by Frank Schnittger
Thu Dec 21st, 2017 at 10:44:17 PM EST
As Brexit rapidly recedes from the front pages of European newspapers I imagine that problems specific to N. Ireland will induce an even greater yawn in everyone outside Ireland and nerdy political and diplomatic circles. Never mind that problems specific to the Irish border have already effectively meant that the UK has had to concede continued regulatory alignment with the rules of the Single Market and Customs Union post Brexit in phase 1 of the Brexit talks. This in turn rules out the Canada plus, plus, plus option and means the UK will effectively remain within the European Economic Area, whether it realises or not.
Phase 2 talks will now focus on how this can be dressed up as some sort of "bespoke" deal different in name, but not in kind, to continued membership of the Customs Union and Single Market. It never made sense for the UK to leave its largest and closest market behind. The Plus, plus, plus, part will relate to improved market access for financial services, aviation, and radiological products in return perhaps for continued cooperation on fishing quotas and environmental matters. This is the sort of 'horse trading' the EU has always been good at.
Many will, of course argue, that this sort of a "soft" Brexit isn't very much of a Brexit at all: but here the very vagueness of the referendum wording will come to May's aid. The UK will have, formally, left the EU and its aspirations to ever greater political union, and even Brexiteers spoke of the need for continued access to the single market. Net immigration is coming down in any case, and there is nothing to prevent the UK introducing some kind of immigrant registration system which can give the appearance of greater control. The UK might even be allowed to negotiate its own trade deals with countries not on the EU's own priority list for new FTAs provided that the same benefits will also be applied to the EU on a 'most favoured nation' trading basis.
Even the vexed question of ECJ jurisdiction can be finessed by setting up a joint arbitration court as contained in the Canada FTA, provided it does not apply to EU citizens or products and services within the EU. The UK government can present itself as operating as "an equal partner" to the EU even if everyone knows the reality will be that the UK will have to "align" with single market rules and regulations without having a more than consultative role in their amendment and promulgation. Diplomatic wording can smooth over many anomalies.
But the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland and Ireland refuses to leave the front page, in Ireland at least. DUP politicians have been quick to accuse Varadker and Coveney of being "insensitive", inexperienced, and even "aggressive" in their assertion that there can be no return to a hard border in Ireland and that it is up to the UK to come up with a solution to ensure that that is the case. Accusing Coveney of being "aggressive" is reminiscent of Denis Healey's comment that being criticised by (then UK Foreign Secretary) Geoffrey Howe was like "being savaged by a dead sheep".
It is hard to imagine a less aggressive person. All Coveney is doing is articulating a mainstream view that the Good Friday agreement must be protected from the impact of Brexit. To this end he has been putting pressure on both the DUP and Sinn Fein to reconstitute the N. Ireland Executive after a year of paralysis since the last Assembly elections. The negotiating atmosphere in the North has been soured by first, the "Cash for Ash scandal", then by a series of perceived slights against the nationalist community by the DUP, and then by the already poisonous impact of Brexit.
The latest unionist commentator to weigh into the controversy is Irish Times columnist Newton Emerson:
A likelier explanation for the Government's behaviour is that it is thinking only of Brexit - Coveney linked Brexit to Stormont in his RTÉ interview.
If there is no Northern Executive in place to manage regulatory alignment, Dublin has an obvious and urgent interest in stepping into that role. Most trade and Border issues are not devolved, and hence are within British Irish Inter-governmental Conference's [BIIGC - One of the three core institutions of the Good Friday Agreement] remit.
It is a pity this approach seems to have been decided without any recourse to London - Dublin's summit plan is a unilateral demand, in breach of protocol and precedent. Varadkar informed the Dáil he had issued it to UK prime minister Theresa May in person during a particularly fraught stage of the Brexit Border negotiations.
More dangerous is the casual disregard for how this plays within Northern Ireland.
By hammering a bizarre interpretation of the Belfast Agreement into its needs of the moment, the Government risks dealing Stormont a fatal blow.
Accusing the Irish government of a lack of consultation with the UK government is a bit rich given the Irish Government had been trying for many months to persuade the UK government to take Irish border issues seriously. Did May consult Varadker before deciding to leave the Single Market and Customs Union as well as the EU? But the biggest problem is Unionism's wilful denial that Brexit isn't a direct attack on the Good Friday Agreement itself. I was moved to respond (in the comments):
Good article and good comments. Whatever Newton might say, the BIIGC will do what the two governments want it to do, and that, in the current context, means dealing with the fall-out from Brexit and the failure of the two main parties in the North to form a devolved Executive. And while much has been made of a new "assertive" or "insensitive" (take your pick) attitude on the part of the Irish government, the fact is that it is Brexit which has changed the ground rules fundamentally.
In insisting that N. Ireland should also leave the EU, Customs Union and Single market, the DUP is not only ignoring the wishes of a large majority of the people of Northern Ireland, it is placing a large bomb under community relationships within the North and under North South relations. There is no way that such a hard Brexit will not pull N. Ireland further out of the EU's and Ireland's ambit, and unionist claims to the contrary are disingenuous.
All this guff about wanting "a deep and special relationship" is but PR speak to cover up the fact that this is precisely what Brexit is intent on sundering - and, in the N. Ireland context, this means undermining the GFA. Much has been made of the alleged insensitivity of Varadker/Coveney towards unionists, but the reality is that they are only trying to mitigate the worst effects of what has been a giant f*ck you by the DUP and Conservatives to Ireland and the EU.
They will find that neither Ireland nor the EU will take this lying down, and their bleatings now are as nothing to what they will feel when the harsh realities of what Brexit will mean are made clear: A further marginalisation of N. Ireland as the poorest and most neglected part of the UK, and a further divergence in the growth and relative wealth of the south relative to the North.
Much of of the anger of the DUP and unionist commentators is the result of a bewilderment that the Irish government is being so much more assertive, and not too concerned at "how this will play in the North". This is the practical effect of The changing balance of power I have noted previously. Unionists are used to lording it over all in N. Ireland without the slightest concern as to how their comments will play with the Nationalist community in the North, never mind in the Republic of Ireland.
Varadker and Coveney are sending Sinn Fein and N. Ireland unionists a very clear message: restore the devolved institutions of the GFA in N. Ireland or both of them will be taken out of the picture by direct action by the British and Irish Governments. The DUP may think it has the whip hand over the Conservative UK government, but that cuts very little ice in Dublin these days. For the British government, this is tiresome in the extreme, reminiscent of Winston Churchill's great rhetorical evocation of "the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone" emerging from the deluge of the Great War with "the integrity of their quarrel" unaffected by the cataclysms of Europe.
If the First World War wasn't sufficient to resolve the Border question once and for all, it is doubtful that Brexit will, and the DUP have only themselves to blame for placing the border at the centre of controversy once again. Using Brexit to undermine the Good Friday agreement was being too clever by half, and threatens their continued hegemony in N. Ireland, Tory alliance or no.