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Fintan O'Toole: EU knows making political polluter Britain pay for actions is vital

Ireland didn’t want this, but Brexiteers have a deep belief that someone else should pay

What have the climate crisis and the Northern Ireland Protocol got in common? They’re both ultimately about the same thing: who takes responsibility for damage to the environment.

In relation to the physical environment, the long-established answer is PPP: the polluter pays principle. And in thinking about the political ecosystem that Irish people have to inhabit, this must also be the unbreakable rule.

The PPP tenet was formulated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1972: “a polluter has to bear all the costs of preventing and controlling any pollution that he originates”.

One way of thinking about the problem of Brexit and the Border is to recognise that the Brexiteers have never accepted PPP. On the contrary, they are determined to evade it.


No part of Ireland asked for this political pollution. Neither Northern Ireland as a whole nor the Republic bought what the Brexiteers were selling

The Border question is Brexit’s effluent. The creation of an external frontier between the EU and the UK is a noxious but inevitable byproduct of the decision to leave the single market and the customs union.

No part of Ireland asked for this political pollution. Neither Northern Ireland as a whole (which voted against Brexit) nor the Republic (which of course did not have a vote) bought what the Brexiteers were selling.

So, the polluter pays. Those who chose to create the contamination – primarily the British Conservatives and secondarily the DUP – must “bear all the costs of preventing and controlling” the spillover into Ireland of the disorder they originated.

Those costs are, for any genuine unionist, very high. If I were a unionist, I would consider the price far too steep to be worth paying. But the tag was always visible to anyone with eyes unclouded by fantasy.

Burn coal and you pump dangerous gases into the atmosphere. Drain sewage into the river and you kill the fish. Leave the EU’s single market and you destabilise the status quo on the island of Ireland in ways that can only be to the long-term detriment of unionism.

There were only two possible outcomes: a hard border that would fatally weaken nationalist consent to the political settlement of 1998, or a so-called border in the Irish Sea that would gradually detach Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

To say you didn’t want or intend either of these outcomes is no more meaningful than polluters claiming they didn’t mean to kill those fish or contaminate that groundwater. Being reckless of the known consequences of your actions does not absolve you from responsibility for them.

And yet all the way through this dreary chronicle, the Brexiteers have sought to evade the imperative of PPP. They have a deep belief that someone else should pay – specifically Ireland.

To put it in economist-speak, they have always wanted the political border-related costs of Brexit to be externalised. The withdrawal agreement stopped them from doing this – it internalised the political damage within the UK and inside unionism.

But the Brexiteers can’t shake off the feeling that this goes against the natural order of things. Paying for your own pollution is not a concept they can get their heads around.

Thus, for example, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar recently said that Britain would not get a better deal from the EU if it triggered article 16 and suspended the workings of the protocol.

Kate Hoey, the fervent Brexiteer who Boris Johnson elevated to the House of Lords and appointed as his personal trade envoy to Ghana, replied on Twitter: "We don't need a better deal. We just want the Irish Sea Border gone and Northern Ireland's place as an integral part of the UK restored. Then it is up to the EU to protect its internal market in whatever way it chooses."

In shorter words: “not our problem, pal”. Ireland can “choose” either to police a hard border on the island or, in effect, to leave the single market. It’s up to us and the EU to deal with the downstream emissions.

This high-handedness has a lot of history behind it. It’s a history of knowing that someone else will have to deal with your mess. If you get the maid pregnant, it’s her problem. If the boys in the Bullingdon Club went a bit overboard last night and wrecked the rooms, the servants will clean things up and the police will look the other way.

This attitude is also at the core of the existential crisis the world now faces. The 23 richest countries have just 12 per cent of the global population. But they are responsible for 50 per cent of all greenhouse gases released from fossil fuels and industry over the past 170 years.

Britain's global standing may be greatly diminished, but it is still, for historic reasons, a country with a disproportionately large presence in global affairs

Yet the countries that have done least to cause the problem are suffering the most extreme damage. This is mirrored within countries: the people who produce the smallest amount of emissions are most vulnerable to harm from climate change.

This externalisation of consequences now threatens human survival. The expectation of the privileged that someone else will pick up the tab has become incompatible with survival.

This is why, parochial as it is, the struggle over the Northern Ireland Protocol has a wider significance.

Britain’s global standing may be greatly diminished, but it is still, for historic reasons, a country with a disproportionately large presence in global affairs.  Getting away with dumping the toxic residues of its own nationalist obsessions onto its smaller neighbour would send a terrible message to the rest of the world.

It has been public knowledge for a long time that Boris Johnson did not know that the UK would lose its seat on the European Commission after Brexit. Last week, his former consiglieri Dominic Cummings revealed that "it wasn't until October 2020" that Johnson "even vaguely realised what the [EU] Customs Union is".

This is not because Johnson is stupid. It’s because he has been at the heart of a project in which wilful ignorance is bliss. To know what he’s doing would make him accountable for its predictable effects. Far better to assume, as he has always done, that if you don’t see the problem, you will never have to answer for it.

If the voters of England want to have the fate of their nation decided so haphazardly, that’s up to them. But if the worst political consequences of that choice are successfully outsourced to Ireland, there will be no end to this reckless abandon.

The EU, fortunately for Ireland, understands this. It realises that the real aim of this British government is not to solve practical problems with the protocol. It is to reaffirm the old, deadly habit of sending the bills for your blowout to people who were not even at the party.

The EU knows that making the political polluter pay is not just imperative for our little corner of the world. It is vital to the world itself.