The Ireland Integration Issue Lies at the Heart of the Brexit Crisis
Bad behavior boomerangs
Day by day, in every way the Brexit saga has emerged as a curious and yet more curious joke. Of course, in the century since the Balfour declaration of 1918, Britain has left behind throughout the world numerous outcomes of its record of adventures of its behavior in associating with other countries intimately. Britain has been dynamic in visiting far-off geographies and then asserting its ‘supposed’ superiority. Whether India in the 17th century or Europe in the 20th century, Britain has been the first to seek to establish a relationship based on presence and being. Having inevitably found such relationships to be fraught with severe tensions, Britain has then departed from these relationships, leaving behind a terminally-obnoxious ill will.
Bad behavior boomerangs. In 2016, Britain had delivered a fatal coup-de-grace to itself, with the Brexit decision to leave the EU. In a world that has become integrated and consolidated, for a variety of reasons, Britain has chosen a strategy of departure, differentiation and fragmentation. Such a strategy of fragmentation was also adopted, for example, when Britain’s position in India became completely untenable, and she had to depart from the sub-continent in a hurry. Given numerous instances of British political departures, it is salutary to assess contingencies so as to prognosticate how Brexit might pan out.
The Nature of Brexit: Brexit has been cloaked as a way to take back control of affairs of the British State from the grasping hand of a European bureaucracy and polity. In reality, Brexit has been an unbridled cry of impotent racial rage, against an overwhelming and permanent loss of a superior ethnic position of those of Anglo-Saxon descent in the United Kingdom, against immigrants from all over the world.
In the past three generations, the United Kingdom has become a multi-racial society, where most of the economic value addition comes from foreigners, and Brexit at its heart has been a visceral statement of abject hatred against foreigners who have dared usurped Anglo-Saxon vantage positions and privileges.
In particular, since the expansion of the European Union in the last generation, hundreds of thousands of Central, East and West Europeans have made Britain their home. Their very presence on British soil, even if all of the individuals have been utterly inoffensive, and simultaneously productive, has stoked up virulent and visceral resentments.
In the phenomena of resentment, there have been several non-Anglo-Saxon ethnic groups, long settled in the United Kingdom, who have become honorary Anglo-Saxons and supported the Brexit cause. But, the primary Brexit supporters have been the Little Englanders, in the main, and the regions supporting this break-away have been principally those of an Anglo-Saxon ethnicity.
Brexit and Political Geography: But, let us keep in mind, that the Brexit process involves an alternation of the political geography of governance. By withdrawing from Europe, Britain will exit a large trans-continental grouping of countries and alter its immigration-related and ecommerce-related borders, so that other alternative institutional frameworks apply to the governance of people movement, goods movement and services movement transactions.
Nevertheless, along with the governance of transactions, there lies at the heart of governance conundrums questions as to the structures of political geography and of population composition. It is issues related to the political geography and demography structure that I want to address in this article.
First, there is no doubt at all that Britain was a colonist, engaged in the governance of several overseas territories, either as long-term visitors or settlers, as a part of the British Empire. In fact, among a chunk of Brexit supporters, especially of the geriatric and elderly variety, it is this nostalgic harking back to the days of Empire that have sustained their willingness to sever ties with Europe.
The emergence of Empire was driven, initially no doubt, by a spirit of adventure and entrepreneurship, but anchored on a culture of violent aggression and pillage that was uniquely Anglo-Saxon in nature. The term ‘perfidious Albion’ is still in common use today to describe Anglo-Saxon behavior. The parts of the world where Anglo-Saxon perfidy were felt have been America (later the United States), India, Cyprus, Malaysia, Palestine and, most important of all for the argument of this article, Ireland.
A Little Bit about India: Take India, though, first. From 1608, when the first trader landed on India’s shores till 1757, a series of commercial relationships defined the process of interactions between the English and Indians in India. Then, the political geography of India, from 1757 to 1947, was structured around a governance process first involving the East India Company and then the British Crown. After 1947, the rest is history. India attained independence and now is a global economic powerhouse. But, she is not the subject of this op-ed piece. Similar political geography structures were in place in all the other locations which the English have once colonized or have attempted to colonize.
The Ireland Story: Let us get back to Ireland. In terms of contemporary political geography, the entity that is the United Kingdom is really Great Britain and Northern Ireland, consisting of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. These are the four components of the United Kingdom. Contiguously, while England, Wales and Scotland comprise Great Britain, (or Greater Brittany), and is a large island in the Atlantic, Northern Ireland is contiguous to the Republic of Ireland.
So, why is Northern Ireland, which is a part of the island of Eire (as Ireland is known in its own language), part of the United Kingdom? Over the last several hundred years, settlement of people from across the water, from the Anglo-Saxons parts of southern Scotland and northern England, created an entity of Anglo-Saxon Protestants called Ulstermen, who refused to integrate with the majority population of Ireland that were of Celtic origin and Catholic religion.
England invaded and conquered Ireland, and brought her under English rule. Alas, ethnic conflicts, based on Anglo-Saxon versus Celtic divergence of feelings and views, and sectarian conflicts, based on Protestant versus Catholic divergence of feelings and view, have remained endemic and at the heart of the Irish question for centuries.
