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6 March 2017updated 15 Mar 2017 11:36am

On Northern Ireland, Daniel Hannan is either ignorant or cynical

Perhaps the Tory MEP's dislike of the EU is a matter of faith, not logic. 

By Jonn Elledge

Last week I ran a Twitter poll, to gauge, basically, whether people thought Daniel Hannan’s errors were more accurately credited to dimness or duplicity. The results were, ah, inconclusive.

The reason that there’s so little consensus on this matter is, I suspect, the same reason I asked the question in the first place: that Daniel Hannan is so often loudly and provably wrong that it’s genuinely baffling. He’s a clever man, in so much as he went to Oxford and writes in that allusion-packed way that suggests a man of reading and intellect. And yet, he keeps say stuff that is demonstrably nonsense.

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Take this, for example:

Now, I’m very far from an expert on Northern Irish politics, so I need to tread carefully here. But I don’t think anybody would argue that it was EU itself that brought peace to Northern Ireland. Lots of people were involved in the Peace Process: Bill Clinton, John Major, Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam, plus all the leaders in Northern Ireland who agreed to stop fighting each other and get round a table and thrash it out, to name just a few.

But read that tweet from Europa_Nexus again: “The European Union and the rights created generated peace in the whole of Ireland.” (Emphasis mine.) Whoever wrote that is not trying to imply, as Hannan’s snarky response suggests, that they think Jean-Claude Juncker got in there and single-handedly sorted things out like Iron Man. They’re pointing out that the fact both Britain and Ireland were in the EU helped make peace possible – that the existence of the EU was a factor.

And – the EU was a factor. And the way that I know this is because people who worked on the Good Friday Agreement keep saying it is. Those people include the US Senator George Mitchell, who recently told Sky News: 

“I believe that the European Union was an important factor that led the United Kingdom and Ireland to co-operate in establishing a process that led to the Good Friday Agreement and I think the UK being out of the European Union may reduce the prospect for further co-operation.”

Then there’s Sir John Major, who last week gave a speech on Brexit in which he noted that the vote could endanger the peace process:

“Many years of painstaking effort went into the Irish Peace Process which, even apart from Brexit is at a fragile moment. Uncertainties over border restrictions between Ulster and the Republic are a serious threat – to the UK, to the peace process, and for Ireland, North and South. A special deal will be necessary.”

So why was the EU so helpful? Well, for one thing, it meant that both Britain and Ireland were part of a political union that has a sixty year history of taking arguments about national interests out of the realm of war, and into the realm of boring wonkish arguments in conference centres.

More than that, though, EU membership, and the freedom of movement it entailed, meant that narrow concepts of nationality became less important. (This is one of things Hannan’s so annoyed about, one assumes.) It made it possible to live in Northern Ireland and consider yourself Irish, not British, without your exact political rights becoming an affront to your identity; it helped drain some of the poison from the debate. This tweetstorm by the writer Seamas O’Reilly is worth reading in its entirety, but for our purposes this is the key part:

Brexit risks undoing all of this. For one thing, a majority in Northern Ireland don’t want it; yet despite the fact Good Friday Agreement promised that no constitutional change would happen without the consent of the province’s people, they seem likely to get it anyway. So that’s a great start.

Secondly, if UK leaves the customs union and the Republic of Ireland stays in – as seems likely – that implies the existence of a hard border between the two. Everybody and their dog thinks this would be bad, both politically and economically, which is why there’s talk of a special deal to avoid it; but it’s remarkably difficult to work out what such a deal would look like, so we shouldn’t assume one will be forthcoming. (Even if it is, it may effectively mean moving the border to the Irish Sea, which sounds like a nifty way to push Northern Ireland into the arms of the Republic.)

Oh, and Brexit may well trigger a recession in Ireland. It would take almost superhuman powers of patience and tolerance on the part of the Irish government for this not to sour relations with UK.

At any rate – the point is that the European Union helped make peace possible, and that serious people are worrying that Brexit will undermine it. This is not a fringe position advocated by froth-mouthed Remainiacs.

Daniel Hannan presumably knows all this: he is, it’s said, a very clever man. So why is he tweeting stuff implying that there is no relationship whatsoever between EU membership and peace in Northern Ireland? Either he doesn’t know about the issues; or he knows about them, but is ignoring them to bash his opponents. Either ignorant, or cynical.

Actually, there is a third option: that his views on Europe have left the realm of rationality and entered the domain of faith. It is possible to know a truth, and yet still reject it, without being conscious of lying at all, providing your belief is strong enough. Perhaps Daniel Hannan’s belief in Brexit, and in the fallen nature of the European Union, is of this kind.

Fair play to him: I have nothing against faith. But the interaction of faith and politics has done untold damage to Ireland down the centuries. We all, I think, assumed those days were over. Perhaps we were wrong.