Sovereignty 2045, Chapter 5: A Draft New British Irish Treaty…

Keir Starmer was in a tricky position. With 290 seats he was 36 short of an overall majority and only two ahead of the Lib Dems and the Tories combined. Only the SNP could give him an overall majority, and they refused all entreaties to support his government unless he would agree to a second independence referendum to be carried out within 12 months. He might even have been agreeable to that if they not also insisted on a Treaty between Britain and a newly independent Scotland which would transfer all British assets in Scotland to the new Scottish state, together with only a small portion of the UK national debt proportionate with its population.

Scotland was to be free to join the EU, the Eurozone, and the Single Market. The “Border down the Irish Sea” would extend to the Scottish English border, although the border between Scotland and Northern Ireland would disappear. Provisions based on the Windsor framework would apply at the Scotland England border unless England changed its relationship to the Single Market.

Several attempts to form a government were defeated in the Commons and it looked like a second election would have to be called. The Tories didn’t even have a leader and the Lib Dems were anxious to consolidate their newfound position as part of the duopoly of power created by the first past the post electoral system. All their new MPs needed time to establish themselves in their constituencies and learn the parliamentary ropes. One slip and a few percentage points lost, and they would be back to their old role as mere appendages to a system dominated by Labour and the Tories. They had, however, lost some of their enthusiasm for a proportional representation electoral system now that the shoe was on the other foot.­­

However, the Tories were in dire straits, having lost not only their leader, but virtually all of their experienced parliamentarian and ministerial cadres. Leadership elections would take some time to organise, and they really didn’t want an election any time soon. That might have finished them off completely or reduced them to a UKIP like rump.

The recriminations in the party were venomous. Sunak, of course took much of the blame. He was still in no. 10 on a caretaker basis but looked like he couldn’t get away fast enough. Apparently, he was in line for a major business appointment.

It was even difficult for Starmer to find someone to negotiate with in the Tory party as Sunak had lost all authority. Eventually Starmer managed to persuade an interim Tory parliamentary party leadership to support his government on a “confidence and supply basis” for the next 12 months, in return for a range of promises to implement much of their policy agenda.

Critics complained that Starmer wanted to implement much of their agenda anyway, but one particular policy issue was a potential deal-breaker: The Tory election manifesto had promised to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in order to deal with the illegal immigration issue. Sunak had justified the decision to call a Border Poll to Tory backbenchers on the need to renegotiate the Good Friday Agreement in any case, as it tied the UK into membership of the Convention.

If Northern Ireland voted to stay in the Union, he would be in a much stronger position to negotiate with the Irish Government in order to have that aspect of the Good Friday Agreement removed. If Norther Ireland voted to leave the Union, Britain would be free to leave the ECHR. For many hard line Brexiteers, leaving the ECHR was a bigger issue than Northern Ireland leaving the Union, and this helped to ensure their support for the calling of a border poll.

However here Keir Starmer drew the line: Labour would not leave the ECHR regardless of the border poll result. In the end, when another election seemed unavoidable due to the deadlock on this issue, the Tories announced that they would support a Starmer government “strictly on a confidence and supply basis, for a maximum twelve months, this being a time of national emergency” but reserved the right to vote down specific measures they disagreed with. Even then, only a little over half the remaining Tory parliamentary party actually supported the confidence vote installing Starmer in office, but it was enough.

In all this time, and despite the prominence of the ECHR issue, Westminster had almost forgotten it had promised to hold a border poll in Northern Ireland. I was having difficulty getting any copy published because the news was simply dominated by events in London. There wasn’t space in the printed paper for stories from Northern Ireland, and my stories could only be found in the online edition several layers down the menu system under “Regional News” within the Politics section.

Jeffrey Donaldson was making speeches demanding that the border poll should only be held if the DUP’s Six Demands were met. Demands they had only just formulated.

The SIX DUP DEMANDS were that no Border Poll should be held unless:

  1. All Public Service cuts were restored.
  2. The Government committed £1 Billion per annum in increased infrastructure Capital Spend.
  3. The Barnett Formula was guaranteed and enshrined in constitutional legislation.
  4. The Windsor Framework was reformed to “dramatically reduce” all barriers to trade within the UK.
  5. The Act of Union was strengthened and updated to guarantee Northern Ireland the same rights as England within the Union.
  6. Even if a border poll showed a majority for re-unification, there must be no Transfer of Sovereignty to Ireland without a new Ango-Irish Treaty guaranteeing Unionists the same Rights within Ireland as in Britain.

