Article 50: Will Northern Ireland feature?

Picture from RTE.

There can be little doubt that any of the political theatre surrounding this week’s delivery of Article 50 was intended for a domestic British audience. However  EU Council President Donald Tusk was moved to remark that it was “a sad day”, a sentiment, no doubt with resonance elsewhere, which went beyond his rather dry tweet that

“After nine months the UK has delivered”

Although it was the first official act given by the British Government to Brussels of withdrawal, it certainly came as no surprise to anyone on either side of the channel. Most officials in Brussels are as aware as anyone else as to what’s been happening in the UK. Most British newspapers and news channels sources are widely accessible in Brussels with officials and lobbyists analysing every Government announcement to see what it could reveal about the UK’s intended outcome from the negotiations. What has become apparent in the months since the vote last June is that the issue of Northern Ireland seems to be on the EU’s radar going-into the negotiations.

The EU’s three main institutions; Council, Commission and Parliament already have their ‘Brexit teams’ in place and the issue of Northern Ireland can be seen in their sights.

In the Commission, the well-decorated former French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier has been tasked as “Chief Negotiator” (Though he’s likely to prefer the term Négociateur principal ). He is to lead the Commission’s rather long-winded “Task Force for the Preparation and Conduct of the Negotiations with the United Kingdom under Article 50”, a 28-man team which includes Tadhg O’Briain, who has previously spent four years working as an economist in the Northern Ireland Department of Finance. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker also mentioned the border issues, when he said last month:

“We don’t want to have hard borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic. We want to have the Good Friday Agreement not to be put under risk and we want land borders be as open as possible. Because the Irish challenges in this very contexts are not only Irish challenges, they are European challenges…. We don’t want to see the Good Friday agreement damaged in any way that’s the real priority for us”

For its part the European Parliament will pass a resolution on Article 50 next week, having issued a draft text last night in which they urge:

“that all means and measures, consistent with European Union law and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, be used to mitigate the effects of United Kingdom’s withdrawal on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland;


“insists in that context on the absolute need to ensure continuity and stability of the Northern Ireland Peace Process and avoid the reestablishment of a hard border.”

Parliament has appointed Guy Verhofstadt MEP, an outspoken former Belgian Prime Minister as its chief draughtsman on the Brexit issue. His position in interesting one as he’s also and one of the heads of the Liberal-Centrist ALDE group in the European Parliament. A group which contains only MEP from the UK although it does also have Sligo-based independent MEP, Marian Harkin as one of its better-known members.

It is clear that Verhofstadt is well-aware of the issues surrounding Northern Ireland. He is quoted in one of his first statements on the issue as saying:

“One of the greatest challenges in the forthcoming negotiations will be the acute need to find a solution for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, so that a new hard border dividing them is avoided. I am committed to doing my upmost to ensure, from the European Union side, that the specific needs of Ireland and Northern Ireland are prioritised in the negotiations to come.”

But as the ALDE grouping in the European Parliament is dwarfed by bigger grouping Verhofstadt will not be only one with his fingerprints on any Parliament text that passes. He will need to convince the larger Conservative grouping (Which the Tories left in 2009) and the Social-democrat group (which includes Labour). British MEPs (Including the three Northern Ireland) frequently remind observers that they will have a vote on the final Brexit deal, whether or not the House of Commons does. Not forgetting that under the Lisbon treaty the Parliament will also have the right of veto over any future EU-UK trade deal.

The Council of the EU will of course be able to have the Republic of Ireland’s voice at the table during negotiations. The Council president Donald Tusk employs a speech-writer from close to the border, whom has a great deal of experience in UK-EU relations. Tusk recently hosted Taoiseach Enda Kenny for talks on the Northern Ireland issue. The Council has also appointed brainy Belgian ex-diplomat Didier Seeuws to head-up its own “Task-force on the UK”.

What remains to be seen is how the British side of the table will deal with Northern Ireland and how far they will push it in the negotiations. While Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Gibraltar might be quite envious of the seemingly high-place being afforded to Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations the absence of a Stormont government to provide their own input is likely to jar with many. David Davis’ letter to Stormont parties on “common frameworks” may offer some comfort though it’s clear anxieties remain high.

Brexit negotiations certainly won’t wait for Stormont to be restored or a new election, however they are likely to be less than fully substantial while all parties await two crucial elections: those in France and Germany in May and September respectively.

Whether or not Northern Ireland sees a border which is “Hard”, “Soft” or something in between will be the stuff of hard negotiating in the coming years. Whether or not Stormont will have an executive to discuss it remains to be seen.

  • Skibo

    My concern would be that instead of helping secure NI a special arrangement that gives us access to the EU, they (the English) will be proposing a special arrangement for Ireland which would weaken Ireland’s position within the EU.

  • Salmondnet

    And you fear that what England wants will trump what twenty-seven EU states want? If only.

  • 1729torus

    England would likely suffer just as much from a hard border as NI. Google “Operation Stack”.

    It would be a good idea for this blog to put up a very brief piece about how Dover is very vulnerable to any disruption, and how that would clog roads up with trucks and make it exceptionally hard for “just-in-time” manufacturers in Britain.

