Colum Eastwood has offered to turn Brexit into an opportunity for the local parties. But the two governments must solve their underlying differences first

It would be easy to dismiss SDLP leader Colum Eastwood’s bid to create an “anti-Brexit axis” as a fig leaf for an SDLP survival strategy in the Westminster general election.  On the analysis, you pays your money and you takes your choice between Chris Donnelly and Daithi McKay here in Slugger.   In contrast, Arlene Foster needs no fig leaf at all. She’s going bare- faced for a straight pact with the UUs on the DUP’s terms to campaign for the Union. Not a word about Brexit.

Yet the significance of Brexit ranges further and deeper than the obsession with elections.

Before we get to local level, there are clear differences between the British and Irish governments about its significance that need to be sorted . There may also be a split between them over the choice between reverting to direct rule and calling another Assembly election. More on that later.

In full pessimistic  mode, Dublin believes that London, by rejecting a bid for continuing membership of the single market and full membership of the customs union,  is aiming for – or must settle for – a  hard Brexit, which logically means a hard border unless special arrangements  can be agreed. Irish pessimism  over the British terms is reinforced by their fears of their own weakness in being able to influence the EU’s reply. Pan nationalist agreement makes little difference. While all that is understandable, Dublin needs to put a braver face on it than the insider reports in the Irish Times are exposing. We’ve a long way to go. Better to do  it by raising morale than overplaying the victim.

In any case the British government see it quite differently. They reject the idea of a hard Brexit altogether. They’re going for free trade arrangements with the EU not far short of the single market and they may be prepared to pay quite a high price for them.  In the meantime they’re refusing to allow any Irish or any Scottish bid for a separate legal status with the EU from the rest of the UK.

Her critics are right. Theresa May isn’t as preoccupied with our affairs as we are,  but she’s not stupid. She well knows that the British negotiating position has boosted nationalism in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Having dismissed specific demands for a special legal relationship with the EU, she must believe therefore that the eventual deal with Europe will be good enough to blunt nationalism’s edge, combined with continuing open access to the English market.

There are some signs that  growing faith in Theresa may be happening already in Scotland.  While putting it in very different terms Colum Eastwood’s anti-Brexit axis can be seen in a similar light, without surrendering the SDLP’s position in eventual unity.  After a shaky start, he  seems to be saying, let’s go with the grain of events and stop tilting at windmills. That opens to door to pragmatic unionism once the electoral dust has settled,  now that the choice of Remain or Leave is redundant.

Whatever it means for the general election results Brexit is  now revealed as much  as an opportunity as a threat  for politics afterwards.   Eastwood has identified a niche for the SDLP to occupy. Sensibly he has not emphasised “special status “for Northern Ireland in his Irish News article. It is a dead letter at least for now. If a phrase is needed, “special arrangements” will do.

The agenda is sitting there, waiting to be picked up from the joint letter from Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness last August. It is reinforced by the EU Lords Committee report which urges calls for bilateral negotiations now between the UK and Ireland now – a position strongly endorsed by Bertie Ahern last week.  The role for Stormont parties is obvious.

Key objectives of any bilateral negotiation should include:

  • Maintenance of the current open land border between the UK and Ireland, as well as of the ease of movement across the sea boundary between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
  • Maintenance of the current Common Travel Area arrangements, and the right of free movement of UK and Irish citizens between the jurisdictions.
  • Maintenance of the right of UK and Irish citizens to reside and work in each other’s countries.
  • The retention of rights to Irish (and therefore EU) citizenship for the people of Northern Ireland.
  • In the event that the UK leaves the customs union, a customs and trade arrangement between the two countries, subject to the agreement of the EU institutions and Member States. 64 Brexit: UK-Irish relations
  • Acceptance of the Northern Ireland Executive’s right to exercise devolved powers in making decisions about the free movement of EU workers within its jurisdiction.
  • Reaffirmation by both governments of their commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements, including continued support for existing cross-border cooperation.
  • Continued eligibility for cross-border projects to EU funding programmes. 263. The EU has a strong interest in supporting this approach.

