Monday 19 October 2020

A Shifting Constitution

I wrote the following a few weeks ago, but did not post it.  The joint statement today by the Anglican Primates across the British Isles prompts me to do so.

1.  This summary will be superficial, but, as far as I can see, less superficial than most television interviews on the subject at the moment.

2.  For centuries, England (and Scotland, both together as one new United Kingdom from 1703) has had a colonising, exploitative and violent relationship with Ireland, a relationship which continued into and beyond Ireland’s incorporation into the United Kingdom in 1801.

3.  A line was drawn (literally) with a divorce settlement in 1921.  This gave independence to what became the Republic of Ireland, but retained the six north-eastern Irish counties (where a unionist and mainly Protestant majority was otherwise threatening insurrection) as part of the United Kingdom.

4.  At one deep emotional level some of the life of the island remained as if there was a single whole Irish nation.  The Irish Rugby team is still drawn from both the Republic and the United Kingdom.  There is a single Anglican Church for it all, including dioceses with some parishes in the Republic and some in the United Kingdom.  The constitution of the Republic came to claim jurisdiction over the whole island (in practice, an ambition to have eventual jurisdiction over it). 

5.  Whenever national boundaries and the emotional identification of a less powerful population within an area do not fully coincide, levels of discrimination inevitably occur, and some level of terrorist kick-back almost always seems to follow.

6.  So when the Northern Irish ‘troubles’ emerged in the late 1960s it was initially around civil rights which were being denied to many of the nationalist (Irish republican supporting and mostly often Catholic) population by many of the unionist (United Kingdom supporting and most often Protestant) population.

7.  The eventual ‘Good Friday Agreement’ settlement in the late 1990s did something unique and stunning.  It respected both those with nationalist and those with unionist convictions and identities.  The Republic took the extraordinary step of removed from its constitution its claim for jurisdiction over the six counties.  The United Kingdom took the equally extraordinary step of agreeing cross border institutions to be part of future decision making.

8.  One significant factor which made these steps conceivable was the accession of both the Republic and the United Kingdom to the European Economic Community (later the European Union) in 1973.  It came to be as easy to move people, capital and goods across the internal Irish border as across the Irish Sea.  Everything from food standards and human rights came to be identical in both the Republic and the United Kingdom.

9.  Those who warned that consideration should be given to how the United Kingdom leaving the European Union might disturb this balance were dismissed as being part of ‘Project Fear’, and were later promised that imaginative and innovative solutions could easily be found to preserve an open border even when regulations began to diverge on either side of it.

10.  It should have been and it is clear that there are really only three basic possibilities as this divergence begins to happen if one wants to prevent the undercutting of the economy on one side of the border by such things as goods being produced to lower standards or by paying workers less on the other side.

11.  One option would a hardening of the border, with things like customs checks and tariff payments.  This would be as practically challenging as seeking to create a secure economic boundary between, say, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire - a challenge spectacularly increased by the memory that Irish border posts had been magnets for terrorist activity in the past and so might easily become so again.  This option would begin to deny nationalists in the six counties their identification with and free movement into and out of the Republic.

12.  A second option would be a hardening of a new ‘border’ in the Irish Sea between the six counties and the rest of the United Kingdom.  This would be practically equally disruptive to everyday commerce (the example most sited being a supermarket lorry being checked for paperwork on every perishable item on board each time it took a ferry across).  This option would begin to deny unionists in the six counties their complete equality of economy with and their free movement into and out of the rest of the United Kingdom.

13.  A third option would be to secure a level of agreement to keep regulations either side of the border as closely in line as possible.  The great challenge here would be what mechanisms could plan and adjudicate such a thing.  This option would begin to limit the break in governance between the Eurpoean Union and a separate sovereign United Kingdom which was the prized goal of ‘Brexit’ in the first place.

14.  So this is what is sometimes called a ‘wicked problem’, one for which there is no easily available solution.  The present European Union and United Kingdom Governments have done what they felt was as good a deal, as good a compromise, as they could.  It is has elements of the second and third options (12 and 13 above).  The United Kingdom Government proclaimed this to be great, held a General Election to seek a mandate to agree it, and have agreed it.

15.  A Bill is now proposed to allow the United Kingdom Government to make whatever unilateral changes it sees fit to this deal.  Within the United Kingdom, the response of many has been astonishment that what last year was said to be a triumph is now said to be hasty and ill thought out. 

16.  But those in the United Kingdom noticing and discussing such things have mainly missed the emotional register of the response to this in the Republic.  The Bill has been published without any of the consultation or joint decision making envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement.   

17.  The parallel is not exact – but imagine a partner who was abused through a long relationship, then through a short marriage, and subsequently since a divorce, but who had finally come to a new cooperative approach about how to deal with shared possessions and property, and that this has resulted in a legally binding agreement.  The partner learns one day out of the blue that the other partner had repudiated the agreement and claimed unilateral power to change any element of it at will without any external accountability.  It does really feel that bad.

16.  The Bill would allow the Government to make such changes without any parliamentary scrutiny.  And it includes provision that such changes would explicitly never be subject to any legal challenge.  It is not an exaggeration to say that, in the limited areas covered by the Bill, this is a bid for near dictatorial powers.  Sweeping powers do exist elsewhere for the Government use of Statutory Instruments (rather has Acts of Parliament) but there are parliamentary and legal safeguards in place to prevent these being used as quasi-dictatorial powers.

17.  Meanwhile, those in the United Kingdom feeling the impact on themselves may have been distracted by the fact that the particular Prime Minister of the day into whose hands the new powers would be entrusted had consistently lied about the European Union from the days he was a journalist (sacked for doing so) to the days he was making specific the claims in the most recent election campaign (highly rewarded for doing so).  He had also only recently been prevented by the highest court in the land from abuse of prerogative powers.  His Government has even more recently been rebuked by the Speaker of the House of Commons for taking Covid 19 actions without submitting to parliamentary scrutiny.  And so on.

18.  But actually it does not matter at all when creating quasi-dictatorial powers whether the Prime Minister of the day is a charlatan or someone with an acquired taste for non-accountable Government action or a saint.  That is hardly the issue as he or she will at some point be replaced.  The issue is about the creation of such unchallengeable powers at all.

19.  The Lord Chancellor ought to be the one who sees through this.  He gave an interview at the weekend [at the time of writing] which included an apparent admission that he would resign if any resulting breaking of international law went ‘too far’.  So we and Northern Ireland may be about to replace parliamentary and legal safeguards with the safety net of his individual judgement about when our abuse of process and neighbours has become extreme. 

20.  One wonders (as an aside) if he had dreamt when an aspiring politician that he was watching an interview in which a Minister of Justice attempted to reassure people that the abolition of parliamentary or legal scrutiny of an aspect of his Government’s programme did not matter because the watcher could depend on the Minister’s conscience kicking in at an unspecified level of illegality.   If so, he must have imagined that he would be the United Kingdom Minister about to step in and condemn that foreign tin-pot dictator’s Minister, rather than be that Minister himself.

21.  A different bill is making its way through Parliament at the moment.  It not only allows MI5 to behave illegally if it believes this to be in the best interests of the country, it allows the Police, Customs and Excise and others to do so too.  So, for example, the recent compensation awarded because an undercover police officer had infiltrated a group of environmental protesters and fathered a child on one of them would not be necessary in the future.  There is a pattern here.   

The peacock is on a new headstone on a grave in Haworth Cemetery, possibly the most gracious headstone there.