Ireland must seek EU permission to make a draft bilateral deal with Britain

Dublin reaction to Theresa May’s big Brexit speech is understandably cautious verging on the sceptical.   Is more substantial content  to be expected when Theresa meets Enda in Dublin next week,  no doubt to discuss  her hopes that an open-ish border can be achieved  through  “frictionless “ trading monitored digitally  and immigration rules enforced mainly through national insurance and taxation rather than entry points?

Probably not,  even though the promptness of the visit after the speech is welcome and she has just told MPs at PMQs that she and the taoiseach are “one page” over no return to the border of the past, whatever that means.  She will surely urge Enda  to act as an advocate for the British approach; he is bound to be more cautious for fear of using up  too much  political capital too soon.  He regards himself as bound by EU rules deferring negotiations  until Article  50 is triggered. Fair enough; we don’t have too long to wait.

In the Dáil, the Taoiseach said he looked forward to the negotiations which will start once the British trigger the article 50 exit mechanism before the end of March.

“That is where the serious issues of the outcomes of the prime minister’s statement today will be dealt with in minute detail,” Mr Kenny said. “We will argue vociferously for our country

How much can be done bilaterally between the two governments, while the main business is between  the UK  and EU 27?

Phil Hogan, Ireland’s EU commissioner urges his government to  a find solutions  via the  EU system rather than over- concentrating on the Dublin-London relationship. There are obvious pitfalls in sticking too rigidly to either approach and the choice is not binary. But  Dublin’s initial EU –facing  approach  is criticised by John Walsh in the Times.(£)

The House of  Lords released a report before Christmas recommending that the British and Irish governments negotiate a bilateral agreement to preserve the common travel area, which would then be presented to the European Commission for ratification as part of a final settlement. The taoiseach and Michael Noonan, the finance minister, dismissed the report and said that the government would negotiate in unison with the other 27 member states.

This was a mistake. At least if there was a separate agreement between Britain and Ireland, the government could use it as leverage in negotiations. If, as it seems likely, talks between the Britain and the EU descend into brinkmanship over the next few years, the status of the Irish border will become a secondary consideration.

Ireland exports 15 per cent of its goods and services to Britain and 30 per cent of imports come from the UK. Some 200,000 jobs are dependent on trade with the UK, and most of these are in SMEs and the food and drink sector.

If there is a hard Brexit, the domestic economy will take a disproportionate hit. The planning that is needed to help companies prepare for a trade cliff edge cannot be overstated. That is why a Brexit department within the government is needed — at a very minimum.

Earlier this month the Lords EU Committee concluded : 

We do not underestimate the legal and institutional difficulties of translating such recognition into a final agreement. Yet the unique nature of UK-Irish relations necessitates a unique solution  The best way to achieve this would be for the EU institutions and Member States to invite the UK and Irish Governments to negotiate a draft bilateral agreement, involving and incorporating the views and interests of the Northern Ireland Executive, while keeping the EU itself fully informed. Such an agreement would then need to be agreed by EU partners, as a strand of the withdrawal agreement.

Surely the time is coming soon for Ireland to produce a strategy  beyond hand wringing and  to answer Theresa May’s? Ireland need not be passive. She may be only one of 27 but unlike the UK she cannot be punished by her partners for taking up a clear position if she favours  a generous  response to Brexit, in Ireland’s own interest.

It would be advisable to flag up the special interests of Ireland north and south before immersion in the main negotiations.   In the meantime, please note that  the  repeated claim that no one  in  Britain cares about Ireland is unfounded.