The continuing impasse over Brexit has brought an entire continent to a standstill. It has also strained the very unity of the United Kingdom. Nothing illustrated this more clearly than the pro-Brexit demonstrations on March 29, the original departure date. Protesters, waving the English flag of St. George, denounced the delay as ‘a betrayal of England’. Note this was not considered a betrayal of the U.K.: in this fight, England has gone its own way. In any case, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union (EU).
The narrowness of the Leave win (52% to 48%) has of course divided communities over positions on Europe. But it has also highlighted divisions between the constituent nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to use the formal name of the British state. The U.K. is not one nation but four: Wales was brought under English rule in the 13th century; Ireland was incorporated by a combination of military force and political persuasion in 1801; Scotland, though never militarily defeated, was persuaded to join the Union in 1707.
An own goal for Britain?
Until they joined the U.K., Scotland and Ireland were governed by their own parliaments. These were dissolved and power transferred to Westminster. This transfer of power to London did not go unchallenged locally, and the embers of resistance were never quite stamped out. The Republic of Ireland eventually gained independence for most of the island, barring the Protestant majority north, in 1922. Scottish nationalism remained subsumed under the promise of Empire: Scotland had gained power and wealth from the colonial enterprise, which tempered the loss of sovereignty to Westminster.
Indeed, part of the reason that Scotland joined the Union in 1707 was because it was broke: the kingdom had suffered heavy financial losses from a disastrous expedition to secure a trading base in the late 17th century. The failure of the Darien Scheme, as it was known, was caused in no small part by resistance from Scotland’s southern neighbours who were protecting the trading rights of the East India Company. Once within the Union, the colonial enterprise and then Empire offered not just wealth but all the trappings of great power. The end of the Empire signalled Britain’s departure from the global stage. The Suez crisis of 1956 confirmed its diminished status. And Brexit, Britain’s retreat from its own continent, has completed the project. Little England has withdrawn into itself to protect mythical ideas of Englishness against the supposed onslaught of waves of foreign immigration and EU rule.
The Scots are only too aware of this. Scottish nationalism has been simmering for years now, only partly placated by the devolution of some domestic powers to a Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Act of 1998. A referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 ended up being a closer call than had been anticipated (55% vs 45%), though it was clear even then that part of the reason for remaining was that the U.K. offered membership of the EU (which was not automatically on offer for an independent Scotland). Now, with Brexit looming, Scottish demands for independence resurface regularly.
Brexit: Taking back control? Not really.
The Northern Ireland question is even more intractable. Brexit threatens the fragile peace imposed by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which formally ended the Troubles, or decades of bitter sectarian violence. Between 1968 and 1998, the mainly Protestant Unionists were pitted against the mostly Catholic Republicans, who wished for Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland. Paramilitary forces grouped on both sides, and the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the police) were also pulled in. Indeed, the Troubles became the longest major campaign of the British Army. The Good Friday Agreement has allowed the region to move forward.
It is, however, a fragile peace, comprising complex intertwined agreements between first, most of Northern Ireland’s political parties; and second, the British and Irish governments to manage the relationships between Britain and Ireland, and between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain. Underpinning all of this is the dismantling of the border infrastructure — watch-towers, fences, checkposts — that had divided the island of Ireland. This was only possible because both countries belonged to the EU. If Britain leaves the customs union and single market of the EU, which guarantees the freedom of movement of people and goods between member states, then some sort of infrastructure will have to come up at the border between the EU and Britain in Ireland.
It is indeed astonishing that the tenuous peace in Northern Ireland did not concentrate minds during the 2016 referendum, or indeed afterwards, when Theresa May’s government decided to opt for the hardest form of exit by declaring that Britain’s future relationship with the EU could not include either a customs union or staying within the single market. Tellingly, Northern Ireland found only passing mention in her letter of March 29, 2017 to the President of the European Council invoking the Article 50 process and starting the countdown towards leaving. It was disposed of in a sentence expressing a wish ‘to avoid a return to a hard border between [the] two countries’.
And yet, peace in Northern Ireland is still in its infancy. The EU will not imperil this process by allowing a border to come up between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Hence the provision for a backstop in the transition deal that Ms. May negotiated with the EU, which would keep the U.K. in a customs union and Northern Ireland in the customs union and parts of the single market should the two entities fail to arrive at a permanent free trade agreement that continues to negate the need for border infrastructure within the island. The different status for Northern Ireland would effectively raise a border between the island of Ireland and the rest of Great Britain, something that is unacceptable to the Unionists and Ms. May.
The hard core of Brexiteers, however, are willing to gamble with the unity of Britain — willing indeed, to risk losing Scotland and Northern Ireland — in their quest to be ‘rid’ of Europe once and for all.
Priyanjali Malik is an independent researcher focussing on politics and nuclear security in South Asia
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