Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy
When, on the eve of the triggering of Article 50, the Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole asked who will be Brexit’s Michael Collins, he didn’t, of course mean who would be the first Brexiteer to be shot by his own side. He had in mind a different vision of Collins: of the man who made the compromises necessary to make independence possible.
The Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 fell far short of the Irish revolutionaries’ expectations. Most famously, they would exercise control over only 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties. But other restrictions on sovereignty were also severe. The 26 counties would not be a fully independent country, as the entity called the “Irish Free State” became officially a Dominion of the British Empire. The Royal Navy retained control of the strategic ports of Berehaven, Queenstown (now Cobh) and Lough Swilly; and the King’s Governor-General continued to reside in what had previously been the Viceregal lodge in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.
These were bitter concessions to swallow, but Collins, who led the Irish negotiating team in his capacity as Finance Minister of the new government, decided it was necessary to accept them. Had he not, he risked what the chief of the Imperial “Task force 50”, Winston Churchill, threatened would be “immediate and terrible war” on a scale far greater than the counterinsurgency, restrained by the standards of the time, that Britain had so far deployed.
Defending the concessions, Collins turned to an indirect argument: he may have not got full independence yet, but he had won “the freedom to win freedom.” All but the most hardline Irish Republicans now concede he was correct. The post of Governor-General was abolished in 1936. The Royal Navy gave up the ports in 1938. Ireland became a Republic in 1949. And though the six counties in Ulster would remain part of the United Kingdom, the Belfast Agreement of 1998 created institutions based on there being two communities in that part of the island. Ireland became independent, but by degrees.
Collins’s strategy would have been familiar to another 20th century independence leader, David Ben-Gurion. Referring to the land allotted to the Jewish community by the UN Partition Plan of 1947, he said “what was decided upon is part of the Land of Israel. Nevertheless, all through our entire history, the Jewish people has never achieved in one moment what has been achieved now.”
In this Ben-Gurion was opposed by the maximalists of the Irgun, and Collins by his own formal boss, Eamonn de Valera. De Valera knew compromises would have to be made, and these would damage the man who made them. He stayed in Ireland and sent Collins to negotiate. Despite Collins’s formal plenipotentiary powers, de Valera ensured that he got the blame for selling out.
In supporting the Prime Minister’s Chequers plan, and even floating the possibility of staying in the EEA while preparations were made for a post-Brexit British economy, Michael Gove appears to have understood what Collins and Ben-Gurion knew. The UK’s position, always weak compared to the EU because of its much smaller size and great distance from alternative trading partners, is made more vulnerable still by the structure of Article 50. Conceived as a deterrent to seceding states, it gives the EU the control of the timetable. Threatening to walk away from the negotiations is merely to pull the pin out of a hand-grenade strapped to one’s own arm (the only country to be as seriously damaged as the UK would be Ireland; the other 27 EU members would be able to weather the consequences with relative equanimity).
Yet, once the UK has left the full structure of the EU’s legal order, it will be easier for it to go further. Leaving the EEA would involve economic dislocation, but not as much as leaving the EU’s regulatory environment completely. The same is true for leaving the customs union. In the meantime, UK business would be able to plan for and adjust to the new environment. Brexit by degrees gives Britain the best chance reducing the damage to acceptable levels, and make the price of freedom one that even a moderate Remainer could understand as being reasonable to pay.
Yet, just as it is easier for the UK to adapt if it can spend time in the decompression chambers of the EEA and EFTA as it ascends towards greater sovereignty, it could also be easier for Brexit to be reversed from there. Not a few Brexiteers might think I am proposing this for precisely this reason.
And as he aligns himself with Brexit by degrees, Gove is being watched by a tall Catholic of stern convictions, as fond of top hats as he is of his own elaborate name. Like de Valera avoided the negotiations, Jacob Rees-Mogg has avoided office, where he might have to dirty his hands with concession and compromise. Outside, he can stay pure, and sanction deviation.
When the Irish put aside their membership of the world’s largest trading bloc, and representation at the Imperial parliament at Westminster, to take back control in Dublin, theirs was an act of supreme economic irresponsibility. It was indeed followed by decades of poverty and stagnation. But, the revolutionaries believed it was justified by advantages of political freedom. In the end, Ireland found a new economic path, and in the end Brexit Britain will, too.
That they did so by degrees was too much for the hardliners, who rejected the 1921 treaty. They fought a civil war against Irish Free State, during which Collins was assassinated. Brexit’s revolution is peaceful, and there’s no question of violence being deployed. But if he can steer the Government towards Brexit by degrees, Gove will need to defend his patriotism against political attack from the hardliners on his own side.