Nick Westcott / May 2022
It is one of the ironies of history that the question of national unity is again on the agenda in two countries at opposite ends of Europe. The cases of Ukraine and Ireland could hardly be more different; and yet they are linked – by Britain’s foreign policy.
Vladimir Putin has asserted that Ukraine has, in effect, no right to exist and launched his disastrous invasion to ‘re-unify’ Ukraine with the Russian motherland. Paradoxically, in so doing he has helped forge the national unity of Ukraine in a way that might otherwise have taken decades. Having now had to fight for their independence, Ukraine will never let it go. Their extraordinary defence against the Russian invaders is the stuff national myths are made of: just ask the Finns.
Though the war has not gone Putin’s way, he will fight on partly, no doubt, to restore his injured pride, but mainly to seize at least some more of eastern Ukraine to justify the horrific loss of Russian blood and treasure, and to teach other neighbours a lesson. The war is therefore likely to grind on as each side tries to exhaust the other. It may last years. But all wars do end, whether in seven, thirty, even (God forbid) a hundred years. The challenge of any eventual peace process will be whether Ukraine can restore its original borders or will remain divided, part of it occupied, claimed, and presumably integrated into Russia. The longer the war, the harder that negotiation will be – but who has ‘sovereignty’ over the disputed territories will be at the heart of it.
The partition of Ireland is already a hundred years old. It was born out of war, the Irish struggle for ‘Home Rule’ transforming in to a physical fight for independence after the First World War which Britain could no longer resist. But the division of the island left unfinished business and led to violence again in the 1970s and ‘80s. The long and laborious process of negotiating a peace agreement, immeasurably facilitated by the US and by mutual membership of the European Union, culminated in the Good Friday Agreement (GPA) that effectively removed the border that had caused such grief.
That a British Prime Minister could be so ignorant of British history that he casually and carelessly put that Agreement at risk, firstly by championing Brexit and then by signing a trade deal that threatened the most deeply-held Unionist principles, is one of the tragedies of our age. An act of gross and wanton political vandalism, it needlessly undermined the peace agreement, and re-awakened demons that had slept fitfully for a hundred years.
The response of the Northern Irish was to give the largest number of seats in the May elections to Sinn Fein, a party that champions the re-unification of Ireland as a single state. Unionists remain as committed as ever to British sovereignty over the north. But this only highlights that the GPA had worked not by changing or weakening that sovereignty, but by sharing it – an approach that underpinned the EU as a whole.
Brexit drove a coach and horses through that solution by re-defining sovereignty in an absolutist, zero-sum way. Ironically, Brexit makes genuine sovereignty – control over ones’ own fate – harder to achieve, not easier, by throwing away a whole set of levers that worked, by giving us leverage over other member states, and replacing them with ones that don’t. And it brings back ancient arguments about borders that the EU had laid to rest.
How are these two connected? Through British foreign policy, and through the EU.
British foreign policy finds itself in a very strange place. Its contradictions are now so glaring that something will have to give: either this government, or Britain’s credibility as an international actor.
To judge by the recent statements of the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, Britain's two overriding foreign policy objectives are, firstly, to take the lead in opposing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and strengthening European defence; and secondly, to keep the spirit of Brexit alive by aggressively stoking up a quarrel with the EU over Northern Ireland.
The Foreign Secretary, her eyes perhaps more fixed on the door to No 10 than on the very real political dilemmas of Britain’s greatest foreign policy challenge, seems deaf to the entreaties from all quarters not to provoke a row at this time. She has brushed off successive attempts by the US Congress and Administration to warn her against such rash and ill-considered actions. To treat your closest ally thus while Ukraine is at war with Russia suggests a lack of political and diplomatic judgement that is deeply worrying.
It weakens, as just one example, the very alliance that the government declares its top priority. The contradiction between arguing that Russia must respect the international rule of law in Ukraine, but Britain is free to break its international commitments over Northern Ireland may not strike the Foreign Secretary, but certainly strikes the rest of the world. It fundamentally weakens the west’s position on Ukraine by confirming accusations of hypocrisy: that the west uses international law when it suits it, but ignores it when its interests diverge. Arguing that Ukraine and Ireland are nothing to do with each other simply confirms the government’s profound myopia on the whole issue.
The EU does not have the luxury of such irresponsibility. Its eastern flank borders Russia. The outcome of the war in Ukraine is an existential issue for Finland, Poland, the Baltic states and others. Ukraine’s survival will depend on European as much as US support, economic as much as military; and it has to preserve at all costs the credibility of the international rule of law, the fundamental underpinning of the Union itself.
Meanwhile at its western edge, Ireland knows that its own political stability is ineluctably bound up with that in the North, that Brexit has put this in jeopardy, and that the British Government cannot be trusted to respect agreements it has signed. But it cannot afford a breakdown. Like a parent faced with a toddler tantrum, it and the EU have to remain calm and measured, offering sensible and practical solutions to a toddler that will not budge from demanding to have its cake and eat it too.
By insisting on the unity of Ukraine and the division of Ireland, all in the name of sovereignty, Britain has got itself in a muddle of its own making. History, it will find, is more complicated and less forgiving than such careless argument allows.