100 years from the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the ghost of Irish hero Michael Collins haunts the Brexit negotiations, letter from Scotland Dec 21

On the first of January, 2021, the transition period ended and Britain effectively left the EU – closing a long period where the media was full of discussions about what would happen if no agreement was reached. Finally, after lengthy late-night negotiations – remember that awkward dinner date in Brussels where Johnson was sharply told to maintain social distancing by EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen? – a deal was announced on December 24, 2020. One year later, how has it worked out?

Coincidentally, December 2021 also marks 100 years since the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty which consolidated the partition of Ireland. The winding border across 310 miles of Irish farmland it created has become more important than ever, now that it is where the UK meets the EU.

A great opportunity for Liz Truss – or a poisoned chalice? 

The UK Gov chief negotiator David ‘Lord’ Frost resigned this week of course – the New York Times (which doesn’t use British titles) reported that over Northern Ireland: “Mr. Frost took an unyielding approach that frustrated E.U. negotiators.” It also said that the appointment of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who has been pointed out as a potential challenger to Boris Johnson, as Frost’s successor:  “has analysts pondering whether she has been handed a chance to secure the status of Northern Ireland and forge a coherent post-Brexit foreign policy — or a poisoned chalice.”

The Irish border question is inextricably intertwined with Brexit. While Truss may be more prepared than Frost to compromise in disputes over the Northern Irish protocol (which attempts to move the border to the Irish Sea) her newly appointed deputy is a former chair of the Brexit-ultras European Research Group, Chris Heaton-Harris. The FT reports that he is viewed by Tory backbenchers as a brake against any significant new concessions.

Whispers in the Brexit talks 

the Irish Times back in 2018, Fintan O’ Toole wrote about a cabinet meeting on the eve of the First World War that was derailed by the rumbling arguments over Northern Ireland that preceded it:  “Europe is about to implode and the Imperial cabinet in London is peering through a metaphorical microscope at the ragged boundaries of parishes in Fermanagh and Tyrone. I like to think of the grandees sitting around the table in Downing Street saying the strange Gaelic names to themselves in tones of pure bewilderment: Belcoo, Magheraveely, Rosslea, Aghalane, Derrygonnelly. But the first time is tragedy; the second time is farce. ..Theresa May’s cabinet is embroiled in a European war that is not so much a cataclysm, more a nervous breakdown. And beneath the noise and bluster, a low but persistent voice keeps whispering: Belcoo, Magheraveely, Rosslea, Aghalane, Derrygonnelly.”

It seems this whisper is getting louder. The UK Government spent a great deal of 2021 threatening to suspend Article 16 and move the border back to this disputed ground. Meetings of the EU commission in 2021, discussing the global pandemic, climate change and of course other borders, must often have had to turn to … Belcoo, Magheraveely, Rosslea, Aghalane, Derrygonnelly.

In an essay in the FT recently, Peter Cunningham looked back at the Anglo-Irish agreement which created the border. At 11 pm on December 5, 1921, after days of discussion, the Irish delegation agreed to sign a deal that partitioned Ireland into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State.  The British delegation included Winston Churchill and the Earl of Birkenhead – who as attorney general in 1916 had procured a death sentence for Irish nationalist Roger Casement for his part in the Easter Rising.

A death sentence

The Irish delegation were inexperienced. De Valera refused to attend himself and sent Michael Collins, already a national hero. Churchill wrote of Collins: “I have never seen such pain and suffering in restraint.” When the deal was eventually signed, Birkenhead remarked to Collins “I may have signed my political death warrant tonight.” Collins replied: “I may have signed my actual death warrant.” Shortly after, as Ireland was engulfed in a civil war between pro and anti-treaty forces, Collins was assassinated.

Talk about a poisoned chalice! But Collins drank it bravely. His signature on that treaty ended the threat of an immediate, overwhelming attack on Ireland. It brought at least a limited independence and the possibility of peaceful coexistence with Brtiain. But from that time, dates the longing for a united Ireland, the Unionists’ fear of betrayal, the Troubles and the hope of peace that led to the Good Friday Agreement. The tension eventually eased after both the UK and Ireland became members of the EU. Exposing this faultline again remains the most serious consequence of Brexit.

Currently, the DUP is threatening to collapse the power-sharing arrangement at Stormont – what will be the consequence of that? It could potentially increase support for reunification. That would trigger a border poll, which could be galloping towards us more quickly than anyone expected.

Brexit’s collapsing benefit claims

There are other consequences. In the year since leaving the UK, British business has been hampered by reams of red tape. Fields of crops have gone unharvested because of a lack of seasonal agricultural workers; tens of thousands of pigs have been culled; hospitality businesses and care homes have struggled as EU migration turned negative. Supply chains came close to collapse, rescued only by the UK Government relaxing cabotage rules for EU hauliers. Exports have suffered. Import controls, long postponed, will start next year and are likely to push up prices.

The dream of the Brexit ultras like Frost was of a low-tax, low-regulation Singapore-on-Thames that could again be the engine room of the world. As former Australian PM Kevin Rudd put it in an interview in the  New Statesman recently, their hope was that “returning to the fond embrace of the world’s sons and daughters of empire could replace the benefits of EU membership”. But trade deals have been few in number, tiny in effect and they also undermine British food and farming standards.

It is now becoming clear that in a shrinking economy, taxes will have to go up to keep public services at the same level. The UK Gov says that the UK is now spending a bigger percentage of GDP on health than other EU countries – that is partly because the British economy has been weakened by Brexit as well as Covid.

The FT reported yesterday that: “The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that Brexit will cause twice as much long term damage as Covid and that Britain will be 4% worse off in the medium term. That would amount to a £100 billion hit to national income and £40 billion less tax revenue”. That will result in a higher tax burden.

Compromise will be difficult but necessary

Brexit is a failure, even on its own terms. Eventually, this or some other UK Government will have to find a new compromise with the EU, perhaps by rejoining the single market. Any Conservative who proposes that will encounter the wrath of the right-wing of the Party – but it has to happen. We may be about to see the Conservative Party once again tear itself apart over Europe.

The UK may also have to prepare itself for the emergence of a united Ireland. The British state is supposed to remain neutral in the event of a border poll – UK politicians could start practising that now.


Further reading

A century on, how the Anglo-Irish Treaty was done. Peter Cunningam FT


U.K. Foreign Secretary Inherits Thorny Issue: Northern Ireland Talks, Stephen Castle NYT

Liz Truss faces choice of Brexit compromise or trade war, warn EU diplomats FT


Three small UK companies reflect on business in first year after Brexit https://www.ft.com/content/bc0563c8-f6ac-40f0-83d4-943ed08a2d79

Kevin Rudd: “China views the UK as weaker after Brexit” New Statesman

Kevin Rudd: “China views the UK as weaker after Brexit”

Fintan O’Toole: Parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone are unravelling, Brexit Irish Times


“I was Boris Johnson’s boss: he is utterly unfit to be prime minister” Max Hastings, the Guardian