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American elites, broadly speaking, have never been all that interested in understanding the Northern Ireland conflict on its own terms. Over the past 60 years, American interest in the Troubles has tended to flare up sporadically whenever and wherever events in Northern Ireland could be analogized with matters of more immediate interest to the United States.
The historian Andrew J. Wilson notes, for instance, that Irish Americans didn’t pay much attention to the politics of their ancestral homeland until the emergence of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in 1967. The phrase “civil rights” carried with it a whole host of established associations in the American psyche at that time, and many Americans bought uncritically into the notion that Irish Catholics were suffering a level of discrimination in British Northern Ireland similar to that suffered by black Americans in the South. Anchorman Chet Huntley, speaking on the NBC Nightly News broadcast of August 15, 1969, put it like this:
The Catholics in Ulster are the same as the blacks in the United States; they’ve been deprived of their rights, harried into slums, and denied jobs, hurt and slashed, ever since the Battle of the Boyne. And like blacks they’ve revolted; and like blacks they’ve burnt down the very ghettoes that were built to contain them; and like blacks they’ve been shot down.
Race relations in the United States became the lens through which the Irish Question was understood by many Americans, and the many differences between the two situations were screened out.
By the late 1960s, the Democratic Party in the northern United States, which had been taken over by Irish-American political machines during the so-called Gilded Age, had rolled in foursquare behind the civil-rights movement. For young, politically active Irish-American Democrats, speaking about the Irish Question as something analogous to the civil-rights movement in America was intoxicating. They were not like the WASP oppressors. They could link arms with their black brothers and sisters at Selma as kindred downtrodden spirits.
Irish republicans in Ireland were keen to take advantage of the American association of their cause with that of Martin Luther King Jr. Bernadette Devlin, once a Joan of Arc figure among republicans, spoke to an American media outlet about protests turned violent in Derry thusly:
I think the impact on public opinion was something like what happened after Dr. King’s people were beaten by “Bull” Connor’s cops in Alabama. Suddenly fair-minded people everywhere could see us being treated like animals.
But once Vietnam supplanted civil rights as the issue with the greatest hold on the American public’s imagination, Northern Ireland ceased to be reported on as Britain’s segregated South and instead became Britain’s Vietnam. A resolution introduced in the Senate by Edward Kennedy and Abraham Ribicoff called for direct rule in Northern Ireland, the unilateral removal of British troops, and an all-party convention to facilitate a united Ireland. During his speech in favor of the resolution, Kennedy repeatedly stressed the similarities between Northern Ireland and Vietnam. Nor was he the only one. The comparison was rife in both print and broadcast media.
I could go on. During the ’80s and ’90s, for instance, American reporting and writing on Northern Ireland drew frequent comparisons with South Africa, always casting Catholics as the natives and Protestants as the Boer Afrikaners. The point is that Northern Ireland has always seemed to attract American thinkers and politicians of a certain cast of mind. It’s a cast of mind that wants to speak about politics in the most abstract, remote, and easily generalizable way possible. It sees essentially the same political struggle everywhere in the world: between entrenched, powerful, reactionary bigots on the one hand and dispossessed, powerless victims on the other. It flattens out any and all distinctions in favor of a one-size-fits-all approach to the biggest questions of public life. It is, in the most literal sense, the politics of the simpleton.
As it turns out, it’s also the politics of Joe Biden and of the European Union.
Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, at least where the president of the United States is concerned. After all, Biden is just the kind of progressive Irish American who would likely have been enamored of the analogy between Irish Catholics and African-American civil-rights activists that became fashionable during the ’60s. Last week the White House let it be known that the president had instructed Yael Lempert — the most senior American diplomat in the U.K. — to deliver a formal démarche (a diplomatic rebuke) to Boris Johnson, accusing his government of imperiling the Irish peace process by using Northern Ireland as a political football.
To understand why, one has first to understand the crucial role that Northern Ireland has played in Brexit negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union since the former voted to leave the latter almost five years ago to the day. As I wrote last year:
The problem, as ever in these negotiations, is Northern Ireland. It’s the only part of the U.K. that shares a land border with a member of the EU — the Irish Republic. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which put an end to the decades-long civil conflict in the province between Protestant unionists and Catholic secessionists, established an open border on the island of Ireland so that people and goods could travel seamlessly between North and South. This was a rather easy measure to implement because both the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland were in the EU at the time, and so they were bound by the same customs and market regulations.
