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Hands Across the Divide, Derry

Hands Across the Divide, Derry. Photo: diego_cue / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0, licence linked at bottom of article

Don’t be fooled by outrage over the latest Brexit proposals from the Tories. International law hasn’t stopped them in the past, argue Reuben Bard-Rosenberg and Martin Hall

An Indian Nationalist once said that the British think anything is legitimate, as long as it is written on a piece of paper.

With this in mind, it is difficult to become overly excited about the legality or otherwise of Britain's latest attempt to exert its will over the North of Ireland.

As it happens, the original occupation of Ireland in 1169 was highly proper under international law. At the time, Pope Adrian occupied a position that was similar to the contemporary European Commission.

He was generally acknowledged to possess a higher-level sovereignty over the whole of Europe than that enjoyed by national monarchs, and he gave England's Norman King the go-ahead to invade Ireland in order that the people there could be rescued from their heathen ways.

In more recent times, Britain has used a mixture of legal and extra-legal methods to control its colony, itself set up by the carving up of the island of Ireland in 1921 via a line drawn right through the ancient province of Ulster in order to create a majority Protestant and Unionist statelet. Legal backing was given by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920.

During the Troubles, the internment of civilians without charge was legally sanctioned but hardly in keeping with the hallowed Magna Carta. Meanwhile, during the state-aided pogroms of the late ‘60s and the army massacres of the ‘70s, the law was replaced by the petrol bomb and the machine-gun.

So why then does it matter that Britain is "breaching international law" in moving forward legislation that would prevent customs checks on goods travelling from Belfast to Britain?

Partly it illustrates the extent to which Johnson's Brexit policy amounts to a series of short-term tactical manoeuvres designed to unite his party, win the 2019 General Election, and in the process destroy the threat from the left represented by Corbynism.

After all, this is the treaty that he himself engineered less than a year ago in order that he could go into the election on a ticket of getting Brexit done.

In reality, that treaty mostly served to kick the can down the road. After three years of debate, the question of what happens to the six counties remains as intractable as ever. Hence the Internal Market Bill.

The Tories have stood on getting Brexit done. They are the party of the Union. That cannot be resolved via a deal with the EU. Hence the grandstanding and threats.

Even the DUP appear to want a sort of Schrödinger's Northern Ireland - one that is outside the Single Market, but which also maintains an open order with Britain, and an open border with the Republic of Ireland.

This reflects a tension between the Tories and the DUP's ideological position - that the six counties are an integral part of the United Kingdom - and the reality that the six counties are so heavily connected with the rest of Ireland, and its boundaries so arbitrarily designated, that a hard border would be a disaster for all concerned.

There is no way out of this for Unionists: it’s either a hard border on the island of Ireland or one in the Irish Sea.

This mess does, however, present an opportunity in that it really does place the question of who governs the North back on the table.

Over the past few years, the position taken by Britain's liberal centre is that Britain should remain in the Single Market in order to protect the Good Friday Agreement.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was a huge step on the road towards peace and reconciliation in the North. It ended the IRA’s armed struggle, addressed issues pertaining to civil rights, weapons decommissioning and policing, and was the basis for the devolved system of government in Northern Ireland, among other things.

We are not talking it down, but in truth, when put forward by Remainers in Britain in the context of Brexit, it is an argument against self-determination in Britain and Ireland. This is also the position favoured by Brussels.

It is an assertion that the economic policies of both Britain and Ireland must be permanently aligned by an external force - the EU - in order that the North's special status can be maintained.

Leave or Remain, the return of ‘the Irish Question’ offers an opportunity to kick the British ruling class in the teeth. British politics has been focussed on and subsumed within the Brexit debate for over 4 years now. Should this be exacerbated by the British establishment’s obsession with holding on to one of its remaining outposts of empire?

Moreover, support for Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom is no longer something held dear by any sort of majority in Britain. Loyalism is a position of ever-diminishing returns this side of the Irish Sea. Support can be built.

Time for a referendum on the British border in Ireland.

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