The splits over Brexit in the election campaign distract from bigger realities. As usual

So no news in the fact  that  the DUP and Sinn Fein remain at odds over Brexit. Sinn Fein’s new Northern leader Michelle O’Neill rejects Theresa May’s assurances on an open  *frictionless?”  border.

Mrs O’Neill said: “What we are very sure of is the implications of a hard Brexit are going to mean a hard border – a soft border is a nonsense.

Nigel Dodds dismisses this as hot air, adding a twist by reminding the UK government that  moving the border to the Irish Sea would be unacceptable to unionists.

Then came second wind..

Sinn Fein has made clear it intends to use the talks to ensure the British and Irish Governments agree to seek ‘special designated status’ for Northern Ireland when the UK leaves the European Union.

But the party refused to say whether it would be one of its red lines before agreeing to restore the Executive.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds warned: “Nationalists see special status as an opportunity to separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom, with a border in the Irish Sea.

New Sinn Fein leader here Michelle O’Neill said it was “not a day for red lines”.

But she said that it was obvious Brexit will be included in the post-March 2 discussions, which will be chaired by London and Dublin.

Second wind is a little better  than the tiresomely predictable first breaths.  So what line will  the parties take in those ” past March 2 discussions”? Will it be as unmemorable as yesterday’s?

In the election the DUP will   imagine a Brexit Trojan horse trying to sneak inside the walls of unionism and open  the gates to  a united Ireland.  How far will Sinn Fein and the SDLP play the game and will voters be impressed?  Probably. They fall for it every time. Unionists ditto.

Strict construction of the law takes us no further forward. The British government and the courts do not accept that the Remain votes  in Scotland and Northern Ireland translate into a right to remain inside the EU. Mechanically repeating the claim won’t make it happen. The EU says no too, by the way.  But it does increase the chances of a clash between London and Edinburgh further down the line, perhaps as soon as next month, when the Brexit negotiations begin. And it will increase the temperature of the local parties.

We have to keep reminding ourselves that not everything is defined by the British. At least as much will be decided by the EU.  What does “ special status” mean?   Here, the Irish government hold  some sort of initiative. Contrary to charges from Sinn Fein and others, they have not been idle.   The Irish Times’ Pat Leahy has been given a glimpse of the activity within the inner sanctums of Iveagh House and Government Buildings, with the following results.

The Irish position is that the Common Travel Area – legally and practically – can continue completely independently of Britain’s decision to leave.

The officials have conceded it would result in Irish citizens enjoying rights and entitlements in the UK – the right to reside permanently, work and avail of public services, for example – that will not be automatically available to other EU citizens.

Ireland wants as close a trading relationship between the UK and the EU as possible after Brexit.

The last thing Ireland wants is for Britain to be “punished”. That will lead, sources expect, to differences on the EU side of the table between Ireland and some of the other member states.

Ministers stress at every opportunity that Ireland is on the EU side of the table. But it is likely to have differences with some member states.

 

There is constant contact with the British government.

“We accept the rule on no negotiations. But you have to explore the issues. We don’t regard it as a breach of the rule.”

 

So what has all this activity produced so far?

 

Officials are satisfied that the Government appears to be making good progress on the retention of the Common Travel Area

Word has reached Irish Embassies around the continent that Michel Barnier speaks about it as an early priority in the negotiations when he is speaking to other governments.

However, the question of EU-UK relations – and, therefore, British-Irish trade and the role of customs at the Border – remains deeply uncertain.

Senior sources say that the pretty broad EU view is that trade is an EU competence, and if and when the British do exit the customs union then the arrangements with Ireland will be the same as the arrangements with the rest of the EU. If that involves tariffs, it involves tariffs.

 

There will be, officials expect, some EU understanding about how the Border should work in the future, with other countries understanding the Irish position that it should be as soft or invisible as possible.

There may even be some local arrangements for agricultural products that cross and re-cross the Border, speculates one source.

But a special arrangement for Ireland on trade seems very unlikely.

 The idea that Ireland has a unique position on trade is not really being entertained,” says one senior figure.

That will mean a significant economic impact in Ireland. But it will also affect the broader relationship between Ireland and the UK.

 The ties will not be undone, but they will change and economically they will loosen.

In their idle moments, the officials tasked with managing all this sometimes wonder about the magnitude of it all.

One senior figure suggests that Brexit could result in “potentially quite fundamental shifts” in both the relationship between the North and the South, and the relationship between Ireland and the UK.

“It’s going to change the world we live in,” he says. “That’s the reality, that we have to accept.”

At their meeting yesterday the  two prime ministers were more realistic  than optimistic, says Leahy.  So much depends on how close to free trade the British can negotiate with EU 27  in the coming years  and how much leverage the Irish can exert.

A more difficult subject (than the common travel area) is the future of any customs border. May has made clear that she expects the UK to leave the customs union in order to be able to negotiate trade agreements with non-EU countries (the EU negotiates as a bloc on behalf of members of the customs union)

On Monday both leaders stressed they wanted to see a “seamless”, “frictionless” and “trouble-free” Border. But both then explicitly qualified their remarks. The only meaning to take from it was that the Border won’t be seamless, it will be “as seamless as possible”.

In all these interesting briefings  the phrase  “special status” has not be used to apply to the North;  only “some local arrangements for agricultural products that cross and re-cross the Border.”

Real EU hardball or opening shots in a long campaign ? Who can say?   In the present  unknown,  the northern political children will play their own little games.

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