Ordinarily, such a border would require the construction of physical border infrastructure to facilitate customs and travel checks between the EU and the U.K. But the fragile constitutional settlement on the island of Ireland rendered such a move anathema in the eyes of all parties. The British, the Irish, and the Europeans all agreed that the presence of physical infrastructure risked a return to the violence that plagued Northern Ireland during the 20th century. But if the border was to remain open, the question remained as to how customs and excise checks between the two countries could be carried out — a wrinkle that had previously been taken care of by the U.K. and Ireland’s shared membership in the EU’s Customs Union.
This technical obstacle was not insurmountable. The European Union itself admitted years ago that existing technology can be employed to carry out the necessary customs checks without physical border infrastructure. But a political decision was taken by EU leaders not to pursue this course of action. Instead, they proposed that Northern Ireland should remain under the EU’s customs regime while the rest of the U.K. charts its own path. It was an unconscionably aggressive and insulting diplomatic position to take, tantamount to a Mexican government proposing that Texas be wrenched out of the United States customs union and common travel area and into Mexico’s. What’s more, the EU’s insistence that only its own annexation of Northern Ireland would save the province from a return to civil war was both self-avowedly false, as the report linked to above demonstrates, and grossly irresponsible. As a lifelong resident of Belfast myself, I beheld with my own eyes the stirring of Northern Ireland’s recently pacified demons in response to the EU’s grotesque and cynical brinkmanship.
Unfortunately, for most of the past five years the United Kingdom was governed by arguably its worst-ever prime minister, Theresa May. Mrs. May found the European annexation of one of the U.K.’s four constituent nations a price worth paying in order to get Brexit finished and over with. Once her cowardice was made public, she was forced by her party to resign and was replaced in 2019 by Boris Johnson.
With May’s negotiations already at too advanced a stage to start them over, Johnson decided to sign on to her agreement with only cosmetic alterations and then seek to serially undermine it after the fact. (Ironically, it’s more or less the same strategy that was pursued against the United Kingdom by the great Irish statesman Eamon de Valera with respect to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.)
The infamous Northern Ireland Protocol is the part of the withdrawal agreement that erects a customs border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It mandates that all goods crossing from England, Scotland, or Wales into Northern Ireland be checked at the ports to ensure that they clear the EU’s customs standards. Put another way, it enshrines the EU’s annexation of Northern Ireland into law. It also makes it impossible for the U.K. to pursue any kind of regulatory divergence from the EU without leaving one of its four constituent nations behind in the EU. Since such abandonment would never be contemplated by a British prime minister not named Theresa May, the result would be the shackling of the entire U.K. to EU regulations forever and its consequent transformation into a vassal state, forced to follow all of the EU’s rules without having a say in their making. Crucially, Article 16 of the protocol contains a provision for terminating it altogether, a fact to which we will return below.
Naturally, Boris Johnson set about loosening and undermining the protocol as soon as he acceded to office, as any self-respecting British prime minister would. I wrote last October about the passage of the Internal Markets Bill in the House of Commons, a piece of legislation drafted by the Johnson government asserting economic sovereignty over the whole United Kingdom. (Such a bill would be redundant for any country not tangled up in the EU’s neo-Bonapartist project, but when dealing with Brussels, assertions of national sovereignty must be repeated until they are understood.)
The Johnson government has also interpreted the protocol in the loosest possible terms, “delaying” many of the required checks “indefinitely.” This has incensed the leaders of the European Union, not least the little Napoleon himself, Emmanuel Macron. At the recent G-7 summit, tempers flared between Macron and Johnson over the Northern Ireland checks when the French president (perhaps reading his stage directions) implied that Northern Ireland is not, in fact, a part of the United Kingdom. Johnson attempted to explain the problems presented by the protocol when he asked Macron if he would be angered if Toulouse sausages were blocked from going to Paris by a foreign power. Macron is understood to have shot back, “Not a good comparison because Paris and Toulouse are both part of the same country,” before a thunderstruck Johnson replied that “Northern Ireland and Britain are part of the same country as well.”
This exchange has not gone down well with Johnson, his government, or the British people. After the incident, the prime minister complained that some EU leaders “do seem to misunderstand that the U.K. is a single country, a single territory.” He also told the British outlet Sky News that “if the protocol continues to be applied in this way, then we will obviously not hesitate to invoke Article 16 [ending the protocol], as I have said before.” The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, told the same outlet that “we have serially seen senior EU figures talk about Northern Ireland as if it was some kind of different country to the U.K. It is not only offensive, it has real-world effects on the communities in Northern Ireland, creates great concern, great consternation.”