Sooner or later, working through Brexit will be a requirement for sensible local politicians of all sorts.  On reflection,  the realisation should dawn on  unionists away from election campaign that north-south cooperation of Brexit is no threat to their constitutional position for as long as Northern Ireland elects MPs to Westminster.

But there is a fly in the ointment.  In his long swansong as taoiseach before and after the announcement of the 9 June Westminster election, Enda Kenny has been pressing his insistence to Theresa May that there should be no return to direct rule from Westminster if the talks fail. Kenny seems to imply he would prefer a second Assembly election to anything more than emergency fiscal measures from Westminster- in spite of acknowledging that the parade of elections is inherently divisive.  Yet if deadlock continues after 30 June what other choice is available?

It isn’t clear if Dublin’s approach is purely tactical or based on a belief that Irish citizen rights for northerners under the GFA would not be protected in a hard Brexit and that therefore, the UK alone no longer has the right to settle the internal governance arrangements of Northern Ireland. The British government recently supported by the Miller ruling in the UK Supreme Court would adamantly reject that claim. If not cleared up, this   could be a humdinger of a problem that could put strain on the whole GFA relationship.  All the Unionist parties have already reacted badly to Kenny’s   statement. The governments need to clear it up right away. Prolonging these differences only impedes the chance of constructive engagement between the Assembly parties that the situation demands and Colum Eastwood has offered.

If there is to be another election, would it be held  to endorse an agreement or  perversely to commemorate ongoing failure?

  • mac tire

    “Would you rather have the conservatives looking over their shoulder at 30-40 UKIP seats?”

    “if that vacuum ain’t filled by the Tories it’s UKIP.”

    So you think a party that can never get a leader elected, a party that has no seats currently (and only one ever), a party that had essentially one main policy (a policy that is being fulfilled by its rivals) – you think that party is going to come out of the blue and steal 30-40 seats – in a system which gave one seat to it with over 4 million votes?

    Laughable nonsense.

  • Interesting, that’s without a campaign or planning for what a UI would mean so that figure could move up or down 5-10% in either direction. I can see why SF is bringing up the border poll so much now, it would be a forcing function for Dublin/London to discuss a UI. A reasonable plan that would increase support should be eminently achievable.

  • Timothyhound

    A reasonable aspiration perhaps but there is no possibility of the U.K.uniting – this is primarily about England and the Tories outflanking UKIP. There’s nothing good about Brexit for Northern Ireland. Nelson McCauslands proud economic illiteracy on Nolan a few weeks ago summed it all up from the DUPs perspective. A mess of titanic proportions and unionists still unable to comprehend why this is so.

  • Fear Éireannach

    The people want the border we have, not the one that May is trying to impose on us against our will.

  • Reader

    Cal Cryton: I’m saying in the event of a hard Brexit without a deal. There will be tariffs on agri goods in both directions.
    There is a strong likelihood of tariffs on British agricultural exports to the EU because the EU is protectionist.
    There is no reason to think that the UK will apply tariffs to agricultural imports from Europe because that would be unpopular with the UK public. In fact, the UK will continue to benefit from cheap food subsidised by CAP, without having to contribute to the subsidy any more.
    So I’m confident you are wrong that the tariffs will go both ways.

  • Kevin Breslin

    In the event that the UK leaves the customs union, a customs and trade arrangement between the two countries, subject to the agreement of the EU institutions and Member States. 64 Brexit: UK-Irish relations

    Look the problem is with this issue is that the UK simply does not have a clue what to do with this issue regardless of whether we’re talking about the EU or just Ireland here.

    I would rather the UK negotiated with all 27 nations on the customs issues rather than the United Kingdom trying to put the Republic of Ireland in a straight-jacket, it would be the UK that’s put in the straight-jacket.

    The United Kingdom is no longer an honest broker for Northern Ireland, it has largely ignored our population, will not give them any say and has consistently tried to dictate terms with no means of letting us have the “It’s Our Decision” agency that was so necessary in the Good Friday Agreement.

    It’s not the Republic of Ireland’s job to get the United Kingdom’s house in order, but its own. Similarly Northern Ireland needs to hold its house in order despite the millstone of the United Kingdom’s impossible and deranged Brexit fantasies, but Northern Ireland’s job to try to push on despite the control freakery and sabotage coming from Westminster.

