Archive for the 'Northern Ireland' Category


Can the UK trade under WTO rules and avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland: the WTO Security Exception

Saturday, December 1st, 2018

Of all the issues covered by the 600-odd page Withdrawal Agreement, it is hondootedly Article 6:  “Until the future relationship becomes applicable, a single customs territory between the Union and the United Kingdom shall be established”, or “the backstop”, that causes the greatest angst; critics say it ties the UK into EU customs alignment with no unilateral means of exit and want Theresa May to junk it. Designed to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland, without the backstop, there is no Withdrawal Agreement or transition period and we crash out next March, likely on WTO terms.

Although the subject of some debate, let’s assume, together with Theresa May’s government, the EU, the RoI, and many people in Ulster, that a hard border in Northern Ireland would be a very bad idea. Can the UK, therefore, crash out “on WTO terms” and avoid one?

Many people, Anna Soubry for example, have said that trading on WTO terms would, ipso facto, require a hard border in Northern Ireland. But this is not the case. The WTO does not require its Member States to secure their borders, or do much at all, apart from follow WTO rules. “Black helicopters of the WTO will not descend”, as the WTO itself puts it, to enforce a border. So how could trading on WTO terms result in a border if the WTO won’t enforce one?

One of those WTO rules concerns non-discrimination, whereby under “most favoured nation” (MFN) principles, all trading partners must be treated equally. Suppose that the UK decided not to put up a border in Northern Ireland and let Irish Republic widgets in unchecked. Meanwhile, widgets arriving in the UK from the United States are subject to controls.

The United States could bring a dispute to the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) citing an MFN violation and claiming that the UK wasn’t treating it fairly. The DSB’s judgement might then agree with the United States (and nearly 90% of the time it has sided with the complainant) that the UK wasn’t treating its trading partners fairly and it could then force the UK either to let United States widgets in unchecked, or to put up border controls at the Irish Border, further reading here.

More recently, the suggestion has emerged that within the WTO rules there is a way to avoid the need to put up hard borders in any scenario. Article 21 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the Security Exception, says that nothing in the GATT agreement should prevent “any contracting party from taking any action which it considers necessary for the protection of its essential security interests”.

It has been argued that to safeguard peace in Northern Ireland the UK could “self-judge” the issue to be one of national security, invoke Article 21, and thereby not put up a border.

Although at face value this seems attractive, further examination of Article 21 makes it clear that it is designed to protect States in times of war or potential conflict and refers to a very narrow set of circumstances. States are exempt from free trade principles in matters where fissionable materials, arms, ammunition and implements of war are involved, or in times of war.

In fact, one of the rare usages of the Security Exception was during the Falklands war when the EU (EC as was) in support of the United Kingdom instituted a trade embargo against Argentina, claiming they were justified in so doing given the security interests involved and, when Argentina went to GATT dispute, they were rebuffed. Another example was in 1975 when Sweden banned imports of footwear because they believed the effect on domestic production of imports was affecting their ability to produce boots for their armed forces.

What is clear here is that the Security Exception has been used in times of national emergency, or perceived national emergency, to institute not take down trading barriers. Analogously to Nick Boles’ mooted use of the “emergency brake” on immigration, were the UK to join the EEA, those who advocate use of the Security Exception to prevent a border in Northern Ireland are torturing the legislation as it is written to fit their needs.

This is not to say that the WTO couldn’t construct a different exemption which might obviate the need for a hard border in Northern Ireland, but the Security Exception ain’t it. Theresa May has grasped the fact that anything other than the Backstop leaves the door open to a possible route to a hard border in Northern Ireland, and that is why her deal remains the only option available to MPs, come the meaningful vote.


(Topping is a long-standing PB & ex-Army officer)


The DUP would be taking a big gamble defying Northern Ireland’s farmers on Brexit

Saturday, November 17th, 2018

The assumption that the DUP will automatically oppose TMay’s Brexit deal might not be the case as pressure is building up amongst the Province’s farmers many of whom support the party.