It was the first time the DUP had even conceded that a border poll for re-unification was conceivable.

It was unclear how the new Secretary of State , Peter Kyle, could somehow undo his predecessor’s determination that a vote for a united Ireland was increasing likely, and that he was therefore obliged to call a border poll under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. The general election in Northern Ireland had, if anything, reinforced the view that such a vote was likely, with nationalist parties outpolling their unionist counterparts by 42% to 34%.

However, opinion polls continued to show voter intentions to be finely balanced, often with slight majorities in favour of the Union, but generally within the margin of error.

The results of individual polls often seemed to depend on the precise question asked, whether the poll was online or face to face, the nature of the sample polled, and the political situation at the time of the poll.

For instance, the question: “How would you vote if the poll was held tomorrow” generally had lower responses for a united Ireland than “If a poll was held in 5- or 10-years’ time”. Face to face polls seemed to have far higher percentages for “don’t knows” and respondents claiming to be supporters of non-aligned parties. Results for polls of “likely voters” had higher percentages in favour than polls for the entire adult population. When a no deal Brexit had been in prospect, or more government cutbacks were in the news, poll results in favour of a united Ireland spiked.

It was also unclear how the transfer of sovereignty over Northern Ireland from Westminster to Dublin could be held up for, or made conditional on, a new Anglo-Irish Treaty being negotiated and ratified. The Good Friday Agreement specified one condition, and one condition only, and that was a simple majority in a border poll.

Rishi Sunak, now safely on his way to becoming the CEO of a major global investment firm, didn’t help matters by saying, in a post-Downing Street interview, that he now regretted calling a border poll. Surely that should have been entirely a matter for the Secretary of State to determine based on his objective and impartial assessment of voter intentions?

But nobody in Westminster seemed to be paying a blind bit of notice to the DUP’s SIX DEMANDS. They were all too busy trying to get the new government up and running. Political speculation was dominated by who was getting what jobs and what Labour policies would have to be sacrificed to secure Tory support in the Commons.

Things had however moved on in Ireland.

The Irish government had not called an election for November as expected because of the turmoil across the water and because Sinn Féin had soared in the polls to an unprecedented 40%, making it very likely they would lead the next government. The government insisted that it would run its full term until March 2025 and that maximum stability was needed “at this difficult time”. Sinn Féin accused the government parties of “running away from the people” and having no idea about what to do about Northern Ireland.

Stung by this criticism, the government released a 400-page white paper documenting, in great detail, how any transfer of Sovereignty would be implemented, what transitional arrangement would apply, how the finances would all work out, and how this would affect ordinary people in terms of their pensions, taxes, jobs, and access to public services.

People were astonished at the level of detail contained in the document. It was clearly the product of many years work and some very deep thinking. It also made quite a few proposals relating to what the British government would do, and there was much speculation that the document had had considerable British input.

I placed a call to Bill Featherstonhaugh, our senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent, to see if there was any substance to these rumours, and for once he came good. After a couple of hours, he rang me back to say that the word was there had been “some informal discussions” at “official level” without senior ministerial involvement, and that there had been “considerable common ground” found in those meetings. However, “nothing was agreed, until everything was agreed,” and, as there had been no senior ministerial involvement, there was effectively no agreement.

I asked him could I quote “senior officials” as having confirmed all this and he hummed and hawed. “Well,” he said, “we’d have to be careful about upsetting that apple cart. Some officials may have taken the discussions a little further than their ministers intended. But why don’t I submit a draft of my report to him, and he would look at it and perhaps add some perspective. We could publish it under our joint byline.”

Yea right. I would do all the work and he would share the credit. But fair enough I supposed, he was far senior to me, and he had come up with that inside information.

I was intrigued by the reference to “Senior Government Ministers” and “officials had perhaps taken the discussions a little further than ministers intended.” Both implied there had been at least some ministerial involvement and at least some awareness of what was going on at senior levels. Senior Ministers wouldn’t necessarily get involved in long term contingency planning in any case.

I placed a call with my old interviewee, Neale Richmond, a Church of Ireland Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection. He could have been centrally involved if junior ministers were indeed involved. To my surprise, he called me back almost immediately.

Speaking under guarantee of no attribution, he confirmed that discussions between officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the UK Foreign Office had been ongoing for several years with some ministerial involvement and that the 400-page white paper had indeed been the fruit of those discussions, especially those aspects which related to the UK government’s role in the proposals.