    Concentrating exclusively on stories about individual agrigoods crossing the NI-ROI border several times a day might produce a misleading impression. People could think that London can use a hard border here as a bargaining chip without risking the M25 literally getting hit by tailbacks from Folkestone.

  • eamoncorbett

    The danger being that a small majority in those 27 could seek to punish the U.K. And consequently this island.

  • Fred Jensen

    I wouldn’t worry about us in the ROI, thanks very much guys, especially the Ulster Unionists, i know you were especially worried about the economic effect of Brexit on the ROI 😉

    I reckon the 1,000 jobs announced today by JPMorgan in Dublin as a Brexit move will ease the pain somewhat.

  • Deeman

    NI is now in the hands of a few elite politicians and diplomats who do not understand NI and have never and will never ever visit here.

    What could go possibly wrong.

  • Reader

    1729torus: …and make it exceptionally hard for “just-in-time” manufacturers in Britain.
    How? You’re talking about imports aren’t you – why should imports be delayed?

  • 1729torus

    Goods can transit several times, and if the roads are blocked in one direction, it will introduce delays in the other. For example, the lorries would be delayed getting back to France to pick up the next load or whatever.

  • Trasna

    And the Irish of course will just toddle after Westminister.

  • Gavin86

    It’s going to be a mess, and will further antagonise Nationalist/Republicans living in the border area.

    When the DUP decided to take the Brexit route, did they not speak to any businesses in their constituencies and realise the impact that this could and will have? I point to a Diageo Baileys case study mentioned on here a number of weeks ago, regarding the impracticalities of moving goods back and forth across a customs border.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I think Northern Ireland’s got enough defiance within it to deal with a bad deal, so the question is if it does somehow get a gift-horse through the hard work of these diplomats, would people here cope?

    I’m very sceptical about NI getting a good deal, I’m confident the UK will claim a few lazy accomplishments such as the Common Travel Area, which was only being threatened by England.

    The fact is that the EU nations has soverignty over its much bigger market than the UK, which is bargining to get slightly in. The U.K. has two main problems, its internal unpreparedness and its external lack of influence among other countries, indeed both these problems are at work in driving the Scottish and Irish nationalist movements seeking a breakaway from the UK.

    Not really the EU’s problem to save the UK from itself if it’s too proud to ask.

    Replace EU with the Republic of Ireland there too.

  • Kevin Breslin

    But Brexiteers know everything about everything, their opinion is God. Surely you don’t realise with the power of Brexiteer opinions the UK resurrection to a global superpower is now manifest destiny?

    Sarcasm, you got to love it … Who’s up for some biscuits and jam?

  • Kevin Breslin

    Apart from a frame of reference, in manufacturing goods can be transferred back and fourth across borders.

    Perhaps that is why Milford said Brexit will destroy most of UK manufacturing … And after the likes of Hoey and co evangelicalize the return of heavy industry will see it not only not return, but take high tech manufacturing with it.

    As an engineer, I largely rejected that those on the real Leave side would want people like me doing anything but calibrating foreign-bought armaments and preventing nuclear missiles from going off.

    It’s clear they’ve never had to manufacture anything in Europe in their lives.

  • Deeman

    If NI gets special deal with access to the single market and within the U.K, I will be too busy running my new bank that I have just set up to post on here.

  • Kevin Breslin

    UK cannot impose anything on the Republic of Ireland state other than harsher border controls, which isn’t claimed to be part of their interest.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well as long as importers face the beurocracy and not the farmers.

  • Skibo

    Kevin, I heard one of the Unionist politicians mention it during a question about a special arrangement for NI when he said it would be more likely there would be a special arrangement for Ireland to trade with the UK.
    I doubt if the rest of the 27 nations would allow it.

  • Skibo

    Kevin, I see no issue with retaining the Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland but that will not mean that posts will not be required. It only covers citizens of the UK and Ireland, not all the EU nationals living in Ireland legally.
    I would have assumed the UK would have to prevent their access.

  • Skibo

    Merely a drop in the ocean as negotiations start.

  • Annie Breensson

    This article goes some way to answering your “How?”, Reader

  • Kevin Breslin

    Honestly if EU nationals want to come to Northern Ireland, I don’t see the benefits of patrolling them given that North-South migration and insular migation is reasonably low.

    If English nationalists are expecting the PSNI to go chasing after Lithuanian hill walkers in the Mournes or in Sheriff Mountain they really need their head examined.

  • Skibo

    Kevin, I see no problem with Lithuanian hill walkers or any EU residents that want to come and work in NI. Never did have a problem with that. What I see being a problem is English seeing NI as an access for EU residents into the UK that then drop into the black market. Worse still Romanians coming in and end up begging and gathering scrap around the home counties!

  • Paul Hagan

    If Romanian nationals come to the UK it’s almost always to work, there must be very few Romanian beggars around anywhere in the UK.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Those Romanian beggars with the luxury swish travel tours around continental Europe to get to merry old England and Loyal Ulster and secret machinations to destroy their culture and annoy their menfolk.

    You’d think that the English residents weren’t funding the likes of prostitution rackets that allow poorest European migrants to get by in a high cost economy.