Officially, Ireland became a part of the United Kingdom in 1801, and after major conflict Ireland achieved independence, or Home Rule, in 1921, after which the island of Ireland was divided, in a classic application of the divide-and-rule strategy that Anglo-Saxons have used all over the world (the three major cases are India and Pakistan; Palestine; and Ireland and Northern Ireland) into Ireland, which became a free nation, and Northern Ireland. Thus, Northern Ireland became a majority Anglo-Saxon and Protestant entity, albeit with a sizeable Celtic and Catholic minority, and Ireland became a Celtic and Catholic country.
Since 1921, Northern Ireland has been a part of the United Kingdom, and from 1921 to 1972 it had an Anglo-Saxon and Protestantism-based popular local government. From 1972 to 1999, Northern Ireland was administered directly from London, in much the same manner as a Union Territory would be in India, and from 1999, after the Good Friday Agreement, till 2017 there was again a power-sharing deal-based popular government. That administration collapsed, again based on ethnic and sectarian reasons, and there has been direct central administration.
Brexit, Ireland and Northern Ireland: Why does Irish history matter for Brexit? First, Ireland is a member of the European Union, and will remain so. Second, the whole aim of the Good Friday Agreement was to, eventually, secure the unification of Ireland. Hence, there can be no border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, since the aims of both the European Union project, as a whole, and the Good Friday Agreement, have been full national integration. Economically. Socially. Politically.
Presently, both the United Kingdom and Ireland are EU members and there are no borders between Ireland and Northern Ireland. For all practical purposes, the island is one fully-integrated economic entity. Were there to be Brexit-based border controls, these would also apply between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and again create an Irish partition crisis, based on an approach of differentiation. This calamity would completely undo the Good Friday Agreement, which was the culmination of efforts to bring peace to Ireland after 78 years of sectarian and ethnic violence, and unleash a human catastrophe, as have been unleashed in the Middle East or the Balkans.
The scope of civil troubles would be immense, and all over again would create major security problems in the entire island of Ireland and also in Great Britain. History would repeat itself; but this time all of the European Union countries would be on the side of Ireland, and the Irish unification cause. In a bigger picture context, Brexit with border controls would lead to a major European war; and all this because of the intransigence, aggression and egregiousness of a group of Anglo-Saxons who would not want to integrate within a free, just and secular society.
Irish Demography: In the meantime, the dynamics of demography do matter in a material way. Northern Ireland is now not an entirely Anglo-Saxon and Protestant entity of Ulster-people. The Catholic and Celtic minority people in Northern Ireland may just about be still a minority, but because of the peculiar evolution of human breeding patterns, in unique and idiosyncratic ways among different communities, they will soon turn into the majority Northern Ireland population group.
This process, of the reversal of the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant majority position into a minority position, can happen in less than a decade. Perhaps less. What is more important, though, is the change in the composition of the voting population. The reversal of electoral position will be very much faster. With the older Anglo-Saxons and Protestants dying, and thus leaving the voting pool every year, their annual replacements in the voting pool will be overwhelmingly the eighteen year old youths that are predominantly Catholic and Celtic.
Hence, because of basic demographic and electoral shifts, politically Northern Ireland will no longer remain Anglo-Saxon and Protestant but become a Catholic and Celtic entity very fast. In such circumstances, the Irish unification project will come to fruition sooner rather than later. Since pressures for a referendum on Irish unity are always near the surface, the agitations for a national unification referendum can commence very rapidly.
It is most likely that Northern Ireland may choose to unite with Ireland, for that island to become whole once again, as it was till 1921. Suppose that happens by 2021, it will be just a century after partition, and highlight that divisive strategies of political geography cannot persist for more than a few generations, since humanity is one big people conglomeration that inherently seeks integration.
What Now for Brexit? It is important for Britain to realize that she holds no cards at all, in this game of poker that she believes she is playing. Also, right now the governance of Britain is in the hands of delinquents, let out into the SW1 postal district of London on a Borstal day-release program, who are playing games at political administration. The negotiations for Brexit are down to the wire in London and Brussels. What matters is thoughtfulness, professionalism and a sense of long-term strategy. Not an attitude that it is all one big jape.
Should be there be no Brexit deal, and Great Britain leaves to simply assume a third-country status, there will be a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, sectarian and ethnic violence will most likely commence, and eventually Irish unification will occur after a series of bloody encounters. What remains as Great Britain will be a diminished and desiccated island of no consequence.
Should be there be a Brexit deal, and Great Britain leaves but instead of assuming a third-country status leaves the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland open, sectarian and ethnic violence will not re-surface, and eventually Irish unification will occur peacefully. What remains as Great Britain will be diminished but not as desiccated an entity it might have been. Ireland will become a large and rich country anyway, and a fully-paid up constituent of the European Union. She will belong to an extremely rich economic grouping, and continue to attract investments.
Should be there be no Brexit at all, and Great Britain simply withdraws its notice to leave the EU, realizing what an awful mistake it had made in the first place, eventually Irish unification will occur peacefully. What remains as Great Britain will neither be diminished nor desiccated. Ireland will become a large country anyway, and a fully-paid up constituent of the European Union. Great Britain may not remain in its present political geography conurbation, but it will still be a part of one of the richest conurbations of countries on earth and not reviled as an international pariah, as she is today.
Thus, it seems at the heart of Britain's existential Brexit crisis is the Irish question once again, and only serious and somber statesmanship, and not juvenile one-upmanship, can generate a solution.
Sumit K. Majumdar is Professor of Technology Strategy, University of Texas at Dallas