The Bafta awards on Sunday night saw plaudits showered on The Banshees of Inisherin, a film set 100 years ago on a tiny island off Ireland’s west coast. It is also nominated for an Oscar next month and has been described as a black comedy. Yet, while it has some funny moments, you would need a peculiar sense of humour to consider it comic.
In truth, it is tragic, an allegory of national self-harm, a metaphor for Ireland’s propensity to slide into damaging and destructive disputes for reasons that almost everyone else finds baffling. In The Banshees, two friends fall out because one finds the other boring and doesn’t want to drink with him any longer in the island’s pub. For those who have yet to see the film I won’t spoil it by revealing the plot, but what follows stretches credulity – or it would do if it didn’t take place in Ireland, where odd and even destructive behaviour is expected as part of the national character; and I mean both parts of Ireland.
Whenever it seems as if the ancient enmities have been, if not exactly removed, then suppressed, they have a habit of rising to the surface once more. After the First World War, Winston Churchill lamented that even after great empires had fallen and the entire map of Europe redrawn, “the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone” had emerged once again to dominate British politics. “The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world,” he told MPs in 1922. “It says a great deal for their power to lay their hands upon the vital strings of British life and politics, and to hold, dominate, and convulse, year after year, generation after generation, the politics of this powerful country.”
Churchill had been one of the negotiators of the treaty that divided the island and which the IRA leader Michael Collins correctly saw as his own death warrant when he signed it. Even though they had managed to remove the British from most of the island, pro- and anti-treaty factions then fell on one another in a bitter civil war, which is the backdrop to The Banshees of Inisherin. Rishi Sunak is the latest British political leader to be trapped in this web of countervailing national identities. He is looking to fix in the remaining piece of the Brexit jigsaw that Boris Johnson left unfinished in order to secure a deal on the UK’s withdrawal and win a general election in 2019.
The big gap in the middle of the picture is the Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs the province’s trading relationship with the rest of the UK and the EU. After Brexit, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic became a land frontier between the UK and the EU. So as not to unravel the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which is 25 years old in April, it is widely accepted that this should not be a “hard” border with customs controls and physical barriers.
But how was that to be avoided given the different jurisdictions? The answer was to leave Northern Ireland effectively in the Single Market for goods, still bound by some EU regulations and subject to the European Court. Unionists objected at the time that this would treat the province differently from the rest of the UK but were assured by Mr Johnson that it would not mean a border down the Irish Sea with Britain. To put it charitably, he was being economical with the actualité. Customs checks are still required and some imports are still being treated as though they were entering the EU, even if they will never leave Northern Ireland.
Mr Johnson then introduced a Bill into Parliament to give the Government the power to scrap the Protocol unilaterally because it had turned out to cause the very problems the Unionists feared but which he said would not happen. Mr Sunak wants to withdraw this Bill but is under fire from Mr Johnson for contemplating such a move. The former prime minister and other senior Brexiteers regard this measure as leverage against Brussels to force them to drop the Protocol to which Mr Johnson agreed.
Mr Sunak wants this resolved because the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive have been suspended ever since the DUP walked out in protest at the way the Protocol has left the province semi-detached from the rest of the UK. Under the power-sharing terms of the GFA and complex rules devised at the 2005 St Andrew’s summit, the agreement of the biggest Unionist party is needed for Stormont to function.
That happens to be the DUP, even if it is being squeezed by traditionalists on one side and the Alliance Party on the other. Those who complain that this gives the DUP a “veto” are merely highlighting an element of the GFA they say they wish to preserve. Mr Sunak seems to see this as a trading matter: one proposed solution is to introduce red and green channels for goods coming from Great Britain that might enter the Single Market across the Irish/EU border. But that settles nothing because this is about national identity, as it has always been. With Catholics now outnumbering Protestants in Northern Ireland, the Unionists, who have always felt beleaguered, are concerned about moves towards reuniting the island through consensual referendums.
Any agreement that Mr Sunak strikes with Brussels that continues to treat the province as a halfway house between the UK and the EU will be rejected by the DUP. It would also be opposed by scores of his own MPs because it goes to the very heart of the Brexit question: who governs? To retain any role, however remote, for a foreign court over the activities of Northern Ireland is a non-starter.
Brussels – and many Remainers in this country, for that matter – find it impossible to understand this because they consider it irrational and tied up with outdated rituals and tribal feuds. Moreover, they favour the supranational regulatory and legal controls that were removed when we left the EU and cannot fathom why others wouldn’t appreciate them, too. They regard the Unionists as obdurate and unreasonable, especially when the Protocol gives the province continued easy access to the EU market as well as close ties to Britain. But remaining fully within the UK is a fundamental principle for Unionists and, like Colm in The Banshees of Inisherin, they will go to great lengths to preserve it.