The Observer is reporting that the powerful Northern Ireland Farmer’s Union has told Arlene Foster’s party that its 10 Westminster MPs should vote for the deal. The report goes on:

“The DUP has threatened to pull the plug on May and vote against the withdrawal agreement on the grounds it would create a “vassal state” and break up the UK.

But the UFU chief executive, Wesley Aston, told BBC Radio Ulster: “We want to make sure we avoid a no-deal situation. No deal for Northern Ireland agri-food and farming in particular would be absolutely disastrous and we have made that patently clear over this last while.”

His comments follow those from the UFU’s Ivor Ferguson that the “sheep industry would be finished” if there was no deal.”

This basically totally undermines the DUP rhetoric and will make it much harder for it to pursue their stated course.

My guess is that we’ll see a lot of pressure like this from all sorts of bodies throughout the UK if the threat of a no deal gathers real momentum.

Mike Smithson


A Nation once again? – Part 3 lessons from abroad

Monday, October 22nd, 2018

In the final of three articles Alanbrooke looks at Irish affairs

There are numerous examples of states being put together in modern times.  The closest and probably most studied is Germany. It is almost at 30 years since the wall came down so there is quite a period to look at. The situation is also not that dissimilar to Ireland  – a larger more prosperous neighbour takes over its sizeable but smaller struggling neighbour.  How has Germany fared?

Unity is claimed  to have cost Germany something in the region of € 2 trillion. Much of that was spent on upgrading eastern infrastructure but a not insignificant amount was needed to pay for unemployment subsidies and social welfare as the economy adjusted. It’s hard not to see Northern Ireland needing a comparable level of support. 

Overall unity has been a success for Germany, though the benefits have flowed largely to the west rather than the east. The east despite heavy investment has seen its towns empty, its young people move west and a consequent drop in population. While unity has worked for Germany arguably this is less so for the east.

This divergence is showing up in the German political arena. The east now votes very differently to the west and backs more extreme parties in the AfD and Die Linke who currently account for nearly 50% of votes in the former DDR.

In an Irish context Ulster already starts from voting for extremes and if Germany is a pattern the extremes are more likely to consolidate their support.  Ireland as a whole would need to learn to live with views, and eventually governments , people in South Dublin would find abhorrent. 

Indeed one of the constants for countries stitched  together is they carry their scars. The USA is still digesting the legacy of the confederacy, Italy its North and South and the Irish Republic itself lives with politics from 1921.

The German model shows us  unity is expensive, you have to live with scars which will change the politics of country and while it can be successful it may not be successful for everyone. Behind the early optimism came a period when reality sunk in. 

The problems were more entrenched than people thought,  all those new voters had been sold a dream, and 50 years of living apart meant big gaps in a shared history. Germans overall think unity has been a good thing, but they are not without reservations on how it has played out.

Ultimately for  the RoI unity will be a heart  versus mind  matter.  Unfortunately for now while the heart is pulling the strings the mind appears to be sitting this round out. Varadkar and Coveney have been disasters for Irish relations with the British communities.

The hard work of Mary MacAleese and Enda Kenny to normalise relations with the UK has been put in to reverse gear. I struggle to see how winding up unionists you hope will be a sixth of your electorate makes much sense. Equally there has been little preparation of the Southern electorate for what they are being asked to take on economically, culturally or politically and the impact that will have on their daily life. 

It’s too early to say if Unity would work for Ireland, but  one thing is certain without adequate preparation it is a major risk for an otherwise comfortable, prosperous state. If the optimists are right they can learn from Germany and make it a success – but even Germany accepts it still has major problems. 

If the optimists are wrong the  model won’t be Germany but Italy where 150 years after the euphoria  of unification the prosperous regions wonder why the ever took on their curious countrymen in the Mezzogiorno with its alien customs, violence and shifty politicians.  Belfast, twinned with Leipzig  or Palermo ?


Alanbrooke is a longstanding poster on PB as well as a Northern Irishman.


