Colm Tóibín: The North must become an independent EU state
Irish reunification will not solve Northern Ireland’s problems in the aftermath of Brexit
Traffic on the M1 from Dundalk into Newry, which will be slowed even further if Border crossings are re-established after Brexit. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire
One of the options for Northern Ireland in the wake of Brexit is to accept its fate, and become a region on the very margins of a margin.
It would lose its easy access to the EU markets. Brexit would also mean keeping immigrants out, thus preserving the status quo in the North, the maintenance of a peace agreement that accepts as though forever, the existence of two – and only two – communities.
Once the Belfast Agreement was signed, it was clear that Northern Ireland needed 50 years of pure stability, with the question of constitutional change fully parked so that other more urgent matters could be addressed.
It was hoped that in this period questions such as the rights of women, children, immigrants, gay people, workers and atheists could be seriously debated so the North could build a civil society, with myriad voices and forums, a place of many minorities.
Brexit will make Northern Ireland into more of a peripheral region than it is at the moment.
It brings the loss of so many things, including perhaps the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice, as well as the idealism, however veiled and ambiguous, of the European Commission, not to speak of the many grants and cash payments that come from membership.
Why, after Brexit, would a multinational company invest in the North where it could invest in the Republic? Even if the new Britain were to have low tax rates, it would not have easy access to the largest market at its doorstep, nor would companies be able to avail of the free movement of labour.
Are we really going to see Border crossings again with lines of trucks and cars? Are we really going to have a Border economy based on easy smuggling? Are we going to blow up bridges in isolated Border places or block lonely Border roads?
Are we really going to have to show our passports on the road between Dundalk and Newry, slow the Dublin-Belfast journey even more so that everyone’s documents can be checked?
In this state of dark confusion, one option being suggested is the creation of a united Ireland. This seems to me to be least likely option.
It is worthy of serious attention only as a way of making sure that it is not on the table at any time, that it remains where it has been for decades – a dream for some on the island, a nightmare for others, especially in the North, and as a matter of indifference to most people in the Republic and, indeed, in Britain.
One thing that must have hit home in the debate about Brexit in England and Wales (and even Scotland) is how little Northern Ireland mattered to either the electorate or the authorities.
It did not figure in the debate and, unless there is a change, it will not figure in the negotiations about managing Brexit.
When I travelled in Germany in the aftermath of the referendum, everyone wanted to know what it would mean for Northern Ireland; its fate after Brexit was covered in the German newspapers.
This is more than you can say about England or the English press.
As the negotiations start, it is essential that some fresh thinking be done about what Brexit will mean for Northern Ireland and for the Border counties in Ireland generally.
But it is essential that such thinking quickly disposes of the notion that England’s isolation will lead to Irish unity.
Irish unity can only occur by agreement from a majority in Northern Ireland.
Even the loss of the sustaining cheque from the EU to Northern Irish farmers is unlikely to make farmers who treasure their British identity change their minds about what country they want to belong to.
If anyone is in any doubt about this, they should travel through Fermanagh, to take just one county, and ask people.
After the deluge of Brexit, the dreary steeples will stand their disputed ground.
The Downing Street Declaration and the Belfast Agreement made a difference because they accepted that change could only occur after recognition that many things must stay the same.
The agreements also made a difference because they acknowledged that soft language and subtlety in tone matter more in the creation of stability in Northern Ireland than large gestures.
No one wants to evict others from land in, say, Fermanagh, or settle on farms that are not theirs.
Rather, people want a flag (and some even two) that they feel comfortable with, and a passport (or even two) that they can travel with, or an identity with a hyphen in the middle that they can claim, or a political system that they can feel loyal to while recognising, however, tacitly and grudgingly, the differing loyalties of others.
Most people were prepared to exchange more equality for less inequality or indeed “parity of esteem”, if that would make anyone else happier.
They were prepared to accept fudge and clever phrasing in the agreements, knowing that clarity, in a time of conflict, is unlikely to put weapons “beyond use”.
