The 100th anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in the small hours of 6 December 1921 is being used by Brexit cheerleaders to draw bizarre parallels between then and now. Their basic idea is that Ireland succeeded in leaving the British empire so should understand Britain’s position in leaving the ‘empire’ of the EU.
Just as Ireland used the Treaty as a stepping stone to sovereignty, so the Brexiteer’s mindset is to bank the Trade and Cooperation Agreement but then do their own thing regardless. This is why the likes of Owen Paterson could support the Withdrawal Agreement by enthusiastically quoting Michael Collins’ defence of the Treaty as being the freedom to achieve freedom.
One of the more bizarre and incoherent contributions on this theme came from Vernon Bogdanor, writing in The Telegraph, where he blames intransigent, hypocritical Irish nationalists for the EU’s rigidity on the Protocol – hypocritical because Ireland was quite “happy to whittle away the Anglo-Irish Treaty as unsuitable to her needs”.
Bogdanor, Vernon. While his handling of the facts has improved (there are some facts), that cannot excuse him for writing an entire essay which he then contradicts completely in his conclusion. pic.twitter.com/kdagKOm8KN— Jonathan Mills (@Muinchille) December 6, 2021
As historian John Gibney says, the comparisons between then and now “are best passed over in silence”. If you wanted to compare the Brexit referendum as an exercise in sovereignty then “technically Ireland should have left the United Kingdom after December 1918 after the general election that followed the first war when Sinn Féin got an overwhelming electoral mandate on a separatist ticket”. Britain did not respect that result but deployed state paramilitary forces, imposed martial law, and engaged in brutal and murderous military reprisals against the civilian population, just as today the EU has... oh wait a minute. Something wrong here.
To state the obvious, ‘Ireland’ achieved only partial separation from empire. The real lesson of the Treaty for the little Englanders is partition. They are in danger of ending up with precisely that: little England.
If there is anything to learn from 100 years ago, it is from the lack of detail in matters that become hugely important later on. Parking the issue of partition with a boundary commission was one problem; another was the vagueness of the Treaty’s article 5 which stated, “The Irish Free State shall assume liability for the service of the Public Debt of the United Kingdom…”. As author Peter Cunningham points out in a piece for the Financial Times, “all the emphasis was on the political with scant attention paid to financial or economic details”.
The inside story of the knife-edge talks that achieved the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty — but also planted the seeds of future conflicts https://t.co/L73l9PG7TV— Financial Times (@FinancialTimes) December 4, 2021
The public debt issue was not to flare up until years later and well after the London Agreement of 1925 under which it was agreed that the Free State was released from the article 5 obligation to service a portion of UK public debt. But this did not cover “land annuities” – the repayment of loans to tenant farmers buying their land from former landowners under a series of Land Acts. There was no agreement as to whether the annuities were ‘public’ or ‘private’ debt. After negotiations with the British broke down, De Valera stopped paying the annuities in 1932 which triggered the so-called Anglo-Irish trade war (1932-38).
The united Ireland questions caused more of a stir. According to the Red-C poll, if a referendum was held today – that is with no-one really knowing what unity might look like – 60 per cent of people in the South would vote in favour. Fine Gael supporters were the least likely to support unity at 52 per cent and, interestingly, not all Sinn Féin supporters would vote for unity. The unity option right here right now attracts 75 per cent support amongst Sinn Féin supporters (in the South).
Much has been said about Irish unity in the past couple of weeks, less to do with the Treaty than with the publication of an opinion poll. Although more than a week has passed since it came out, the latest Red-C poll from the Sunday Business Post is still being discussed, interpreted – and dismissed by some. As with all the Red-C polls, a thousand people in the 26 counties are asked about their first preference voting intentions but, on this occasion, there were an additional ten questions about a united Ireland. Polling took place 19-25 November. The results are weighted to represent the population as a whole.