A Nation once again?  Part 2 – Culture and politics

Sunday, October 21st, 2018

In the second of three articles Alanbrooke looks at Irish affairs

In the previous article I looked at economics which is quite a hurdle. This article looks at the longer term issue of the impact of putting two sets of people  together. In Ulster the past always lies ahead of us,  so somewhere along the line somebody needs to be squaring circles. The North, trapped in its history and with a victim mentality, somehow needs to fit in to a fast modernising, liberal state which increasingly wants to leave the past behind.

A culture shock is unavoidable – in both directions

The North and South of Ireland are different in approach . Ulster culture is more like lowland scots irrespective of which religion. Ulster people are brusque, to the point and obstinate (with apologies to readers in Ayrshire). 

A northerner can make asking for a cup of tea sound like a threat without realising it. Unsurprisingly the Nordies often grate with their neighbours much like say the Scots with the English and that’s before we get to the historical baggage.

For unionists it’s the ongoing suspicion of nationalist intent. In the Irish Republic the protestant population has crashed by 60% and dwindled from 10% of the population at independence to 4 % now. A civil war and De Valera’s ardently catholic and Gaelic policies didn’t help improve the unionist view. The RoI’s record on its minority doesn’t look great from up North and as they say just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

For nationalists there lurks a recurrent niggle that the Republic abandoned them, that the South did live up to the ideals of 1916. Likewise there is a recognition that some aspects of the UK are superior to RoI, the NHS being top of  the list and that would be unlikely to survive in its current format.

For both communities there lurks the prospect of perceived second class citizenship. Once the dust has died down how does the North come to terms with no longer running (or not) its own affairs? How will  Belfast fare against the all-pervading presence of Dublin a city which has a bigger impact on its hinterland than London does to the UK or Paris to France? And then of course there are the day to day issues of parades, flags, the annually scheduled riots the whole headbanging  nonsense.

The Republic is not going to be too worried about Northern sensitivities, they’re too busy making money. There is already a degree of healthy scepticism about the North and that may just get bigger. Southerners look at the North and can’t understand why they don’t want to get richer. 

If you want some fun type “protestant work ethic” in to an Irish blog, you’ll think you’re in a Surrey golf club. The British government’s overindulgence of NI petulance will disappear and I don’t think any community in the North is ready for this, nor the Irish for the political pushback.

Politics will change  drastically

The politics of a New Ireland would be fundamentally different from the old.  For a start off the electorate has just grown by 40% and they are an awkward lot. The Irish STV system encourages communities to vote as blocks for maximum representation. So it’s fairly likely the unionists will all end up voting for a single party which would have about 15% of the seats.

The injection of Northern votes will also propel  Sinn Fein past Fianna Fail, at which point the old civil war party divisions look even more irrelevant. What is the point to two conservative pro-business parties when the opposition are now left wing populists?

How the electoral arithmetic will work out is hard to say, but it’s likely that at some point in the future either Sinn Fein could be the government or the successors to the DUP could hold the balance of power. At this point the North will take its pound of flesh.

Politically the Republic will be in for a shock to the system.  How this will play out is anyone’s guess.  In an ideal world all would get on together and start making themselves better off. But they should be doing that today and they’re not.  Suffice to note the British population in Ulster who are about 2% of the UK have been a perennial thorn in the side to the British government.

The Republic will be taking on a 40% thorn and this will change the nature of the state materially. Unity will put together two peoples who have big holes in their common history and in some cases have diametrically opposed views. The Republic inevitably will become a bit more like the North with all its consequences.

I often say the NI conflict is the Scots versus the Irish but they’ve both agreed to blame the English. Maybe in the distant future a British PM and a Taoiseach will be sitting in a bar somewhere consoling each other on how hard it is to handle their Scots.


Alanbrooke is a longstanding poster on PB as well as a Northern Irishman.


A Nation once again ? – Part 1  The economics

Sunday, October 21st, 2018

In the first of three articles Alanbrooke looks at Irish affairs

The fallout from the Brexit vote has led to  more interest in the future of Northern Ireland than is usual. In particular the issue of a one state Ireland has bubbled back to the top of the political discussion with, as ever, strong views on either side

The modern Irish state is not the Ireland of old; it is a successful, self-confident country which has worked its way to overtake its European peers in the prosperity league – its larger neighbour included.  Likewise within Northern Ireland demographic shifts should set the scene for a unity vote, all seems lined up to removing the border. This article doesn’t seek to debate the pros and cons but rather to look at what are the practical issues facing a United Ireland. 