However, he confirmed that the UK Cabinet had never seen or approved the complete draft and that it must be regarded as only as set of proposals at this stage, to be finalised following the period of public consultation which had now begun.

I sent my report to both Bill Featherstonhaugh and Matt Casey, my editor, and they both agreed it was excellent. It was published, barely edited, under Bill’s and my byline, as the front-page lead story the next day: The first time a Northern Ireland related story had made the front page since the election. It began by highlighting the main points of the Irish Government’s 400-page white paper:

  1. A Formal Transfer of Sovereignty will take place within 3 months of a border poll being carried and the necessary changes having been incorporated into the Irish Constitution.
  2. A new British Irish Treaty providing for the following will be agreed prior to an Irish Referendum being held:
  3. There will be transitional arrangements for up to 20 years including ongoing close cooperation between the two governments on security, policing, civil service transfers, pensions, and all matters of the former Northern Ireland public administration.
  4. The Good Friday Agreement, having no sunset clause, will continue to be in force for the transition period. This means the devolved administration in Stormont, the North South, and East West institutions of the GFA will continue to operate ”for as long as all parties wish that to be the case, and in any case for the duration of the 20-year transition period.”
  5. The British government, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, will have a role in ensuring that the rights of all British citizens in Ireland will be protected through the East west bodies – the British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference, the British–Irish Council, and an expanded British Irish Interparliamentary Body.
  6. There will be a formal mutual defence Treaty concluded in due course covering matters such as intelligence sharing, cybersecurity, radar/sonar installations, air protection, and maritime surveillance etc.
  7. Britain and Ireland will commit to the development of an integrated electricity grid to maximise the opportunities for wind and solar renewable energy utilisation, demand management, load sharing, and nuclear baseload generation.
  8. The Free travel area between Britain and Ireland will be maintained.
  9. The Windsor Framework will apply to all trade between Britain and Ireland subject to the agreement of the EU.
  10. Consultations will take place with Unionist parties as to whether Ireland should join the Commonwealth.
  11. Official state Flags, Anthems, and Emblems will be the subject of consultations with all parties represented in the expanded Irish Parliament. There will be no law passed preventing British flags being flown on private property, or by legitimate organisations dedicated to fostering closer British Irish ties by peaceful means.
  12. Northern Ireland will join the EU and be entitled to representation in the European Parliament.
  13. EU Law, and particularly the European Charter of Fundamental Rights will apply, with final adjudication by the European Court of Justice.
  14. All Northern Ireland Civil Servants, who wish to transfer to equivalent posts in Britain will be facilitated in doing so.
  15. All Northern Ireland Civil Servants, who opt to stay in Northern Ireland, will come under the authority of Irish government ministers or the devolved administration. They will retain all rights and pensions entitlements accrued under their service to date, payable by the British government. However, any pension rights accrued after the transfer of sovereignty, will be payable by the Irish government.
  16. All public assets owned by the British state in Northern Ireland, will become the property of the Irish state. There will be no transfer of public debt from Britain to Ireland.
  17. Having regard to the increased costs to be borne by the Irish government with respect to Northern Ireland, the current UK Exchequer subvention, under the Barnett formula, will become payable by the Irish government. However, the UK government will contribute to that cost according to a sliding formula evenly spread over 20 years, whereby the UK government will contribute 95 percent in year one and 90 percent in year two, until the contribution is entirely eliminated in year 20. For the purposes of this exercise the current Barnett formula subvention will be estimated at £15 Billion pounds.

That last point was the kicker. The UK would not be saving £15 Billion in year one, but only £0.75 Billion, rising by that amount every year for the next 20 years. The UK would still be saving £150 Billion at 2024 prices over 20 years, but it would take some years to build up to really substantial amounts. It would not be an immediate panacea for the British Government’s budgetary woes.

Both UK and Irish sources later pointed out that the savings to the British exchequer could be far greater, as the Barnett subvention had been rising rapidly year on year. And could easily double or treble in the next twenty years if drastic remedial actions were not taken.

Equally, Irish sources were quick to point out that, should Ireland be able to develop the northern economy to be as successful as the south, there might be no need to subsidise the former Northern Ireland, in which case the continued UK contributions could be a net benefit to the Irish Exchequer.

That would be a big “If” of course. But there was no doubt that Irish officials were confident that, if the right policies were applied, there was no reason why the Northern Ireland economy could not become just as successful as the south, if not more so, within the 20-year timeframe of the UK contributions.

