Oct 04

Brexit’s Irish irreconcilable: lessons from (post-)Soviet nationalisms

In the latest in a series’ of blogs, John Heathershaw seeks to draw lessons from the Former Soviet Union for the Brexit crisis in the UK.

Europeans are akin to thinking that civic nationalism in the period after World War Two solved the problem of ethno-nationalism which convulsed the continent for the preceding century and a half.  Virulent nationalism cannot rear its head in Europe, we are told, and is confined to benighted parts of the globe, such as Central Asia and the Caucasus.

But rather than imposing European lessons on these ‘others’, perhaps we can learn from their experience in our present crisis.  The EU, the institution which is totemic for post-war internationalism, is assailed by nationalisms across its continent, from Budapest to Barcelona and from Rome to London.  They may lack the virulence of the 1930s but they are no less opposed to internationalism as a matter of principle.  Conflicts between nationalisms and with internationalism are thus inevitable.

The UK is the leading light of this crisis.  Boris Johnson’s proposal to leave the EU while not destroying the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998, which formed the basis of an end to the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland (NI), is a case in point.  The UK proposal is more amenable to the right of the Conservative Party and its Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) rivals but contains the same elements which contradict the GFA. 

On the one hand this is a suitably messy compromise which assuages the Brexit factions while satisfying none.  But beneath this fudge, the tensions are obvious.  The DUP could unilaterally pull NI out of the arrangement at the four-yearly review process and thereby create the very crisis the current arrangement is designed to avoid.  It is a ‘loyalist’ party which opposed the GFA when it was agreed, while many on the Tory right, including leading Brexiteer Michael Gove, also did not support the GFA for its compromise to Irish republicanism.  So, there is little wonder that what pleases them also threatens the GFA. 

The GFA is essentially an internationalist agreement which recognises shared sovereignty in NI and multi-level governance structure with a devolved assembly, cross-border councils, and bilateral British-Irish agreements.  All this was anchored in the fact that both state parties are members of the supremely internationalist EU.  Moreover, far from being a temporary period of shared sovereignty, these arrangements were consistent with internationalist institutions and practices found across Europe, and specifically deployed to resolve ethno-nationalist disputes from Schleswig-Holstein and the former Yugoslavia. 

In all these arrangements, examples of which are found worldwide, ‘sovereignty’ is not exclusively national but parcelled out and shared.  In a fundamental sense, state sovereignty is never achieved but may be understood as a fiction which is made meaningful only in political discourse.  It is ‘organised hypocrisy’ in the term of Stephen Krasner or ‘simulation’ in the words of Cynthia Weber – professors of International Relations from diametrically opposed traditions. 

Johnson’s fudge at once accepts the messy reality while simultaneously affirming the fiction for ideological and political reasons.  The proposal of 2 October, 2019, keeps NI out of the EU customs union but inside its single market thereby requiring regulatory borders between North and South and West and East (with the rest of the UK).  To give this arrangement a veneer of legitimacy it is to be approved by the Northern Ireland assembly (which is currently not functioning but where the DUP and all constituent parties have a veto).  Therefore elements of shared sovereignty and multilevel governance are retained but they are clearly a means to an end which is either fictive or simply dangerous – one of exclusively British sovereignty over NI’s economy and market. 

The fact unacknowledged by Brexit’s zealots, but surely understood by Johnson, is that government, ‘sovereignty’ and authority are increasingly and necessarily dispersed across multiple scales of local, national and global politics.  What differs from one place to another, is not the degree of national control – as control is a myth in the political realm – but the forms of complex compromise that all parties sign up to.  Unravelling and remaking these compromises is the most tortured work, where nationalism and also ethno-nationalism surge, often with violent results. 

This is where the post-Soviet experience bears its lessons for Brexit.  The USSR was a multinational entity, an ‘empire of nations’ according to Francine Hirsch, across multiple levels with a complex structure of autonomous regions and republics intermeshing with the fifteen full national republics, from Ukraine to Kyrgyzstan, which became newly independent states in 1991. These autonomous entities were typically responses to nationalist claims and disputes between national groups.  They were subordinate to Moscow which served as a supranational authority over them. 

