Theresa May holds the initiative as she makes promises on an open border

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.


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  • Fear Éireannach

    Promises, promises. The devil is in the detail.
    You could have softish border, but still one in which cross border trade was more difficult than now, And while manufactures might move smoothly enough, she has not clarified the situation with agribusiness, which is important.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    There is no ‘Northern Ireland and Ireland’ as Mrs May refers to the two political entities on this geographical landmass. It’s Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is not a semi detached geographical feature of Ireland any more than it’s a semi detached political feature of the UK.

  • Nevin

    Concubhar, you’re muddling up political and geographical labels; Theresa is using the political labelling of 1998 and earlier:

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    Then who’s muddling up labels? Theresa should get up to date. As should you. My name is easy enough to spell – these childish attempts at nicknames have no place on Slugger and should be confined to the school playground.

  • Nevin

    Ahem, the glories of predictive text!

  • Brian Walker


  • Katyusha

    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.

    Progressive nationalism vs. right-wing nationalism.
    Civic nationalism vs. ethnic nationalism.
    An aspiration to build an inclusive society rather than an exclusive one.
    An assertion of the nation as one among equals, rather than a superior, imperialst force.
    A nation built on solidarity and self-awareness, rather than one built on privilege and obliviousness.

    Well, that was easy. I’m all for a revival of English nationalism, in a mature and coherent form, but what passes for “English nationalism” at the moment is simply a vehicle for a unconcealed xenophobia. And if they really wanted to assert England as a nation rather than reminiscing about the empire, they’d have let go of Scotland long ago.

  • file

    Ireland is the name of the state: republic of Ireland is the description of the state.
    “The distinction between a description and a name has sometimes caused confusion. The Taoiseach, John A. Costello introduced the legislation with an explanation of the difference in the following way:[11]

    If I say that my name is Costello and that my description is that of senior counsel, I think that will be clear to anybody who wants to know…[Similarly, the state’s] name in Irish is Éire and in the English language, Ireland. Its description in the English language is “the Republic of Ireland.”

    Many countries include reference to “republic” in their names including the “French Republic” and the “Italian Republic”. In contrast, other republics, like Ireland and Hungary do not do so.”
    it is easy to find these things out.

  • Nevin

    file, you should have addressed your remarks to Concubhar; it’s quite clear that Theresa was using the names that appear in the various official documents.

  • file

    Nevin, sometimes Concubhar does not want to talk to me. It is not a matter of official documents or pre-1998 terminology: she used the current correct terminology. The description of the state as The Republic of Ireland is in Irish Law. The name of the state as Ireland (if you are speaking English) is in the Irish Constitution. And everyone knows that Norn Iron is called Norn Iron, even those who cannot bring themselves to say Norn Iron.

  • Nevin

    file, I introduced Arlene as the Norn Iron Lady back in December 2015!

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    “File”, for that’s what he calls himself, as opposed to being a description, likes to talk about logic and confused thinking. It’s a nonsense to have “Ireland” and “Northern Ireland”. It doesn’t work geographically and it’s confusing politically.

  • the moviegoer

    “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.”

    I think the point is that British nationalism – which is Ulster unionism’s stated raison d’etre – is fast disappearing as a national identity in mainland UK.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    All Theresa May’s talk about ‘the greatest possible access to the single market’ is just waffle of the flimsiest sort. In all other ways she is positively seeking to antagonise the rest of the EU – and they in turn are becoming more and more antagonistic towards her. The EU members are the only ones who can deliver access to the single market, and they have made it abundantly clear that it will not be forthcoming without the 4 freedoms being attached. So all May’s talk of access to the single market is just stories to re-assure the less committed members of her party.

    I hope however that the Irish Government will hold her to her promises re the border – that will help during the next Scottish independence referendum.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Actually English nationalism seems to be on the rise – but I don’t think they generally see the Northern Irish Unionists as being ‘English’ – or at least not ‘proper’ English. Not proper enough to be given much consideration anyway.

  • Angry Mob

    “The EU members are the only ones who can deliver access to the single market, ”

    Common misconception, the EFTA members can also enable continued access to the single market although Ms May has ruled that out for project May-hem.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    OK. The point I was making is that it is completely out of May’s control to deliver what she says she will. The rabid right will not allow her to compromise, and the EU will not make any compromises to please the tory right.

  • john millar

    “I think the point is that British nationalism – which is Ulster unionism’s stated raison d’etre – is fast disappearing as a national identity in mainland UK.”

    The classic error
    Ulster unionism’s stated raison d’etre is “not part of the Republic of Ireland” thanks

  • the moviegoer

    Well, I said “stated” reason because I don’t think Britishness is actually that important to Ulster unionists, it’s more about Protestantism and Ulster nationalism than anything. But the British identity seems to be the big fig leaf that’s put over that nowadays.

