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  1. The Staggers
24 February 2023

Can Rishi Sunak solve the Brexit Schleswig-Holstein question?

There’s one way to end the stalemate over Northern Ireland.

By Jonn Elledge

The Schleswig-Holstein question, the infamous foreign policy problem that baffled European diplomats for much of the mid-19th century, concerned an equation with no solution. Schleswig, a duchy on the Jutland peninsula, absolutely had to be part of Denmark; it could also absolutely never be divided from Holstein, the next duchy south; Holstein, meanwhile, absolutely had to be part of Germany; and Germany and Denmark absolute had to be separate. A equalled B, B equalled C, C equalled D, but D absolutely could not equal A. Oh dear. This had all been fine during the centuries when feudalism and multiple identities were all the rage, but once the era of nationalism kicked in, the contradictions became untenable – and the result, inevitably, involved war.

A resumption of hostilities on the island of Ireland remains, one hopes, unlikely, but you don’t have to squint that hard to spot the parallels. Great Britain and Northern Ireland have to be in the same economic bloc; Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland absolutely have to be in the same economic bloc; but, thanks to Brexit – brought about, as it happens, by a surge of nationalism – Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland absolutely cannot be in the same economic bloc. Again, an equation, with no solution.

This has not, of course, stopped anybody from looking for one, and now the leadership of the Conservative Party is in the hands of people with at least one foot on this plane of reality they’re trying again. The Northern Ireland protocol, which allows goods to cross the Irish border without checks, worked by moving those checks to Northern Ireland’s ports. This, though, creates a harder border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, which nobody is much of a fan off. So Rishi Sunak and his government have been engaged in furious negotiations with the EU and assorted business groups, in search of a way to exempt goods from Britain which aren’t destined to enter the EU from the same degree of checks.

[See also: PMQs today: Keir Starmer plays Rishi Sunak and Tory MPs off against each other]

Still with me? Well, it doesn’t matter if you’re not, because the key point for our purposes is that certain people are kicking and screaming about the very thought of any of this. The groups in question include the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, who keep banging on about community consent, which didn’t seem to matter to them when it was the other community whose consent was required; the European Research Group, a couple of dozen Tory backbenchers who’ve got it into their heads that, thanks to a referendum seven years ago, they, personally, should get a veto on all British foreign policy choices for the entire rest of time; and Boris Johnson, a man who is willing to indulge them in that fantasy just so long as it moves him even an inch closer to political resurrection, and who is not going to let a small matter like it having been his government which agreed the Northern Ireland protocol in the first place get in his way.

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I’m not sure how concerned any of these groups are with the minutiae of red lanes and green lanes, paperwork and rules concerning chilled meats. Their objections feel less about policy and more about ideology, and any step towards giving the EU even a single thing that it wants (surely inevitable in any negotiated deal) will be greeted by cries of betrayal. So as long as they get a veto, the equation cannot be solved: A equals B, B equals C, but under no circumstances can A be allowed to equal C.

Luckily for the vast majority of us, there is a path that doesn’t require the approval of those groups. Keir Starmer has made clear that his Labour Party would be open to endorsing Sunak’s deal on the protocol. That could end the stalemate over Northern Ireland, at the tiny cost of unleashing yet more factional chaos within the Conservative Party.

Another bit of 19th-century politics may be relevant here. In 1846, a Conservative prime minister, Robert Peel, voted with the Whigs and Radicals to repeal the corn laws. That was a good result for the British people, who got to benefit from cheaper food; but by going against the landowner interest, he brought down his own government and broke his party in two.

Now Sunak, too, has an opportunity to put the interests of his country over those of his party and his career. I wonder if he’ll take it.

Read more:

Boris Johnson’s intervention on Brexit is really aimed at Rishi Sunak

Is Boris Johnson plotting to take down Rishi Sunak?

The Brexiteers are still living in a fantasy world

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