Belfast Telegraph

Arthur Aughey: Why unionists should now back a second referendum, vote Remain... and have their constitutional cake and eat it

Who would have thought that, in 2018, the issue of the Irish border would be consuming the UK and EU, asks Arthur Aughey

When historians come to explain the diplomacy of the UK-EU negotiations on Brexit and the Northern Ireland backstop, perhaps they will consider it to be the 21st century version of the 19th century Schleswig-Holstein question. Famously, Lord Palmerston described it thus: "Only three men in Europe ever understood it. The first was Prince Albert, who is dead; the second, a German professor who became mad; I am the third and I have forgotten all about it."

Who would have thought, before 2016, that the Irish border would be at the heart of British and European politics? Who would have thought that the Irish border would re-emerge, like Churchill's dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone, to drain the life out of another British Government?

It was said of the original Irish Question that solving it required the brains of a Gladstone and the balls of a Munster Fusilier. With deference to the gender of the current Prime Minister, the same can be said of Brexit. It seems that, despite two years of effort, Mrs May has failed.

Eyes glaze over at the details of customs and regulatory compliance in the 30-odd pages directly devoted to Northern Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement. Despite the mind-numbing details, Northern Ireland is not an outlier. It is central to the politics of the Union. Its position raises a question which is not new.

In 1982, the political scientist Richard Rose - who wrote in 1971 the ground-breaking study on Northern Ireland, Governing without Consensus - asked what might appear to be an academic question: Is the United Kingdom a State? Interestingly, he took Northern Ireland to be a test case. It is worth re-visiting his arguments - for they sound very familiar almost half a century later.

Rose's starting point was that a modern state must have control of its "territorial boundaries". Though Westminster was formally sovereign in Northern Ireland, he continued, constitutional legality was not proof that the United Kingdom is a state. For this to be so, Westminster must "maintain the integrity of the United Kingdom, and not treat Northern Ireland as if it were an alien land or a colony". On that basis, he thought that Westminster failed and he concluded: "In effect, Westminster handles the problem of Northern Ireland by denying the integrity of the United Kingdom."

One could argue - as many did at the time - that Rose's view was too fundamentalist. It was unable, for example, to contemplate devolution, which he considered an intolerable qualification of Westminster sovereignty. Moreover, Northern Ireland meant that the United Kingdom was not a state because it had a "unilateral" right to secession.

Of course, today we have devolution in Scotland and Wales, as well as Northern Ireland. And the right to secession (or consent) is acknowledged as a general constitutional principle, as the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 confirmed.

Yet on Brexit, we are back to Rose's fundamental question. Is the UK a state? And Northern Ireland is once again taken as the case study to determine the answer. And the balance between Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland as a special case is what Unionist politicians (and not only them) think has been got profoundly wrong in the Withdrawal Agreement.

The unionist position - articulated by the DUP - is that on Brexit, the United Kingdom must be one and indivisible. The country voted as one in 1975 as well as in 2016. Leaving should be the same as joining and that isn't the case. Like the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, criticism of the proposed deal is similar: London has capitulated to Dublin's demands and prioritised nationalist demands over unionist principle. Pitched as a British problem, the argument is that any Northern Irish divergence from the rest of the country - would become the Scottish special case, then the Welsh special case and then the undermining of the Union. That would be madness and, like Palmerston's German professor, those whom the EU would wish to destroy they first make mad.

Of course, Rose wasn't blind. Northern Ireland was - in his own words - indubitably different. But it is the extent of differentiation in the Withdrawal Agreement - especially the drift in the future - which has led to its rejection by those unionists who matter, the 10 DUP MPs. They think it a constitutional enormity, giving Brussels and Dublin power without representation or responsibility in Northern Ireland. Moreover, they reject the economic argument that the deal will give Northern Ireland a 'best of both worlds', Hong Kong-like, position in relation to EU and GB markets.

Why indeed would the Irish Republic encourage a more advantageous rival to its own economic model north of the border? It is a good question.

We are where we are. I can't recall any political condition so debilitating (or mad) in British politics. However sincere Mrs May is about her achievement (and I have immense respect for her tenacity as well as her appreciation of, if not admiration for, Geoffrey Boycott) nothing I have read or heard about the Parliamentary arithmetic convinces me that she has sufficient support for her deal, not even the potential of securing freedom to achieve freedom. Nigel Dodds is in the same place as Jeremy Corbyn - and (whisper it softly) Tony Blair.

Where should we go now?

My view is a simple one.

Since 2016 we have been working away from an answer for Northern Ireland and not towards it. The answer is valid for the rest of the United Kingdom, as Ruth Davidson and - remember - Mike Nesbitt, argued. The answer is to remain in the EU. That - to me - was the sensible unionist and conservative position. Brexit intimated dis-union and radical disruption. So it has proved - and no deal would be disastrous.

Logic (maybe not politics) intimates a new referendum. The Prime Minister intimated that no Brexit is a possibility.

Since their opponents appear happy with the Withdrawal Agreement, maybe all unionists should advocate remain, having their constitutional cake and eating it.

Arthur Aughey is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Ulster University. His publications include The Politics of Northern Ireland: Beyond the Belfast Agreement (2007) and Nationalism, Devolution and the Challenge to the UK State (2001)

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