While the world is transfixed by Trump, we made a little quiet progress on the interlinked politics of Brexit and the future of the Assembly. What did we get from Theresa May’s immersion in the generally anti-Brexit atmosphere of the joint ministerial committee and a summit with Enda Kenny?
A warm gesture of commitment, that’s what, riding above the divisions which leave her unfazed for now and rather more than we might have expected, in the form of an article above her name in the Irish Times. Quite a gesture from such a reserved character. And while lots of questions of detail remain, she has shown consistency between her Lancaster House speech and her talks with the taoiseach in Dublin and the devolved “nations” in Cardiff. Nicola Sturgeon left frustrated and uttering ominous threats. In Brexit politics, the Scottish First Minister has been unable to seize the initiative and is beginning to sound like a cracked record. But there were reassurances for both kinds of Irish.
From Mrs May’s Irish Times article
I want to reassure people about the travel arrangements between our two countries – particularly when it comes to the Border.
I am wholeheartedly aware of what is at stake in Ireland and Northern Ireland as the UK leaves the EU.
I saw first-hand as home secretary the benefits of the Common Travel Area.
The UK and Ireland have a shared interest in making sure that the Common Travel Area can continue; this arrangement has been in place long before our two countries joined the EU and we are determined to preserve it.
There is a very strong commitment from the Irish Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK government to find a practical solution that recognises the unique economic, social and political context of the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
How the border will actually work for movement and immigration remains to be decided it seems – no details yet. Also for the movement of goods, given that ..
Instead of membership of the single market, we will seek the greatest possible access to the single market through a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement. That agreement may take in elements of current single market arrangements in certain areas – for example, the freedom to provide financial services across national borders, which directly connects Dublin and the City of London.
A suggestion there perhaps that the UK might actually support the relocation of euro specific branch offices from the City to Dublin.
Vincent Boland in the FT(£) has a vivid piece from “ cross border Derry” which shows that a hard border is virtually impossible. Here is a couple of choice quotes:
Gregory Campbell, the Democratic Unionist MP for East Londonderry, snorts at Derry’s presumptions. He accepts there is co-operation with neighbouring counties in the Republic, but only on specific projects such as sharing healthcare facilities. He also does not share the fear over the return of a hard border. “It’s a practical impossibility,” he says.
Preventing a “hard border”, even in the event of a hard Brexit, has fostered an unusual degree of consensus across Ireland, from the DUP on the right to the socialist party People Before Profit. “There has never been such unity across this island as on no return of the border,” says Eamonn McCann, who represents People Before Profit in the outgoing Northern Ireland assembly.
But on the immediate politics
Sinead McLaughlin, chief executive of Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, says: “We see ourselves very much as a city-region. The synergies with Donegal are that we’re both peripheral and we’ve both been left behind…
The two main parties — the DUP and Sinn Fein — have outsourced whatever negotiating positions they might possess, the former to Westminster and the latter to Dublin. “The conversation has been closed down here,” laments Ms McLaughlin.
In Cardiff where the JMC met instead of Belfast because of the Stormont collapse, NI minds were elsewhere, according to Gareth Gordon of the BBC, but not entirely unhelpfully
Arlene Foster has said she and Michelle O’Neill must work together if the DUP and Sinn Féin remain the two largest parties after the assembly election.
Mrs O’Neill said she was the only politician at the meeting representing the “democratic will” of the people of Northern Ireland to remain in the EU.
She said she argued that NI should have “special status” in the EU.
As the Belfast Telegraph reports, Sinn Fein are still pursuing their campaign for special status for Northern Ireland within the EU. But they should bear in mind that the outcome of Brexit although uncertain may be better than they fear ( or hope?).
Aggressive nationalism is unlikely to make much impact during the two years of negotiations, as Ms Sturgeon is finding out. Its chance may come later, depending on the outcome.
The devil will be in the detail, on an open border for access and free trade north and south, east and west, different systems for agriculture finance and the future of integration in agriculture and the energy market – and not least, the devolution of powers from Brussels. All parties would be better advised to get down to the detail, instead of persisting with increasingly hopeless positions.
Sinn Fein will hardly be pleased to hear Enda Kenny singing in unison with Theresa May. They might do better to act in solidarity with the other southern parties over Brexit – all of whom also support the return of a functioning Assembly.
Fintan O’Toole has written a sweeping indictment of the DUP for putting all its cards on Brexit
The English nationalists who drove Brexit don’t really care about the union – under the rhetorical covers, they will ditch Northern Ireland and Scotland if need be.
They were playing with loose change. The DUP was playing with the deeds to its house.
It has thus done more to advance a united Ireland than the Provisional IRA managed in 30 years of mayhem.
In the short term, there is likely to be a border for the movement of people that separates the island of Ireland as a whole from the island of Britain as a whole.
However loyally British you may be, you will have to show her majesty’s passport when you land in Stranraer from Larne or in London from Belfast – but not when you drive from Newry to Dundalk.
In the longer term, the Northern Irish identity to which 20 per cent of the population adheres and from which unionism could draw its greatest comfort will be profoundly undermined because it was predicated on Northern Ireland being in the European Union.
If nationalism is such a narrow and cynical force, it isn’t clear to me how the Irish variety can be superior to the English. While Brexit undoubtedly opens up another front for Irish unity its impact will become manageable if Theresa May’s optimism translates into reality. Theresa May had a good day and did not present the narrow face of English nationalism, but there will be other and worse days.
And yet Fintan’s wider point holds good permanently : that the survival of the Union long term depends of genuine power sharing and mutual good faith and civility.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London