationalist/Republican voters a majority (60%) want it changed.

    ‘LT NI ‘Tracker’ poll – Winter 2022’ [January 2022]:

    The two political incidents have also brought the possibility of a united Ireland a giant step closer.

    LucidTalk polls in Northern Ireland have shown little change in support for UI at around 44%. Polls in the Republic show majority support, but only 22% of voters are willing to pay for it.

    ‘United Ireland: why is it not on cards despite Sinn Féin success?’ [May 2022]:

    They [a group of academics] conclude that there would have to be majority support for a united Ireland, probably between 51% and 55%, for some time before the secretary of state would have to exercise their “mandatory duty”.

  • Chris Moore 18th May '22 - 4:39pm

    The Northern Ireland Protocol: yet another triumph for Brexit.

  • Peter Hirst 20th May '22 - 4:47pm

    In a rapidly changing world I’ll be surprised if it takes a decade to reunify Ireland. If the next elections show continued and increasing support for a border referendum then it could be within this decade. The emphasis must shift to ensuring protestants get a fair deal and are dealt with fairly during these challenging negotiations.

  • Chris Moore 18th May ’22 – 4:39pm:
    The Northern Ireland Protocol: yet another triumph for Brexit.

    More of a triumph for EU imperialism and those who worked with them to undermine the UK’s negotiating position. However, it’s unsustainable so will need to be renegotiated or replaced.

    Peter Hirst 20th May ’22 – 4:47pm:
    …I’ll be surprised if it takes a decade to reunify Ireland.

    Surveys and polling have shown support for Irish unity a long-way short of the majority required to justify a border poll…

    ‘DUP call for explanation from Sinn Fein over border poll stance after O’Neill played it down during election’ [June 2022]:

    The online polling firm LucidTalk, based in Belfast, last year found support for Irish unity running at around 42 to 43%.

    But this is wildly out of kilter with polls produced by the Northern Ireland Life and Times studies – face-to-face polls of random addresses tun by Ulster University.

    These have shown varying support for Irish unity over the years, from a high of 30% in 2006, all the way down to 14% in 2015 – with the most recent figure (2019) showing that only 22% respondents believed Irish unity would be the best longterm policy.

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