Johnson’s Deal Crosses May’s One Legitimate Red Line: Dividing the United Kingdom

by Ira Straus
Chair, Center for War-Peace Studies

21st October 2019

There was one fully justified Red Line buried amidst Theresa May’s long list of them: that no agreement is permissible that would draw a dividing line within the United Kingdom (see The meaning of Theresa May’s one legitimate Red Line). Drawing such a dividing line, she stated – and stated with a passion unusual to her – would be something that no UK Prime Minister could do, nor accept. One can see in this a thinly veiled meaning that to do such a thing would cross the line of disloyalty to the Realm, something no PM could legitimately do, as the safety of the Realm is always the first charge on HMG.

She was not consistent about this, to be sure. She meant by this only a prohibition against actively drawing a line of separation, such as a hard border line or customs line. She neglected to include a prohibition against serious damage to the sentiment of Union, the foundation of the continuity of the Realm. She was prohibiting only the most extremely damaging deal, one that would include a direct action of dividing the Union that is the United Kingdom; she ignored the fact that any Brexit would imperial the Union by undermining its sentiment in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Johnson’s deal flagrantly breaches even May’s narrow Red Line. He thereby breaches also Theresa May’s line between loyalty and disloyalty to the United Kingdom.

The contradiction of Squaring the Circle; the consistency of a Common EU Context

The Johnson deal has Northern Ireland staying in the Single Market while Great Britain leaves it. This line of division in the Deal is not erased by its formal language about Northern Ireland staying in the UK Customs Union de jure, since at the same time it keeps it within the EU Customs Union de facto. That language simply renders both halves of the equation self-contradictory. That is to say, it renders the denial of both lines of division, on the North-South Irish border and in the Irish Sea, a false denial. The border lines are real in both cases, the denial of the border lines unreal in both.

Mr Barnier indicated as much, when announcing the deal: he spoke of its contents on this issue as “squaring the circle”. These are words that mean that it is inherently contradictory and not to be taken at face value.

More: it means that the patching up that it attempts on both ends is superficial, and the promises of being alright for both sides is false. It means that the reassurances for both the intra-Ireland border and the intra-UK/Irish Sea border are prone to fall apart at any moment, and will be unable to withstand the shocks they will inevitably run into in the real world.

The only way to get around needing to “square the circle” is to cease pitting the square against the circle as the only games in town, facing each other in solitude and requiring mutual adjustment. There is only one way in turn to do this: to abandon the assumption that the square and the circle must stand alone in separate customs orders, or else in a unique customs order all by themselves, and instead keep both embedded within the same larger customs order. In other words, it requires the UK to remain alongside both Irelands inside the EU Customs Union.

Nothing less is required for the integrity of the UK. Nothing less is required for Theresa May’s one legitimate Red Line.

This is why May’s deal did keep both entities inside the EU Customs Union for an indefinite future. And why that future was to extend until such time as it could be proven, if ever, that arrangements were in place enabling the UK to leave the Customs Union without any hard border in Ireland.

To be sure, while this is necessary for the Union, it was unlikely to be sufficient in the long run. What has proved sufficient is membership in the EU for Britain and Ireland together.

That is why any form of Brexit undermines the sentiment for the Union in Northern Ireland. The importance of the EU for the peace in Northern Ireland is profound. There is a mediating value of being part of a greater Union, one within which the English are not a hegemon as they are within the British Isles alone. This is important in softening the tension about Union for Scotland and Northern Ireland alike. For the latter, it is also important for allowing the duality of identity, at once Irish and British, to be accepted calmly. That duality was inherently problematic as long as the UK remained alone with Ireland; the problem was manifested in the troubles. Once both islands were in the EU, the duality of Norther Irish identity became far less troubling.

The open border within Ireland is important not only in itself, but as an indication that the duality of identity is no longer being contested, constrained, or fought over. Catholics can identify with nationalist Ireland and move about in it freely, yet remain UK citizens, and live alongside Unionists who identify as Britons. Remove the mediating role of the EU, and the Irish border turns into a sharp symbol of the identity issue. Harden the border, even mildly, and the sharpness of the issue become potentially fatal again.

Conversely, harden the border in the Irish Sea, and the identity of the Unionist community becomes troubled, their acceptance of the existing order problematic. That is why Theresa May’s Red Line against any such hardening was necessary, if not sufficient. Its less than complete sufficiency does not detract from its necessity, rather it adds to it. The dangers of the breach in the Red Line are increased, not lessened, by the fact that it compounds a deeper identity issue.

Who will stand up for the Realm?

Theresa May has every right to denounce Johnson’s deal as an act of disloyalty to the United Kingdom. Indeed, MPs thought it remiss of her to fail to speak out against Johnson’s Deal, shouting on Saturday from the backbenches at her to rebel. They offered her an opportunity to save her soul. In refusing it, she confirmed our earlier diagnosis: that she suffered an unwillingness to take responsibility for making painful choices, and her Red Lines were dictated by her internal mental red line against taking the blame for the damage to the UK, rather than by a will to draw an adequate line against the damage itself (see Theresa May on the Couch).

Nigel Dodds, spokesperson of the DUP Parliamentary group, recalled Theresa May’s words about the inviolability of the Red Line on the integrity of the UK, and recalled that Mr Johnson had repeated her strong words, which he is now traducing. Mr Dodds stood up for the former PM, at a time when she would not stand up for herself. It remains for Theresa May to find the courage to stand up at this time for herself and for the survival of the United Kingdom.

Probably she will not. But perhaps Parliament itself will. It clearly wants to. It is a question of whether it can sustain, in face of a seemingly rogue Government in No. 10 and its ongoing campaign of intimidation, the will to stand up for itself and for its country by uniquely autonomous, innovative, and strict legislative means.

The Benn act was an important beginning in this regard. Beyond it beckons a need for further follow-up steps along its lines. There might be a need for measures that reduce the Government in several future matters of Brexit to a legal courier between Parliament and the EU, so the Government cannot act as an independent actor that could destroy the UK. This might encompass tying down this or any Brexit deal to a confirmatory referendum; tying it down also to fully complete implementing legislation, securing an extension from the EU long enough for the referendum; and establishing regular channels of direct communication with the EU.

The cloud over Northern Ireland, too, is not without its silver lining. The DUP is being forced into a shock therapy. It is seeing for the first time a profound reality: that Brexit is going to be its damnation, not the salvation it dreamed it could be.

Brexit will not bring back a long-gone UK where the Unionist community had the numbers and clout to dominate, and where England had the will to rule. It will bring only a reduced England, spiraling inward in its nationalism, while in Northern Ireland the Unionists will be left face to face with an emerging Catholic majority.

Britain plus Ireland in the EU, with fully open borders in both the Irish sea and across the isle of Eire, is the maximum salvation feasible for the Unionist community. Any Brexit is its damnation; the question is only the degree of damnation. May’s Brexit was recognized and denounced by the DUP as a damnation; so is Johnson’s. While a full reversal of views is unlikely all at once, it is possible that the shock is great enough to bring the DUP to genuine wisdom in its policy; enough perhaps to support a second referendum, that being the only face-saving way for it to save its community from Brexit.

Let us give credit where credit is due. If Johnson’s plan is defeated in Parliament and if a lengthy extension is obtained, he will have wasted only a few months’ time, dispelling in that time most of the illusions he and the hard Brexiters had fostered, and bequeathing an extension with a potentiality for bearing fruit. That compares favorably with May’s record of wasting three years and bequeathing a worse situation than she started with. If all the dangers and illusions of Brexit could be dispelled so quickly, the Brexit saga might yet come to a happy ending.