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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  • secular_state

    The effect of different tarrifs and regulations go deeper. Broadly it is cutting the All Irish market in two. NI will be outside EU tendering system which will greatly affect their ability to win contracts down South. Standards may be different in NI (lower, espcially if US-UK trade deal) and products may have to jump through different hoops to be of the required quality to be sold in the Republic (and other parts of EU). Qualifications may no longer be recognised as parity causing problems for people working presently and in future in opposite juristinctions. With the huge affect on the southern economy, the border NI and the Island economy I would like to see the Republics veto (assuming we have one) on the Brexit deal put to a referendum. THis would put preasure on the UK twoards a ‘soft’ transition period which is sensible anyway.

  • nilehenri

    using the most basic of web apps and spending (wasting?) five minutes of time, i produced this glorious three dimensional graph. it shows which basket i am firmly putting my eggs in. #TeamEurope.
    i think that anyone who thinks that the north will have much of a say is deluded. the tories will keep the dup on a short lease because they add to their numbers in the argument and they have always been a useful tool for the tory narrative.
    apologies for the atrocious labelling, but you get the idea. the colouring reflects my nationalist identity comfortable within its unionist background. ;-P

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    Thanks Brian, some interesting observations there. What will play out over the course of the next few years will impact the lives of everyone here for years to come. We are standing at a crossroads I think. SF launched their case for the north to have designated special status yesterday and I’d be keen to hear from the unionists on this site and get their honest feedback on what SF have proposed:

    Regardless of your own personal opinion on SF, it does seem like they have thought about a strategy for tackling the realities of Brexit. Whether or not it will have any influence on proceedings will remain to be seen however at least they are setting their stall out. Do we know what the DUP’s strategy on Brexit will be? Has it been mapped out as clearly as SF have done here?

  • Brian Walker

    Answer no. Sinn Fein have said more but it sounds like a holding position to me. The DUP are putting their faith in Theresa. Neither are ready to get down to the detail of how Brexit will affect their constituents. Hopefully they will after the election in the Assembly.

  • Brian Walker

    Though stuff .. they could have lots of influence on how the practical details work out and lobby hard for our interests

  • Zorin001

    “The DUP are putting their faith in Theresa.”

    God help us all in that case.

  • lizmcneill

    How does Dodds dismiss a hard border as “hot air” while simultaneously rejecting a border down the Irish Sea? Where does he imagine Brexit Britain’s hard border is going to be?

  • Reader

    lizmcneill: Where does he imagine Brexit Britain’s hard border is going to be?
    I don’t believe in Santa Claus; therefore I don’t worry about how he gets down the chimney.

  • Fear Éireannach

    Brexit is the issue, there is no bigger reality in the short term.

  • Fear Éireannach

    These are precisely the issues and ones that must be dealt with.
    The problem with an Irish veto is that they can only veto a deal, not the Brexit, so the UK would then exit with no deal and that would be worse.

  • secular_state

    There is a case in they Irish courts which will move to ECJ and will decide revocability of A50. In a poll most people (in UK) would be in favour of staying in EU and renegotiang, rather than disorderly Brexit (leave with no-deal).

    It is leverage that perhaps should have been brooched earlier to force Tories to show SOME consideration for NI ROI border etc.

    There is the issue also of access to teh city which is important for the EU, so yea, may be a non-runner now.

  • secular_state

    There has to be a hard border for customs and regulations differences including infrastructure for checking and potentially testing etc. Same rule on any International border: Tarriff must be applied and goods must be of required EU standard. Dodds is clueless

  • secular_state

    The EU hardly bumped after the Italian refereendum and Europe knows all about the Bannon/Putin machine of Breitbart/Cambridge analytic + Russian skullduggery at play in US election and Brexit.
    Granted Bannon will try and destroy EU and he will try and use Brexit to do so, but it probably wont work. We don’t want to lose our civil/labour rights and liberal culture and we dont want to destabilise the continent.
    Trump still has to face at least 3 campaign ties to Kremlin investigations. His admin may not last that long anyway.

  • secular_state

    There is also scope for the ROI as a ‘nimble’ small state to play a unifying role within the EU in face of these external threats. This would help ROI establish its new position in EU (- UK) and also give leverage in negotiations as reward.

  • hotdogx

    I think enda is acting like a fool, playing along with Theresa’s daft plan of fobbing us off with the CTA that we all know is finished. The customs posts go back up and the British don’t care about NI or Ireland. They don’t live here! Sinn Fein are absolutely right on this occasion and I find the British are going to dump us in it and use us as a bargaining chip with Europe. Britain will be punished to some degree, everyone is very annoyed in Central Europe. There is a lot of sympathy for the Irish though.
    If enda wishes to continue this tactic I would hope he would create a united ireland minister and a green paper on unity as a contingency plan while negotiating full EU membership for all of Ireland. A Brexit minister is pointless. This will up the stakes with the British. The whole country will be torn apart again by the British crashing out of the EU with BREXIT car crash politics.
    If enda is not able to stand up to Theresa then we need a new leader!

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    “what the UK government want you wont be far from having a clear picture” – a notion belied by the fact that the May Government have no idea of what they are even able, or will be permitted, to ‘want’.

    “Both theUK and USA know dealing with block of the EU cannot achieve the deals both want and need.”

    And of course the moribund US and it’s feeble poodle the UK will be able to mould the biggest trading bloc around into what they ‘want and need’ Good luck with that one, although, given the spineless ness of many in the EU . . .

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    You have a better ‘reality distortion field’ than the late Steve Jobs. Still completely delusional though.

  • Fear Éireannach

    The problem is that I do not think Dodds is clueless. He is intelligent enough to know that situation right well, he is merely feeding Brexiteer lies.

    Brokenshire is lying too and aligning himself with the DUP.

  • Fear Éireannach

    If the ECJ court case does show that A50 is irrevocable and if there was any prospect of a referendum in the UK on the deal, the Ireland could veto a deal while making clear that they would not veto a settlement with a proper deal for NI. Many ifs there though.

  • eamoncorbett

    If Enda was able to produce a blueprint for unity before the final whistle there would be no cast iron guarantee that EU would accept the result . Spain is nervous over Catalunia and Basque regions and is adamant that Scotland must leave with the rest of the UK , I lmagine they would take the same line with NI.

  • lizmcneill

    You’re saying you don’t believe in a hard border from Brexit? The government wants to leave the single market and to stop freedom of movement. How will they achieve this without customs or immigration checks?

  • nilehenri

    disagree, brokenshire ruled out special status. as this is such a catch-all phrase, it is patently abviuos that the tories want a one size fits all arrangement.
    if they were truly bothered about our interests they wouldn’t have included ireland in the referendum that they were so sure they were going to win.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Dream on Austin, baby. The reprise of Fascism is nothing to laugh about, but it will again fail, as it is built on delusion and malice and pandering to the lowest common denominator.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Stick to the day job, Austin. You’ll never make it in show business

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Weird! Bizarre!