Northern Ireland is an economic basket case.

This is hardly a shock.  It has been the case since local industry was destroyed in the 1970s campaign of violence and investors scared off.  The net result has been the UK government has stepped in to fill the economic void both by transferring jobs to Ulster and outright subsidy. This support amounts to almost 30% of NI income. That’s huge. To put this in context the UK has squealed at projections that Brexit will cost 6% of GDP over 15 years.  Ireland faces an actual 5 times that and  overnight , unless there is an agreement on how to pick up the tab. 

Suggestions on how this gap should be dealt have ranged from – the UK should continue to  pay all the subsidies, The EU should pay the subsidies, Ireland will grow its way out of it. While these are all brave suggestions, personally I can’t see them working. Likewise I fail to see NI citizens accepting a one third drop in their income that willingly. Of all the things in the in tray this is the biggest.

The Republic’s economy is not strong enough

The Celtic Tiger has returned with growth rates of over 8% being clocked this year.  The Irish formula is based on attracting overseas investment in pharmaceuticals, IT, financial services and tax sheltering; these in turn drive the construction sector.

The headlines hide an underlying weakness.  Most of the wealth driving activities are dependent on foreign – usually US – corporations.  US corporations make up 14 of Ireland’s top 20 companies by turnover,  pay 80% of business taxes and create most of the country’s value added. These are not Irish businesses.  By itself hosting footloose multinationals can be a challenge but add in a grumpy “bring our jobs home” POTUS who is dishing out corporate tax breaks and the challenge goes up a notch. Move any of the core sectors from Ireland and the country faces a fiscal shock. As the song goes, nothing good going to ever last forever.

For all the progress the Republic’s economy is just not big enough or wide enough to absorb the shock of taking on Northern Ireland at one go. The UK with 64 million people grumbles about the £10bn cost of 1.9 million people across the Irish Sea. The Republic with 4.7 million people could well be staring at a wealth endangering black hole requiring something like a 11% hit to its voters wealth.  And don’t forget  after 50 years of handouts no-one in the North does gratitude, we do “rights”.

Short term the numbers are a big headache. The Republic hasn’t got the ability to comfortably take on the North without some major assistance.  The EU might help but budget rules would have to be relaxed to an eyebrow raising degree. The US under Trump I can’t see doing much he’ll want his taxes back from Ireland not the other way around. Voters either side of the border  won’t want to pay tax rises. The UK no doubt would pay its legacy bills but why should it pay  more it will be on for a dividend? So if you see a bus with £10 billion for the NHS painted on the sides its driver is John McDonnell.


Alanbrooke is a longstanding poster on PB as well as a Northern Irishman.


The DUP are not as supportive of Brexit or as united as it might appear

Wednesday, October 17th, 2018

There’s a widespread assumption that the party that supports TMay’s minority government, the DUP with its 10 MPs, is rock solid in its view on Brexit and there’s no wiggle room.

That perception is certainly a good bargaining chip for its relations with London but is this view correct? Could it be less united and less supportive of Brexit as might appear.

Last night the person I go to on Northern Ireland politics who has proved to be solidly reliable in the past raised a lot of doubts in my mind enough for me to go on record here repeating them.

The DUP’s overwhelming objective is to maintain the union amd there’s a growing realisation that Brexit itself presents massive challenges and that the party’s support for Leave in the 2016 referendum might have been the wrong call. In fact it is being said in some quarters that not all their Westminster MPs voted for Leave.

Anything that threatens the union with the rest of the UK is a huge worry and, as we’ve seen, Brexit is problematical.

The general approach of the DUP is to use its current critical role in providing TMay with the Commons numbers she needs to maximise the benefit to the Province. This is all about leverage and the party will look for every opportunity to use it.

Ultimately keeping the Union together is a bigger priority to the DUP than the UK leaving the EU.