Raab is absolutely right on that last point. The constitutional question in Northern Ireland is extremely volatile and could easily re-erupt into violence. Moreover, the majority of Northern Irish residents are still themselves in favor of union with Great Britain. For European leaders to rub salt in the not-yet-fully-healed wound of the Troubles by echoing Provisional IRA talking points at a diplomatic summit — after years of pontificating about “peace in Ireland” — is unconscionable.
But Raab’s point about “real-world effects” applies to Northern Ireland in an economic as well as political sense. The market value of imported goods into Northern Ireland from the EU through the Republic of Ireland was estimated by NISRA to be around £2.3 billion. The market value of the east–west (Great Britain to Northern Ireland) movement of goods was estimated at £10.4 billion — nearly five times higher. Erecting barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the EU would be a blow to the people of Northern Ireland, but erecting barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, upon which the EU insists, would be an utter catastrophe for those of us who live here.
The £10.4 billion of goods that travel from England, Scotland, and Wales to Northern Ireland equates to about 0.1 percent of the EU’s (circa £11 trillion) GDP. When that number is reduced to include only the goods that require customs checks in the EU’s eyes, the number drops to 0.02 percent of the GDP. By way of contrast, purchases from Great Britain make up 81.2 percent of all imports by Northern Irish businesses. In other words, for the sake of 0.02 percent of its annual GDP, the EU is willing to scuttle Northern Ireland’s economy in order to annex it, rather than contemplating the technological solutions to customs obstacles that have always been on the table.
It was at this point in this complex diplomatic dispute over sovereignty and trade that Joe Biden came to town for the G-7 Summit in Cornwall. The EU immediately began to court the president’s support by rolling out the kind of clichés that appeal to the juvenile, oversimplified, and Manichean moral universe he inhabits, especially when it comes to Ireland.
Like many Irish Americans of his party and his generation (such as the late and loathsome Edward Kennedy), Joe Biden is incapable of mustering up a sophisticated or nuanced thought about the Emerald Isle. His policy toward Ireland (and toward the United Kingdom) appears to be governed by the confused medley of W. B. Yeats verses and Irish rebel songs that have been rolling around inside his skull for the past 70 years. As the Irish Times newspaper reported last week, the démarche delivered by the Biden administration to the Johnson government “followed a lengthy meeting between Coveney and the US national security adviser Jake Sullivan at Shannon Airport recently. Internal Irish Government readouts of the meeting suggested that the American tone was ‘what can we do to help?’” Even before meeting with the British prime minister, Biden had decided to throw the weight of the United States behind Brussels, Dublin, and their cause.
The president’s long-held skepticism of Brexit is well known, and he seems to be of the common view that the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, coming as they did only a few months apart, were, in fact, different examples of the same phenomenon: a nativist, revanchist, anti-globalist, white-working-class howl of resentment at a world slipping away from them. Sensing Biden’s simplicity, the European Union began to couch its cause in language that would resonate with the simpleton-in-chief. European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic, for example, told the Irish Times that “EU leaders are quite simple: they will not allow the former coloniser to force Ireland out of the internal market.”
This kind of incendiary language had one audience and one audience only. It was intended to paint the EU’s role in this diplomatic dispute as that of the anti-colonial insurgent, a role that chimes well with the limited, analogical way that American liberals have of understanding Ireland.
The EU leaders have, perhaps, resorted to abasing themselves before President Biden in this fashion out of desperation because they know they have no way of bending the British to their will on this matter. As long as the Johnson government refuses to carry out checks at Northern Irish ports, there is no way for the EU to punish the U.K. without punishing the Irish Republic, which would amount to a huge loss of face for the bloc, especially since the Irish Republic is among the most enthusiastic members of the European project. EU representatives keep releasing statements such as: “The UK will have to start with implementing the deal,” but they have no way of forcing it to do so. They do know, however, that the United States is in a position to make life outside of the EU very difficult for the U.K., which is why they’re soliciting help from the Biden administration.
The European Union continually gives one the impression of a divorced domestic abuser frustrated at his inability to manipulate his battered partner any longer. In Joe Biden, EU leaders have found a useful and powerful idiot willing to do it for them. But it would be an extraordinary act of geopolitical thoughtlessness on the president’s part to abandon the United States’ most faithful friend and ally in favor of a budding super-state that openly aspires to project power independently of American interests. Nevertheless, thoughtlessness increasingly appears to be one of Joe Biden’s most persistent and pernicious traits, especially when that thoughtlessness is of a greenish hue.