A stream forms the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland on August 29, 2019 near Donegal. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Footnoting the Belfast Agreement’s invisible annex

Owen Polley reviews Breaking Peace: Brexit and Northern Ireland by Feargal Cochrane

Artillery Row Books

In the Supreme Court back in 2017, a serial litigant challenged the UK government’s right to trigger Article 50 and start Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, on the basis that it infringed the ‘principle of consent’ embedded in the Belfast Agreement.

The justices ruled that this provision, which determines that Northern Ireland’s status should not change, “save with the consent of a majority of its people,” gave voters in the province, “the right to determine whether to remain part of the UK or become part of a united Ireland. It neither regulated any other change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland nor required the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland to the withdrawal of the UK from the EU.”

Breaking Peace: Brexit and Northern Ireland by Feargal Cochrane (Manchester University Press, £20)

You’d think that this judgement from the highest court in the land might be mentioned, even once, in a book whose argument rests on the idea that Brexit makes the government “an opponent of some of (the agreement’s) key features” and infringes Northern Ireland’s right to ‘self-determination’. That expectation will intensify after the author congratulates the same ‘civic minded’ Supreme Court judges for agreeing with Gina Miller that Article 50 should not be triggered without a vote in parliament (a case they considered during the same sitting).

It’s not the only omission or misrepresentation in Breaking Peace, a provocatively titled book by University of Kent academic, Feargal Cochrane, that endorses every Irish nationalist cliché about the British/Irish border dispute and ignores or glides over every unionist counter-argument with insouciance. To be fair, though, the author absolves himself from any responsibility to be objective in the book’s introduction, on the grounds that academics should shape, “the data and research they publish.”

The idea that Brexit is incompatible with the Belfast Agreement is not new, even if the allegation that it is “an act of criminal disregard for peace in Ireland,” is a particularly shrill example of the way the text is distorted by ultra-remainers, Irish nationalists and the Dublin government. Their arguments usually rely upon interpreting the ‘context’ and ‘spirit’ of the document to nationalists’ liking, as well as implying the existence of hidden content. Like the SDLP politician Claire Hanna’s claim, quoted with tacit approval in this book, that the Belfast Agreement includes a “fourth unwritten … strand. The European dimension.” (The agreement actually assigned powers and responsibilities across three strands: internally within Northern Ireland, North-South on the island of Ireland, and East-West across the British Isles).

The more direct approach of citing the principle of consent has been used less because it tends to reinforce the moral argument that Ulster should be treated as a full part of the United Kingdom, which the Agreement of course affirmed, and with actual words, not implied ones. Among the constitutional clauses that form the meat of the agreement, its signatories acknowledge that, “the present wish of a majority of people in Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly, .. Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK reflects and relies upon that wish.”

If that commitment means anything at all, then the province’s voters have a right to take part in a national political decision like Brexit on the same basis as voters in the rest of the United Kingdom, and have its outcome respected and applied equally in Northern Ireland. Otherwise, they could fairly conclude that their constitutional decision to remain in the UK was being distorted so that it does not entitle them to a full role in its politics, and bestows on them a second class form of British citizenship.

Consistently, commentators like Cochrane prefer to focus on the Belfast Agreement’s hazy clauses about identity, rather than its concrete provisions on sovereignty, just as they like to confuse these two issues, which are actually quite separate. Brexit created a particular problem in Northern Ireland precisely because it exposed as baseless nationalists’ sales-pitch that the ‘peace process’ diluted Britain’s sovereignty in the province.

As soon as the EU referendum result was announced, it was clear that the re-emergence of the hard-edges of British power in Ulster would create the most fearful tantrum from nationalist Ireland. The greatest threat to the Belfast Agreement was always that the government would respond to this rage in its customary fashion, by making concessions to republicans, and granting some form of ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland that diminished its place in the UK and left it within important aspects of the European Union.

If Breaking Peace has a merit, it’s that it doesn’t try to disguise the clear lineage between Boris’s Withdrawal Agreement, Theresa May’s backstop and demands from nationalists, extreme remainers and Ulster liberals for some sort of ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland within the EU (and to hell with breaking the Agreement thereby – not that anyone will ask you about it, from that direction, anyway). The exact form of these arrangements changed, but the basics – single market and customs union rules applying to Northern Ireland, customs checks in the Irish Sea rather than infrastructure on the land border with the Republic, Brussels’ retaining its influence in NI – remained the same.

Cochrane’s book contains many sententious assumptions, unevidenced clichés and downright perversions of truth

It would be wrong to mention this virtue without some reference to the many sententious assumptions, unevidenced clichés and downright perversions of truth this book contains. The implication that the Irish border rather than separatist terrorism drove ‘violent political conflict’ in Northern Ireland. The casual and largely undiscussed rejection of the idea that the UK is a unitary nation state. The misrepresentation of UK citizenship law and the DeSouza case, either deliberately or through lack of knowledge, with repeated assertions that the Belfast Agreement created a “right of citizens in Northern Ireland to opt for Irish rather than British citizenship” (an interpretation demolished in another high profile legal judgement that Cochrane can hardly have failed to read).

Then there are the ‘laugh out loud’ moments. The description of RTE’s Tony Connolly, as tame and patriotic a journalist any government could ever have hoped for, as ‘the doyen of Brexit journalists.’ The dogged insistence that ‘Britain is not the UK’. (Er, for the vast majority of people, including consecutive governments, it is the UK. An established informal usage. You’re thinking of Great Britain, Feargal). The failure to consider that Irish politicians, or Irish journalists, might share the teeniest bit of responsibility for the degraded state of relationships between Dublin and London.

As a spectacular denouement, and you have to feel a little sorry for the author at this point, his whole rickety argument comes crashing down in the book’s epilogue. Throughout the text, he implies that Conservative prime ministers will accommodate the instincts of unionists, who want Northern Ireland to leave on the same terms as the rest of the UK, in an irresponsible and partial attempt to pander to the DUP. The province, he suggests, should instead have unique arrangements, along the lines nationalists demand, that prioritise a ‘seamless’ Irish border, otherwise the government is ‘breaking peace’.

Writing the epilogue during last year’s election campaign, but after Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement, he is forced to concede that the prime minister ultimately “cut unionists loose” by “allowing Northern Ireland to have different customs arrangements from the rest of the UK and accepting a border in the Irish Sea.” Pretty much then, what it seemed the author believed all along was the least damaging form of Brexit.

Rather than revisit the original thesis or moderate his conclusions, Cochrane doubles down. With a doggedness that you almost have to admire, he insists that rather than adding a question mark to Breaking Peace, as he intended while writing the book, he is now persuaded to present the allegation as a statement of fact.

Maybe he was motivated by disgust at the way the government used an apparent threat to Northern Ireland’s stuttering ‘peace process’ as an excuse to concede nationalist demands and effectively divide up the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, we will never know, because despite arriving at my door over seven eventful months later, still with the status of ‘advanced proof copy’, that is where Breaking Peace’s story ends.

For that reason, I’m forced to conclude that besides this book being wrong, it is now also completely redundant.

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