Mike Smithson


Victorious sponge. When competing freedoms clashed in a bakery

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018

George Bernard Shaw is one of those writers, like Spenser, Milton and Dr Johnson, who is now much less read than known.  Nowadays all that most people know of him is My Fair Lady (ironically, he refused permission in his lifetime to allow Pygmalion to be adapted into a musical) and the odd quotation.  One of those quotations came to mind this morning: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” 

Most people, if someone asked them to make something with a message that they disapproved of on moral grounds, would inwardly sigh and do it if it was within the bounds of normal public debate.  Most people, if they asked for something to be made with a message and met with a refusal on the ground that they were opposed to that message, would inwardly sigh and simply go elsewhere.

This morning we had the Supreme Court decision in Lee v Asher’s Baking Company, a case that came about only because of one unreasonable company and one unreasonable man.  Mr Lee wanted a cake iced with a picture of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street and the message “Support Gay Marriage”.  The Baptist owners of the bakery after anxious consideration decided that they could not produce such an immoral consumable good.  Battle lines were drawn and a legal showdown has ensued.

There is to be no doubting the sincerity on either side.  Mr Lee was a stalwart of an organisation called QueerSpace.  Asher’s is named after a Biblical reference (“Bread from Asher shall be rich, and he shall provide royal dainties” – Genesis 49:20).  We see a very 21st century Northern Irish collision of values.

Neither side was prepared to back down, so in what must be a legal first on this side of the Atlantic, the Supreme Court has been asked to set legal boundaries for freedom of conscience in relation to marzipan, fondant and cochineal.  Like Asher’s cakes, the Supreme Court have risen to the challenge, opining on the use of ganache with panache.

The jokes write themselves but there is an important point (which is why the Supreme Court took the case – it only takes cases of national significance).  Both religious freedom and sexuality are protected characteristics.  What happens when they collide?

In the end, the Supreme Court sidestepped the problem.  It found (questionably, given the findings of the court of first instance, which had found that the bakery had assumed that Mr Lee was gay) that the bakery had not treated him differently because he was gay.  So the question was whether this was discrimination by association.

It firmly concluded that it was not.  Its rationale is most clearly expressed in the postscript, where the Supreme Court discussed its US namesake’s finding in a case where a bakery had refused to supply a wedding cake for a gay couple:

“The important message from the Masterpiece Bakery case is that there is a clear distinction between refusing to produce a cake conveying a particular message, for any customer who wants such a cake, and refusing to produce a cake for the particular customer who wants it because of that customer’s characteristics. One can debate which side of the line particular factual scenarios fall. But in our case there can be no doubt. The bakery would have refused to supply this particular cake to anyone, whatever their personal characteristics. So there was no discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.”

So the matter is now acte éclair.  Freedom of speech does not entitle one to demand a platform, even if that platform is made of cream and sugar rather than printing ink.  And that, for the devout Baptists of Northern Ireland, must be the icing on the cake.

Alastair Meeks


Why a united Ireland post Brexit is a real possibility

Monday, September 10th, 2018

Tory indifference towards the Union and opposition to Brexit in Northern Ireland makes a united Ireland a real possibility writes Keiran Pedley

I cannot have been the only person that was astonished at Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley’s recent admission that she knew nothing of the place before taking office. I am probably being naïve, but you would have thought that someone appointed to such an important role would at least possess a passing knowledge of its history and the political skill required for such a position. Some have commended Bradley’s honesty. Yet her appointment reflects an arrogance about Ireland that seems to permeate the Conservative Party in 2018. Aptly displayed by Boris Johnson’s constant bemoaning of the importance of the Irish border question in Brexit negotiations.

Perhaps it is not arrogance but indifference. Indeed, we see such indifference among the British public in general. On the question of Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, polling by Lord Ashcroft in June showed that voters accept the future of Northern Ireland is for the people there to decide and they do not mind which path they choose. This is hardly controversial. Perhaps more striking, however, is that when forced to choose themselves, 63% of Brits felt Brexit was more important than keeping the union together – a figure rising to 73% among Conservative voters. It would appear that when considering Britain’s post Brexit future, Northern Ireland barely features in the minds of many (English) voters.

