Barack Obama delivers an address on Iraq from the State Dining Room of the White House last night. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron backs US military action in Iraq - but he won't join it

Last summer's defeat over Syria has made the PM wary of intervention.

"Earlier this week, one Iraqi cried that there is no one coming to help. Well, today America is coming to help," Barack Obama said last night. In response to the threat posed to the Yazidi minority, besieged on Mount Sinjar after being pursued by Islamic State (IS) jihadists, the US president has authorised air strikes to prevent what he described as a potential "genocide". 

"When we face a situation like we do on that mountain, with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale and we have a mandate to help - in this case a request from the Iraqi government - and when we have unique capabilities to act to avoid a massacre, I believe the United States cannot turn a blind eye," he said in an address from the State Dining Room of the White House.

For the first time since its troops withdrew from the country at the end of 2011, the US has returned to a military role in Iraq. But Obama emphasised last night that "As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq". 

Where does the UK stand? The government has welcomed Obama's decision, while emphasising that "we are not planning a military intervention" (which is not quite the same as ruling it out). After being defeated by MPs over intervention in Syria last summer, and with a general election just nine months away, Cameron is wary of engagement. But he has asked officials to establish "what more we can do to provide help to those affected, including those in grave need of food, water and shelter in Sinjar area."

He added: "I welcome President Obama’s decision to accept the Iraqi Government’s request for help and to conduct targeted US airstrikes, if necessary, to help Iraqi forces as they fight back against ISIL [sic] terrorists to free the civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar. And I fully agree with the President that we should stand up for the values we believe in – the right to freedom and dignity, whatever your religious beliefs."

Given the UK's role in the 2003 invasion, widely blamed for the sectarian strife in Iraq, some MPs argue that the government has a moral obligation to act. Mike Gapes, a Labour member of the foreign affairs select committee, and its former chairman, tweeted: "Why is weak Cameron ruling out UK support for @KurdistanRegion in exisential fight v ISIL terrorist butchers? Contrast Major 91." 

But in the absence of a sudden change of heart in Downing Street, it looks likely that any UK involvement will be strictly non-military. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.