In the context of Brexit, things would be so much tidier if it wasn't for Northern Ireland. The province not only obstinately voted Remain, but also inconveniently promises to bring with it a new, uniquely porous, EU land border. If somehow one could leave Northern Ireland as a member of the EU and have the frontier redrawn in the Irish Sea, life would immediately become a great deal more straightforward. Since political tidiness is popular with both nationalists and technocrats, it is not surprising that in the last month an Ulster combination of remainers and united Irelanders should have tried to throw yet another quasi-legal spanner in the Brexit works. If what appears below seems a little technical, please forgive this: but technicalities matter here.
It all started in April this year with what looked like a stunningly boring question: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/E-8-2018-002232_EN.html?redirect in the European Parliament by Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson, vocal nationalist, socialist and, incidentally, unrepentant convicted IRA terrorist bomber. What EU rights, she asked, would the people of Northern Ireland be entitled to after Brexit? Would they include, for instance, such things as the right to vote in EU elections? Two months later, a 12-line response: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/E-8-2018-002232-ASW_EN.html came from the Commission. Irish citizens in Northern Ireland would remain EU citizens after Brexit, with all the rights that entailed for those living outside the EU; but this would not include the right to the Irish EU franchise, since as a matter of Irish law that was limited to those actually resident in the Republic.
Cue, a couple of weeks later, an angry letter: https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/caj.org.uk/2018/10/09135254/caj-letter-to-EC-president.pdf to Jean-Claude Juncker saying this would not do, and that the EU27 had to put matters right in any negotiations with the UK. This was followed by a formal complaint: https://www.rte.ie/news/2018/1009/1001863-ni_brexit_rights/ in September to the (as it happens Southern Irish) EU Ombudsman on much the same lines. Both these documents came from a Northern Ireland body known as the Committee on the Administration of Justice, in practice a congeries of nationalist-leaning and achingly progressive human rights activists (mainly law professors) from Queens Belfast and the University of Ulster.Essentially their demands came to this. First, because of a phrase in Para 52 of the December 2017 Joint Report: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/joint_report.pdf that Irish citizens would "continue to enjoy rights as EU citizens, including where they reside in Northern Ireland", Irish nationals resident in Northern Ireland had (it was said) to be assured that they would be given the right to vote in EU elections, if not in the UK then in the Republic. Secondly, another provision of the Report (Para 53) dealing with discrimination law, that "no diminution of rights" would result from Brexit, meant that not only equal treatment but every single provision of the Good Friday Agreement had to be permanently enshrined in any agreement with the EU27. In so far as the Northern Irish protocol to the provisional UK-EU agreement: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/draft_agreement_coloured.pdf did not do this, it had – despite having been already agreed in principle between the parties – to be rewritten. And lastly, as if this was not enough, they insisted that because of the UK's promise not to discriminate between Northern Ireland residents who did and did not elect for Irish citizenship, anything done for the Irish had to be done for those who wished nothing to do with the Republic and opted for purely British status.
Three comments are in order. First, as regards EU rights, the demands, in so far as one can understand them at all, are grotesque. In all but name, what is being suggested seems to be that Northern Ireland, albeit entirely outside the EU and not even a dependent territory of an EU state, should be either a Euro-constituency in its own right, or part of the Irish Midlands-North-West constituency. In addition, the Euro-franchise for Northern Ireland would have to include those who did not live in the EU and had deliberately chosen not to be EU citizens. In either case the result would be, to put it mildly, a democratic abortion.
Secondly, the 2017 agreement merely requires the Good Friday Agreement to be "protected"; meaning that its effect not be diminished by Brexit. On any ordinary reading, Para 53 of that agreement, concerned with discrimination and requiring "no diminution of rights", is concerned with rights to equality. It could easily have been drafted so as to require the entire gamut of rights under the Good Friday Agreement to be incorporated, but was not. The attempt to argue that it has that effect does not give the impression of a good faith or constructive attempt to solve the problems of the Irish border difficulty. Rather, it looks suspiciously like a combination of Remainer and nationalist mischief-making, aimed at wrecking Brexit or, if that cannot be done, recruiting Brussels indirectly as a guarantor of the nationalist cause (or even both).
More generally, all this is clearly an attempt to bounce the EU into insisting, and the war-weary UK government into agreeing, that Northern Ireland should in all but name become separated from the United Kingdom and de facto tied to an EU Ireland. If anything came of these proposals, Ulster would end up in a kind of limbo; of but not in the EU, in but not of the United Kingdom. And, one suspects, deliberately so. A few years down the line, no doubt, the idea is that a final push could deliver a united Ireland: not for nothing is Martina Anderson, the MEP who started all this, on record as having decorously told the EU Parliament that as regards an Irish border of any kind, the UK would have to "stick it where the sun doesn't shine". We can only hope that the EU continues to have the good sense to avoid being used as a pawn in this particular nasty little game.