Who has a problem then with Northern Ireland remaining a member of the European Union while also remaining a member of the Commonwealth, directly under the Crown?
Who has a problem with it maintaining its soft border with the Republic while keeping also its British identity in full, its education system, its health system, its police force, its Sterling, its BBC, its Stormont, its electoral system, its agreements?
In such a new dispensation, Northern Ireland could use British embassies for a limited time before setting up its own diplomatic service.
Northern Ireland within the European Union could also be subsidised for an agreed period jointly by Westminster and Brussels, and indeed perhaps by Dublin too.
It would suit the Westminster government to have a satellite, or a friendly state, in the European Union.
Perhaps there are some in London who would be relieved not to have to bail Northern Ireland out indefinitely in the aftermath of Brexit.
It would suit the Dublin government not to have hard Borders within the island of Ireland.
It would console many in Northern Ireland to know that they were not losing their British identity, their flag, their drums, their right to a British passport and the many freedoms they associate with the sort of polity that has evolved in Britain.
It would console others in the North, who feel more comfortable about the Republic of Ireland, that there would be no return to a hard and heavily-policed border and further isolation.
Northern Ireland would then, effectively, be an independent state in the European Union, with three times the population of Luxembourg.
It might start taking responsibility for itself. Since it could dictate its own taxation system, it could become an interesting place for outside investment.
It would have a full seat at the European table, its power equal to that of the Republic of Ireland.
Since the Northern Irish soccer team is fully recognised in Europe and the rest of the world, why should Northern Ireland as a political entity not follow the same course without doing damage to anyone’s identity?
Before there would be any discussion about a referendum on this in the North, it would be essential that this plan have the full support of the two sovereign governments in London and Dublin.
It would also require the agreement of Germany, which would, no doubt, be fascinated by the arrival of the British and Irish prime ministers with a deal already made between them.
This would solve the problem about what to do about what would, by any standards, be an impossibly porous land border between the EU and an outside country in the aftermath of Brexit.
Such an accord between the two sovereign governments would also require the Irish government to make clear that it wishes to solve a problem rather than create one.
Thus it would be essential that the matter of Scotland, which is none of our business, would be left out of these discussions completely.
This is not about the breaking-up of Britain or the uniting of Ireland. It is about rescuing Northern Ireland and the Border counties in the South from further paralysis and estrangement.
The Brexit agreement could then include a clause that would allow Northern Ireland to become an independent state within the European Union, under the conditions outlined above at any point in the future, once a majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland agreed to this.
This means the referendum could be held quickly or delayed, or indeed repeated.
The dates and deadlines could be decided jointly by the British and Irish governments, using the Irish system of a referendum commission so that easy falsehoods could not be easily spread during the course of the campaign, as happened with Brexit.
The question in the referendum could simply be: “Do you support Northern Ireland remaining within the European Union while maintaining its current borders and political institutions and its position under the Crown?”
It is likely that the British government has many more important things on its mind than Northern Ireland.
Convincing the British that they should pay more attention to easing what Brexit will mean for Northern Ireland, however, might not be as difficult as it once was to convince Margaret Thatcher to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
That took slow work, a building of trust between civil servants and diplomats, and then between politicians.
But more than anything, it involved the convincing of the British that the Irish government had no interest in destabilising Northern Ireland or demanding unacceptable constitutional change.
Instead, the Irish government made clear how modest and reasonable its needs were – it merely wanted to create stability and prosperity in Northern Ireland.
In the few years before the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, it seemed most unlikely that Mrs Thatcher would ever consider such a treaty. Then she did.
She allowed the Irish government to have a say in running part of what was British territory. What had seemed impossible actually occurred.
Rescuing Northern Ireland from the many disasters that Brexit will bring to it – and bring to the Border counties of the Republic – will require determination and ingenuity and tact. It should be the first item on the agenda for the next taoiseach.
It would also clarify Ireland’s role and Ireland’s priorities in the aftermath of Brexit, and might be a way for the governments in London and Dublin to remain close as the negotiations proceed.