Johnson may be better off studying de Valera than Churchill

UK parliament should remember an ugly deal is sometimes better than a beautiful no-deal

UK prime minister Boris Johnson. The new UK government’s approach “suggests that we are more likely to witness further attempts to avoid the tough decisions” on Brexit. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

UK prime minister Boris Johnson. The new UK government’s approach “suggests that we are more likely to witness further attempts to avoid the tough decisions” on Brexit. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

 

A controversial agreement tearing the public apart; high expectations dashed by a political elite; a fragmented parliament; and a larger neighbour looking on with a mixture of concern and frustration. As fitting as this description might be for the current Brexit situation, it actually also describes early 1920s Ireland. Just like today in the Commons, the Irish parliament in Dublin back in 1921 was fiercely polarised between those who accepted the recent Anglo-Irish treaty and those who saw it as failing to offer the promised full Irish republic.

As we embark on the fourth year of the UK's Brexit saga, we seem no closer to its resolution than we were back in 2016. Four years is a long time. Indeed, for a groundhog, which is an analogy that often comes to mind for Brexit, it turns out that four years is actually an entire lifespan.

With the election of Boris Johnson as UK prime minister there was potential for a new departure for a government stuck in stall. While new beginnings usually offer the chance of a fresh approach, the new government’s approach to date suggests that we are more likely to witness further attempts to avoid the tough decisions and to offer little honesty on the very real trade-offs that Brexit will force on the British public.

Backstop

Ironically, for the first time in the modern era of Anglo-Irish relations, the UK seems to enjoy less negotiating leverage than Ireland as the latter has the support of the EU27 on the Border backstop. This is a strange reversal, for sure, but maybe the British government could actually learn a few things from Ireland’s past experience to help their cause, specifically in the aftermath of 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty.

Borderlands

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The British government would be wise to consider what de Valera had to accept: the merits of the best and only offer, which did not define future relations with their neighbours

In 1921, the political division between the pro- and anti-treaty groups in Ireland was fuelled broadly by two radically opposing interpretations of the treaty. The pro-treaty faction claimed that the agreement creating the limited Free State was the best they could get and was a stepping stone to further independence. On the anti-treaty side, the same agreement was seen as a failure to achieve what was promised, a Republic, and those who signed it were traitors. Sound familiar?

Fast forward to 2019 and the UK parliament now faces a similar choice: either take the European Union withdrawal agreement on offer, negotiated by Theresa May’s government, as a stepping stone towards more or, alternatively, reject its limited scope and refuse to accept it. Thankfully, unlike the British government in 1921, the EU has not taken the additional step of promoting acceptance of the agreement by posting gunboats off the coast.

So what lessons can the British parliament draw from the post-1921 Irish experience? First, while Éamon de Valera and the anti-treaty faction split the governing Sinn Féin party, rejected the treaty and boycotted the Free State parliament that resulted, they were later forced by the risk of political irrelevance to return and accept the terms of the only deal on the table, including the legitimacy of the Free State forum.

Civil war

Unfortunately, by the time de Valera returned to the parliament in 1926, the country had undergone a vicious civil war, when many talented people and several valuable years had been lost. With this in mind, the British parliament would do well to appreciate that an ugly deal is sometimes better than a beautiful no-deal.

Second, de Valera himself would reluctantly end up using the limited treaty concessions as a springboard towards a republic by continuously pushing the envelope on national autonomy when he finally led a national government in the 1930s and 1940s. In this endeavour he was helped by a British government distracted by events in Europe and other former British colonies seeking similar autonomy. The irony is that the very leader who led the fight against the treaty in 1921 eventually used the very same treaty to expand the autonomy of the Free State, culminating in the declaration of a republic, the goal of the 1916 generation, in 1949.

In terms of the withdrawal agreement, the British government would be wise to consider now what de Valera eventually had to accept: the merits of the best and only offer on the table, the acceptance of which did not define future relations with their neighbours. Defining those particular relations is for a future negotiation and a separate agreement. To paraphrase Sir Christopher Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill, the British government has to ask, “Do we want part of a reality or all of an illusion?”

Peter Moloney is a lecturer in the management and business department at Skidmore College, New York

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