The headline news was the drop in support for Fine Gael, down by three percentage points to 22 per cent, while Sinn Féin was on 33 per cent for the second month in a row. Two years ago in November 2019, Fine Gael was polling as the lead party on 30 per cent while Sinn Féin was on 11 per cent.
The united Ireland questions caused more of a stir. According to the Red-C poll, if a referendum was held today – that is with no-one really knowing what unity might look like – 60 per cent of people in the South would vote in favour. Fine Gael supporters were the least likely to support unity at 52 per cent and, interestingly, not all Sinn Féin supporters would vote for unity. The unity option right here right now attracts 75 per cent support amongst Sinn Féin supporters (in the South). Green Party support for Irish unity almost matches this at 72 per cent.
There is slightly higher support among the population (62 per cent) for the proposition that “the government should start planning for a possible united Ireland now”, with support rising to 67 per cent among 18 to 34-year-olds.
Some of the other questions were more loaded in the sense that they assume what the issues are or that unity would involve certain ‘compromises’: there were no leading questions with the upside to ending partition. A case in point is the proposition, “I would be willing to support the continuation of the power-sharing Northern Assembly in Belfast alongside the Dáil in Dublin in a united Ireland” – only 45 per cent were in favour. Another states, “I would be willing to support guaranteed unionist cabinet positions in a united Ireland government”, but only 39 per cent favoured this. Two results that received headline attention were to do with willingness to ‘accommodate’ a new flag and new anthem. Only 27 per cent were in favour of a new flag and 35 per cent, a new anthem. The rugby union option of two anthems – Amhrán na bhFiann plus Ireland’s Call – when in Dublin, or the single not-the-national-anthem Ireland’s Call when playing away, was not polled.
Of the ten propositions, the one that stands out the most is this: “I would vote in favour of a united Ireland despite the fact that this may well mean me paying higher taxes”. Support for hypothetical unity drops from 60 per cent to only 41 per cent when people are faced with this ‘reality’. The ideal versus the reality, or as one Sunday Business Post columnist put it, “while a majority would vote for a united Ireland, they do not support the changes and compromises that it would most likely entail”.
Unionist reaction to the poll was in some ways similar. One response to Irish unity polling in the North is to rubbish the pollster if it looks like too many people support unity or the result might be finely balanced. Lucid Talk has taken a particular battering in this respect. But the Red-C poll results have been taken at face value. Jeffrey Donaldson reacted by saying support for unity was “remarkably low” and even lower “if people have to pay higher taxes which of course they will to fund public services, pensions & replace the NHS in NI”.
60% support for united Ireland remarkably low for Republic. Drops to just 41% if people have to pay higher taxes which of course they will to fund public services, pensions & replace the NHS in NI. Debunks idea that a united Ireland is inevitable. Let’s make Northern Ireland work pic.twitter.com/DUueZmLk7k— Jeffrey Donaldson MP (@J_Donaldson_MP) November 28, 2021
How does he speak with such certainty on these issues given that the standard unionist position is not to engage on the issue at all? As Doug Beattie makes plain, “I think it is really unreasonable for anyone to think I as a unionist should help with the architecture around the argument for a united Ireland by engaging in it.”
Is Donaldson saying that, under Irish unity, the British government will no longer honour to pay the pensions of those who have accumulated rights under the British national insurance scheme? Has he done the sums to see if workers across the income range are better or worse off under the Republic’s PAYE system? Clue: only the top 20 per cent of the North’s earners would be taxed more in the South.
Have his business friends presented evidence that the combination of corporation tax and employer social insurance contributions would hit them harder under the Republic’s tax regime than under the British? Another clue: employers would face very slightly higher rates of insurance deductions at most levels of wages which would be more than offset by lower corporation tax. And have Donaldson’s spads advised that the total tax take from earnings in the North under the South’s tax system would be around 15 per cent higher in real terms?
Listening to Doug Beattie, it sounds as if he is challenging the Irish government to make a detailed plan then maybe, just maybe, he’ll engage.