When the Soviet Union ended, the claims and counter-claims surrounding them led to perhaps eighteen armed conflicts, most of which trundled on for many years, the most recent of which was that over Ukraine which began in 2013/14.  According to Gordon Hahn, this violence has led to nearly 200,000 deaths.  While there is little reason to fear a large-scale return to armed conflict in Northern Ireland, or an irruption elsewhere in the UK, we can nevertheless glean some pointers.  Here, I will focus on three.

First, the nation is not a pre-existing category but is made and remade by political action.  As Mark Beissinger noted in his landmark book on nationalist mobilization and the Soviet collapse, ‘the actions of the disciples of the nation are themselves oriented toward turning the nation into a potent category of politics’ (p.19).   Across the former Soviet Union, nationalist disputes which were thought settled were reignited by the weakening of the Soviet state, through the declarations of national sovereignty by republics and the counter-claims of minorities, to the armed conflicts which ensued.

As nationalism is driven by such crises it changes form.  The political crisis in the UK since 2016 is one of ‘choice’ rather than circumstance and lacks the intensity of that which began in the late-1980s in Eurasia.  Principled Euroscepticism, which was a second-order issue in British politics largely confined to the Conservative party and provincial England, has now given birth to a much more organised and potent English nationalism.  Britain is now divided by leavers and their remainer enemies because of the process of the referendum and its aftermath. 

Second, nationalist conflicts are long-term and contagious.  Armed conflicts from Transniestria (Moldova) to Karabakh (Azerbaijan/Armenia) froze after brutal violence 30 years ago and remain unresolved.  In places like Georgia, ethno-national struggles beget other armed conflicts.

The UK has institutions and traditions of democracy which, although damaged during the crisis, are crucially more malleable than those of an authoritarian system.  And yet, the impact of Brexit’s rising English nationalism on Irish and Scottish nationalisms suggests that contagion and a long-term struggle is in the offing, with new referenda on constitutional change and/or independence for the nations likely in the next decade.

Third, resolution to nationalist conflict almost always requires a fudge which must have multi-level governance and share sovereignty accepted as an enduring principle, not a temporary measure.  In the former Soviet conflicts, national autonomies were reinstituted and sovereignties shared with various degrees of elegance and ugliness.  When singular national control was imposed on a somewhat organised minority group, violence is likely to ensue even if this is many years down the line, as was the case with Tajikistan’s Badakhshon region 15 years after the peace agreement in 2012 and in many other post-Soviet instances.

The problem with Johnson’s proposal is the fundamental irreconcilable between Brexit and the GFA.  If Brexit means exclusively British national sovereignty and control across the whole of the UK, as it proponents argue, it has to mean the erosion and eventual destruction of the GFA.  The question of whether there is a ‘hard border’ or not is the tip of the iceberg.  Once NI leaves the EU single market, as it surely must if Brexit demands are to be satisfied, NI will diverge from the Republic in its day to day business and economic affairs.  This process will make the imaginary of a single Ireland and the institutions of North-South cooperation increasingly untenable. 

Given Irish republican’s demographic and organisational power, this divergence, whether it be with a ‘hard border’ or none, will not go without mighty resistance and enduring political conflict.  This dispute will surely draw out the Brexit process for years to come.  It is bound to have effects on Scotland’s own claims. 

None of this is to suggest that a Disunited Kingdom of Little Britain is inevitable.  Far from it as political events and processes are highly contingent and uncertain.  But it is surely the case the Brexit will not be ‘clean’ or ‘done’ but, if and when the moment of departure eventually occurs, it will prompt many more years of conflict and division. 

The former Soviet space is still living through ‘1988-1991’. Surely, 2016-2019 will continue to reverberate in Britain for decades to come.  The difference of course is that the first of these was a geopolitical crisis out of the control of its protagonists.  The second was a matter of ‘choice’, initiated to resolve Conservative party infighting and ‘chosen’ by 52% of the voting public, but which remains undefined and the subject of nationalist versus internationalist dispute for the foreseeable future.

John Heathershaw, Exeter

4 October, 2019