  • AntrimGael

    This is a sham fight; May looked totally disinterested and is blowing out platitudes and a load of hot air while Enda continues to look lost and like the guy with his hand up who wanted to go to the toilet but now realises it’s too late. It’s the EU who will dictate borders on this island and NOT the South or UK. Europe is determined to punish Britain and send out a message to the 27 members not to even think about leaving. While the EU has pumped a lot of money into the North and border counties they will demand that Dublin imposes the strictest of customs/travel borders and in the wider picture, and in the interests of Germany and France, doesn’t give a damn about the Peace Process. If borders posts/checkpoints are attacked and violence restarts the politicians in Brussels and Strasbourg will tut tut and go about their business; it’s NOT their problem and DOESN’T affect them.

  • billodrees

    Teresa May’s promise’s are meaningless. Any international border between EU and Non-EU/Custom Union Zones has certain requisites. It is not in May’s power to define what the EU need or wants in place.

  • Fear Éireannach

    A few realities on the promises from May.

    May’s plan for ‘frictionless’ border with Ireland after Brexit cannot be achieved, MPs told
    Lisa O’Carroll

    Theresa May’s declaration that she wants a “seamless, frictionless border” post Brexit in Ireland amounted to meaningless “nice words”, the government
    has been told.
    The Northern Ireland affairs select committee has been told by two customs lawyers with decades of experience of border controls that the continuing free movement of goods is legally impossible if the UK quits the Customs Union in a hard Brexit.
    Retired customs trade lawyer Michael Lux, who worked for the German ministry of
    finance, has said Theresa May can do what she likes once the UK leaves
    the European Union but that Ireland Taoiseach Enda Kenny will have to
    apply EU law with no choice but to have customs checks on the border. He
    said: If Northern Ireland is no longer part of the customs
    union, Ireland is obliged to apply all these rules, what is done on the
    UK side if it’s outside the EU they can do what they want.
    His two hours of evidence drew audible gasps from MPs as he told how every
    vehicle carrying goods worth more than €300 crossing from Ireland into
    Northern Ireland would have to be stopped, even if only “for a few
    minutes” and checked.
    Every driver would have to have an “export declaration” document before travel which would have to be cross-checked by a human being at a border check.
    “It is important to understand, it isn’t just about customs, it is also about VAT and excise on alcohol and cigarettes,” he said.
    Dux, who has 40 years experience in customs trade law, told how dogs taken for a walk from south of the border would need documentation as would horses being ridden for pleasure on the border region. This is currently the case on the
    German/Swiss border, he said.
    His comments do not bode well for May and Kenny who have warned that a return to the checkpoints of the past could imperil the fragile peace in the region.
    Asked by Lady Hermon what he thought of Theresa May’s comments this week in Dublin when she said she wanted a “seamless, frictionless border”, Dux replied: “Well these are nice words but what does that mean?”
    Even if the export declaration paperwork was electronic, a customs official would still be required to check the reference number for the freight and declare the
    “export movement closed” he said.
    Lux told how cross-border customs charges and possible tariffs could be the death-knell for cross-border dairy production. Medium-sized
    businesses might need two people to do the administration, or they
    could use an agent which would charge typically between €50 and €80 per
    consignment for an export declaration number, explained Lux.
    Even if shrewd businesses got the cost of the export declaration document down
    to €20, the cost of continually moving milk and milk products back and
    forth would be prohibitive, Lux said.
    Asked if Northern Ireland could get a “waiver” from the EU because of the special conditions pertaining to the island, lawyer Eric Pickett, an expert in World Trade
    Organisation rules and international trade law, said this was legally impossible.
    “It would be a strict violation of WTO law,” he said.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    The survival of the union is no longer even a question. It’s gone, it’s a dead parrot, it is going to meet it’s maker. etc. etc. The only questions that remain are: when will Scotland leave the UK, will NI become united with the rest of Ireland, will Gibraltar secede to Spain, and will Wales grow a pair.

    The UK is finished as a functioning organisation, as recognised by Fintan O’Toole above. The rise of English nationalism, the political selfishness and arrogance of the tory party and the stubborn stupidity of Theresa May will put the tin lid on it, and not before time.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    What are these Ulster unionist farmers going to live on when EU subsidies stop and UK replacements never begin, and the border is high tariffed? It’ll be back to the bronze ploughs and the cold porridge, breakfast, dinner and tea.

  • john millar

    “What are these Ulster unionist farmers going to live on when EU subsidies stop and UK replacements never begin, and the border is high tariffed? It’ll be back to the bronze ploughs and the cold porridge, breakfast, dinner and tea.”

    I suspect that events will affect farmers regardless of their politics

    ! Tariffs cut both ways
    2 EU subsidies are declining year on year and have a relatively short shelf life Farmers earned 22% of total annual receipts from government support over the 2008-10 period, down from 39% annually over the 1986-88 period.

    The end of subsidies will be welcome

  • Fear Éireannach

    This may be true, but we need to be careful not get pulled into the propellers as the ship goes down.

  • Fear Éireannach

    Do these averages reflect your average NI farm?

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    I suspect that the actual farmers are not so sanguine.

  • john millar

    No averages involved figures are abhsolute.