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The border question can be solved, but only once Britain understands what the Irish want

Brexit presents a host of potential problems that Ireland never asked for and could really do without.

One of a number of reasons why I voted Remain in the EU referendum was concern for the uneasy equilibrium that has existed in Northern Irish politics since the 1998 Belfast Agreement. Some of those fears have been realised, played out in the ongoing impasse over the Irish border.

This is proving to be the trickiest issue in the first phase of Brexit talks. It cannot, in point of fact, be truly settled until the final post-Brexit trading arrangements between the UK and the EU are set in place. Yet, as complex as the border is, it is neither an existential threat to the Irish peace process nor inherently insurmountable. Much of the bloviating – encouraged by a culture of excessive leaking, familiar to those of us who lived through the peace process – has been detached from consideration of the hard facts and state interests involved.

From the Irish government’s perspective, Brexit presents a whole host of potential problems that Ireland never asked for and could really do without. Over the past few months, it has played hardball on the border with a tenacity that has surprised many in London. Since his appointment in June this year, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been firmly aligned with the negotiating position of the EU27 in the Brexit talks.

He was apparently rewarded for this by the European Council President, Donald Tusk, who on a recent visit to Dublin promised the Taoiseach a veto on any arrangement proposed by the British. “A veto is something that you use when you’re isolated,” was Varadkar’s reply. “We have 26 countries behind us. We have European solidarity.”

The Irish react with genuine horror to the suggestion that they have anything but the purest of motives compared to the boorish, blundering and bumptious Brexiteers. They are certainly not, contra the claims of the DUP, playing the game of Irish unity. But the balance of forces in Irish domestic politics is not unimportant.

Varadkar is experiencing mounting difficulties in his Fine Gael-led coalition government that are arguably as serious as those currently facing Theresa May. They include an internal party rival in the form of an ambitious foreign minister, Simon Coveney, perched on his shoulder.

Another factor is the challenge to the coalition from Sinn Fein, who have accused the Taoiseach of backsliding. Should any deal fall below their (unreachable) standards, they will demand that their government uses its EU veto. This, in part, explains why the Irish government were so eager to spin a pretty mundane text of agreement with the British as a symbolic victory of principle. And so the wild horses of the DUP – only loosely tethered by Theresa May – took fright and bolted out of the stable. They stand in the field looking frisky and alarmed but they haven’t yet run for the hills.

Beyond this, it is not in the Irish national interest to keep pushing an anti-British line into the second phase of negotiations. Already, a number of savvy centrist Dublin political commentators, such as Dan O’Brien of the Sunday Independent, are worried that their government has taken a gamble. It has even been suggested that Ireland has allowed itself to be “weaponised” by EU negotiators. Some fear that if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal then the Irish agri-food sector – dependent on British consumer markets – will be severely damaged, with dramatic job losses.

Longer term, there are also concerns that Ireland will not be able to resist, ad infinitum, pressure from the European Commission (inspired by Emmanuel Macron) to drop the sweetheart tax deals with multi-nationals that have been at the heart of recent Irish economic policy. And for all the talk of European solidarity, it was the British who offered much more generous terms than the rest of the EU during the external bailout of the Irish economy in 2010.

The border negotiations seem to have broken down over a form of words. This was the distance reported between “no regulatory divergence on the island of Ireland”, as leaked to the Irish press, and the “continued regulatory alignment” in limited sectors governed by the Good Friday Agreement. Something went badly wrong in the choreography. But this should not disguise the fact that there has been a significant degree of convergence between the two sides over the course of the talks.

The Irish originally set out by suggesting that Northern Ireland should remain within the single market and customs union, implying a border “in the sea” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The proposed deal stops far short of that. It also remains the case that nobody, including the DUP, wants to see a hard border on the island of Ireland. In the course of talks, a number of creative technical solutions have been proposed with the intention of making whatever border there is as frictionless as possible. Still, the precise details will depend on the nature of the UK’s long-term trading relationship with Europe. Even today, it is worth noting, the existing border is hardly flawless, with two different currencies, ongoing problems with fuel smuggling and a high terror threat.

This is no masterclass in negotiating from the British. Just as the deal appeared to crystalise, poor management of the DUP saw the government fumble the ball. Beyond that, however, the Irish do not want to sacrifice themselves on the altar of European solidarity, with negotiations poised to move on to matters that touch on their existential economic interests.

The show will most likely get back on the road once the huffing and puffing dies down, and pragmatism over the economics reasserts itself. Even Ian Paisley once conceded that while his people were British, their cows were still Irish.

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.