Moreover, they were confident there could be significant savings achieved through the elimination of duplication between north and south public services, and through their integration and transformation into “world class” services that would compare well with public services anywhere in the world.

Irish sources stressed it would not be a case of southern services “taking over” northern services, but rather that both would be combined and transformed into world class “best practice” services, taking in the best elements of both to build a better, higher quality, and better value for money service for all. Services would continue to be devolved to local areas as appropriate.

Irish sources also stressed that, where a better service was available in the north, that it would be retained and gradually extended to all of Ireland. Free GP consultations for all was the main example quoted, although sources stressed that might take some time to achieve, as GP resources were very stressed and stretched on both sides of the border at present.

Social welfare and state pension payments, currently much lower in the North, would also be gradually harmonised with those in the south, but again, that could take time, depending on the budgetary situation. However, all harmonisation processes should have been completed within the 20-year timeframe.

There would be a renewed focus on integrating primary and secondary schools throughout the island and all non-feeing paying state funded schools would come under the direct control of a “Joint Educational Council” which would standardise rules, curricula, examination and assessment processes and the overall ethos of the educational system.

Discrimination on the grounds of religion, ability or disability would be outlawed, although special provision would be made for pupils and students with special needs or disabilities. Schools which did not meet these standards could be de-funded.

The PSNI would be retained, at least for the 20-year transition period, as a regional police force, although it too, would be gradually integrated with An Garda Síochána, with processes being standardised in accordance with best practice throughout the world.

The legal systems and statue books would also be gradually harmonised and standardised across the island, although sources stressed that this could take many years because of the complex issues involved. The Law societies later produced voluminous reports highlighting the degree of divergence that over 100 years of different legislative processes had created.

—oo0oo—

Reaction in Ireland, both North and south, was generally positive, although the credibility of many of the proposals were questioned by unionist sources, who pointed out that the British government had never considered, much less approved the proposals, and as such they were “so much pie in the sky.”

Reaction in the UK was much more mixed. “Why on earth would the UK continue to fund a state over which it had no sovereign jurisdiction and only very limited consultation powers under the East West bodies of the Good Friday Agreement?” the Daily Mail thundered!

It was to be some time before that question was answered.

The British Government merely “noted” the publication of the Irish white paper, and stated they would have discussions with the Irish government on the proposals contained therein in due course. There was no guarantee that the two governments would ever see eye to eye on all the matters discussed and that a compromise set of proposals would have to be agreed.

But the publication of the White Paper steadied the ship as far as the Irish government was concerned. They had answered the Sinn Féin criticism that they had not prepared for the possibility of a border poll, although Sinn Féin expressed dismay at the length of the transition period, and reference to the Commonwealth and a mutual Defence Treaty, although it did not oppose the white paper outright.

There was, however, increasing optimism that a border poll could be carried in Northern Ireland if such a comprehensive set of proposals could be agreed and incorporated into an international treaty with the UK.

Some groups such as Aontú and smaller parties in the south expressed their opposition to aspects of the proposals, particularly those on educational reform, and stated they would campaign for a NO vote in an Irish referendum. Strangely, they made no reference to campaigning for a NO vote in the Northern Ireland Border Poll and were sensitive to criticism that they were acting in league with “unionist hardliners.”

Analysts noted that the Irish government had still not given any indication that it would hold the referendum required to formally incorporate Northern Ireland into the Irish state if the Border poll was carried. Commentators presumed that was because the Irish government did not want to be seen to be taking a positive vote for granted. Officially, the whole process was entirely dependent on the Northern Irish people choosing re-unification, at least in the first instance.

The Alliance party, crucial to achieving a majority for re-unification in the border poll, was studiously quiet on the proposals. They welcomed its publication, commended the Irish government for the detail contained therein, but stated that they would have to study the proposals in much more detail and achieve clarification on many points of detail. Its chief concern was whether “the Irish government could afford the proposals” and questioned whether the UK government would agree to co-fund the subvention for a further 20-year period. It proposed setting up a number of study groups within the party, to liaise with both governments and consider the proposals in more detail.

While suggesting that the transitionary period should be no longer than 5 years, Sinn Féin was broadly positive, or as positive as an opposition could be. It didn’t want to be picking holes in the document and doing the unionists’ work for them. Analysts argued Sinn Féin had been wrong-footed by getting the detailed plan it had asked for.