Brexit and the Irish unity question

Such indifference comes at a sensitive time. Polling published by Deltapoll last week suggests that Brexit has the potential to shift views in Northern Ireland on the question of Irish unity. When presented with two scenarios, one where Britain remains in the EU and one where Britain leaves, public opinion in Northern Ireland shifts sharply in favour of a united Ireland once Britain leaves the EU. Those traditionally neutral on the constitutional question, primarily non-voters and Alliance voters, move from supporting the Union to supporting Irish reunification. Meanwhile, support for a united Ireland in the nationalist community significantly hardens post Brexit and it even grows among some unionists too.

Table 1: Attitudes to Irish unity in Northern Ireland

Source: Deltapoll. Deltapoll interviewed an online sample of 1,199 adults aged 18+ between 24-28th August 2018. Full tables here. Data in parenthesis unweighted n sizes. Data weighted to represent population of Northern Ireland by age, gender, social class, region and recalled 2017 / 2016 vote. Figures may not add to 100% due to rounding.

As we digest these numbers, a word of caution. For reasons outlined in this week’s Polling Matters podcast, care is needed interpreting these figures. Sampling a representative population in Northern Ireland is difficult. This poll significantly weights raw data that skews male and Remain and undersamples younger people and non-voters (as online polls often do). The sample surveyed is likely to be very politically engaged, which has created problems for polling in the past and raises questions about the scale of the Brexit related shift in the headline figures.

More importantly, it is fair to say that Brexit would not be the only consideration for voters in the event of a real border poll. The future of the peace process and what a united Ireland would look like in practice would play a significant role too (as would other factors). So although this poll clearly shows that Brexit shifts opinion on a united Ireland in Northern Ireland, the scale of that shift and how a border poll plays out in practice is unclear.

Nevertheless, such unpredictability offers little comfort to unionists. The data cited above is not in isolation. Research by Lucid Talk for the BBC earlier this year showed a similar trend, with more than one in four in Northern Ireland claiming that they would at least consider abandoning support for the Union in favour of a united Ireland post Brexit. 

Therefore, whilst we cannot say for certain that Brexit will lead to a united Ireland, we can at the very least say that Brexit has the potential to shift opinion on the subject in a way that is virtually unimaginable under any other circumstances. This is before we introduce the potential of a ‘hard border’ with the Republic, which increases support for a united Ireland further still in Deltapoll’s data to some 56%.

Time to take a united Ireland seriously

This all makes you wonder how seriously unionism in Northern Ireland takes its current situation and the prospect of a united Ireland. The answer to that question ought to be ‘very’ and in fairness most probably is. In many respects, the DUP’s support for Brexit seems odd considering the Conservative Party’s apparent luke-warm commitment to Northern Ireland, alongside the fact that Northern Ireland voted Remain and appears somewhat warm to the idea of a united Ireland in the EU post Brexit. Of course, the DUP does not have to take its current situation lying down. One wonders, as Brexit negotiations reach a crucial phase this autumn, if the DUP is about to start flexing its political muscles as it continues to prop up May’s increasingly fragile government. 

In any case, it is time to take the prospect of a border poll and a united Ireland seriously. It may not happen overnight, but it is a realistic prospect in the medium term in a world where the Tories increasingly prioritise Brexit over the Union and Jeremy Corbyn edges closer to Number 10. Serious thought must now be given to what this all looks like in practice in the context of a fragile peace process and no functioning Assembly in Stormont. Talk of Labour splits and a Johnson challenge to May have made Northern Ireland something of an afterthought in Westminster circles this summer. One way or another I suspect all that is about to change. The Tory direction of travel on Brexit appears to be moving away from the most accommodating for Northern Ireland’s position in the UK – and that may spell trouble ahead.

Keiran Pedley

Keiran Pedley presents the weekly PB / Polling Matters podcast (link here) and tweets about polling and politics at @keiranpedley. You can listen to the most recent episode below.