The Tory Government cannot be trusted with peace in Ireland. It is time for a border poll – Peter Leary.

“The Irish people themselves have the right to protect the peace process, their freedoms & their well-being. Instead of ‘breaking international law’, the British government should live up to its commitments & not stand in their way.”

Peter Leary

Throughout the general election campaign last December, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson boasted that he had an ‘oven ready’ Brexit deal. Like so much about his government it turns out that promise was less than half baked. The publication of the ‘Internal Market Bill’ on Wednesday has confirmed recent noises coming out of Downing Street and reports in the Tory press that signalled a desire to roll back the Withdrawal Agreement and, in particular, to override the so-called ‘Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol’, a legally binding commitment designed to prevent a ‘hard’ border on the island. The Conservative Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis has brazenly admitted that these plans ‘break international law’.

Beyond the certainty that Johnson and those around him perceive some narrow – and possibly short term – advantage to themselves, speculation at this point as to why this issue has been disinterred may prove a fool’s errand. One credible explanation is that it is simply an attempt to put pressure on or even sabotage completely the current talks over a post-Brexit trade deal with Europe. Another, a timely means to reintroduce Brexit into domestic British politics in the hope of distracting from the government’s catastrophic response to Covid 19 or even provoke some kind of showdown with the courts as a prelude to ‘reform’. It is not at all implausible that he and they had not previously read the details of the document and that its implications have only just dawned. But whatever the exact motivation, the possible repercussions in Ireland are clear.

For four years many communities in Ireland have been haunted by the Brexit negotiations and the scale of ignorance and disregard for Ireland and its people that they have revealed. Famously, Boris Johnson himself, while Foreign Secretary in Theresa May’s government, suggested that the boundary between the London boroughs of Camden and Westminster might provide a model for future border management. Current British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, implied that the imposition of food shortages might coerce the Irish into accepting a return to customs checks. In Ireland and especially in the border regions this has caused deep uncertainty amidst fears that friction on the border might negatively impact on daily life and livelihoods and trigger renewed tensions.       

Responding to the latest moves, Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD, whose party won the largest share of the vote in the Irish general election in February this year and already shares power in the north of Ireland with the DUP, was forced to ‘once again remind Boris Johnson of the British government’s obligations’ insisting ‘that Ireland cannot become collateral damage to the posturing of the British government…[the] all-Ireland economy, the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement must be protected. There can be absolutely no hardening of the border.’

Based on commitments to rights, equality and mutual respect, the Good Friday Agreement has long faced opposition from some within Conservative ranks, prominently including Michael Gove. Its provisions enshrine the right to pursue Irish reunification through democratic political means, placing responsibility on the Secretary of State to facilitate a border poll ‘if at any time it appears likely…that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should… form part of a united Ireland’. Practically all observers are agreed that the experience of the last few years have made that prospect more likely with Colin Harvey, professor of Human Rights Law in Queen’s University Belfast, suggesting that, on the basis of polling evidence, ‘support for the current constitutional arrangements is on a knife-edge.’

The Irish people themselves have the right to protect the peace process, their freedoms and their well-being. Instead of ‘breaking international law’, the British government should live up to its commitments and not stand in their way.

  • Peter Leary is a Labour Party member in Oxford and a historian of modern Ireland. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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