The SDLP welcomed all the consensual, consultative, and gradualist aspects of the proposals. Unification couldn’t happen suddenly. It was a long-term process of build trust and winning hearts and minds. People had to be given time to get their heads around it and accommodate themselves to the changes that were bound to happen. They pointed out that many changes were inevitable, even if the UK retained sovereignty over Northern Ireland, and not all of those changes would necessarily be positive under either jurisdiction. They gave the example of water charges being likely to be introduced regardless of whether Ireland or Britain was sovereign.

Unionists noted that while the proposals looked detailed on paper, in practice they left many questioned unanswered. Would there be reductions in public service job numbers? What happens when the southern Irish tax bonanza comes to an end and the Irish economy crashed as it has done many times before? Who was going to pay the price then? Wouldn’t everyone then be worse off? It was better to be much more closely linked to the seventh largest economy in the world than a “sclerotic EU” and an Irish economy built on sand. EU resources were far more likely to be directed towards Ukraine than Northern Ireland, and the balance of power in the EU was tilting eastward.

Behind the scenes Jeffrey Donaldson was fiercely lobbying the British government to come up with counter proposals to increase investment in Northern Ireland over and above the Barnett subvention formula. Starmer had promised to support the union, and the time had come to “put his money where his mouth is.” Supporting the union required more than a photo op during a general election campaign. He sounded almost as if he had done Starmer a big favour by standing beside him and announcing that the DUP would support a Labour government.

The reality was somewhat different. Analysts gave many reasons for the dramatic fall in Labour support during the election campaign, including Starmer’s many U-turns on traditional Labour policies. This had led to Corbyn’s successful re-election campaign and at least 3% of the potential labour vote leaking to left wing independent labour candidates. But there is no doubt Starmer’s stand with Donaldson and reneging on Labours traditional support for a united Ireland had divided the party activists, demotivated some of its voting base, and encouraged many to vote for other candidates.

Starmer was now even more open to the charge of being “more conservative than the conservatives themselves” because he was obliged to implement many Conservative party manifesto policy priorities by the confidence and supply arrangement and his dependency on conservative votes in the House of Commons to get any legislation through. If anything, the charge was that he was far more competent at implementing conservative policies than the conservatives had ever been.

The last thing Starmer needed, therefore, was to split the party further by emphasizing his support for a pro UK vote in the Border Poll. He tried to avoid the issue entirely, saying only that he respected the right of the Northern Irish people to make up their own minds on the issue, and expressed confidence that they were well able to do so. Donaldson was entirely frustrated in his efforts to get Starmer to make far more concrete and positive financial proposals to encourage Northern Ireland voters to vote for the Union. He only visited Northern Ireland once, on a largely ceremonial occasion, and spoke to party leaders and the media hardly at all.

But neither did he make any further comment on the Irish government white paper, and there seemed to be hardly any substantial further discussions on the Irish White Paper by officials from both governments. Had they had their fingers burned by going too far in their initial discussions? Was the British government now considering reneging on some of the proposals, and particularly on the co-funding of the Barnett subvention for 20 years? The Tories made great play of the costs involved, while ignoring complaints that the proposals had first been developed under their watch.

Starmer’s position was further complicated by the fact that he was desperately trying to get a better trade deal with the EU. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the UK and EU was “paper thin” and applied only to manufactured goods, when 70% of the UK economy was in services. The City was slowly losing ground in its position as a global financial services centre.

How on earth had Johnson not insisted that financial services be part of the deal? There had, effectively, been “No Deal” on services, despite the City being part of Johnson’s home base.

But there was no point in blaming the Conservatives now. Starmer had campaigned on the basis of making Brexit work better. And to get a better deal from the EU he needed Irish government support. They, in common with all EU member states, had a veto on any revised trade deal. And Dublin wasn’t being noticeably proactive in its support. Brussels wasn’t showing any great urgency either. Everyone appeared to be playing a waiting game.

But time was running out. The Christmas recess came and went. Labour was losing even more ground in the polls because the economy wasn’t showing any noticeable improvement. The Conservative’s had a new and energetic leader in former Home Secretary Priti Patel who was making noises about the confidence and supply agreement approaching its “best before date.” Wry observers were also wondering if it might also lose its CE mark!

Virtually every problem Starmer faced had been created for him by the Conservatives, but that cut little ice with the electorate. They wanted solutions. They wanted them now. And it was his responsibility to deliver them.

/To be continued: Chapter 6 A Tale of two General Elections


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