    Yes of course there should be joint responsibility for the border, but if the government of the United Kingdom wants to make the people of Ireland’s lives hard, do you really think that they are going to be rewarded by Dublin or Belfast or Brussels for this behaviour?

    Anything dumped on Ireland has to be dumped on Dover too, and to be quite honest I think the best thing the Irish can do is go over them and ask if this was the “Clean Brexit” that they were dreaming of … is all the rotten freight worth it for the sake of fighting imaginary migrants?

    Just like the DUP’s bad faith up in Stormont, the Leavers idea of a Clean Brexit will be a Messy No Deal Omnishambles situation where the greed of the Leavers leaves them getting Nothing.

    Seriously why must Ireland Bail Out the Brits … they’re not going to pay the interest.

    No bi-laterals … the Republic of Ireland should do nothing to jeopardise secure trade with 26 nations for the sake of insecure trade with what will become its former major trading partner.

  • aquifer

    Yep. The DUP’s little Englander ‘me too’ politics are cringeworthy, and cruel for those on benefits.

  • Gopher

    A quick glance at the polls show its no longer possible to pigeon hole this as an English phenomenon. As an agnostic on the EU I can see certain positives, none is too strong. Belfast at least is full of tourists, the currecy differential providing a boost.
    Across the water people want stability and certainty back and look like they are voting for the best means to achieve that.

    For my opinion on Brexit I look further than Nelson McCauseland for that of Remain I look further than Gerry Adams. Presently the questions around Brexit should be dealt with by the assembly, there should be an Assembly minister and department with a budget working through all the problems and liasing with Dublin and London. Now all we have is the titanic mess of a yet again failed assembly.

  • Gopher

    Labour has certainly created a large vacuum, the Conservatives will fill it or UKIP will fill it. I would much rather have the Conservatives fill that vacum which incidently looks like the way the process is going.

  • grumpy oul man

    Everything’s​ a Trojan horse to you..
    And let’s unite under the Tories, they have always had our best interests at heart.
    If you think this election is about Brexit your mistaken, it’s about given the right a big enough majority to dismantle the health, education and welfare without any opposition to worry about. It will make no difference to the negotiations
    If Teresa Has a majority of one or a hundred, she will still talk for Britain but it will make a difference when she wants to cut pensions or hospitals.

  • grumpy oul man

    So, the only way to counterbalance the right wing is give the right wing more power, I think your a bit confused about what counterbalance means.

  • grumpy oul man

    Really, are nationlists not of ” the people” !

  • grumpy oul man

    Sorry your very wrong, here we decide which country we wish to be citizens off.

  • hollandia

    True. But quite a few either side of the Border are either British, or Irish. Nordies are deemed Irish citizens of right, but Glaswegians, for example are not. Irish citizens, born in the republic are not joint citizens – and that’s who will be affected.

  • Cal Cryton

    Yes. I’d be a lot more worried in NI about a hard Brexit if i were you, considering that 33% of your exports go to the ROI.

  • Roger

    That has nothing to do with retaining the right to Irish citizenship. It is nonsense to suggest that right is in question. There has been no suggestion that Ireland is going to change its laws as regards who enjoys Irish citizenship.

  • Roger

    Look into it. You’ll find that’s not true. Subject to criteria, persons born in UKNI are UK and Irish citizens. They could renounce either nationality but they don’t choose.

  • Roger

    I can’t understand what you are saying. The U.K. is leaving the EU. To talk of rights “being honoured” suggests someone is breaking their word as regards rights it has conferred. Nothing in your explanation suggests that’s the case. You correctly point out that people won’t enjoy the same rights they do today. That’s not because something hasn’t been honoured. That’s because the UK is leaving the EU.

  • Nevin

    Kevin, what makes you think London and/or Dublin would be honest brokers vis-a-vis Northern Ireland? They usually act together and Ahern and Blair sunk the UUP-SDLP partnership when they pandered to the demands of the alphabet soup of paramilitary godfathers.

  • Roger

    I think the politicians in UKNI have about as much influence on Brexit or what kind of IRL-BK bolder there will be as Birmingham City Council.

    I wouldn’t worry much what views any of them have on these ‘national’ and indeed ‘international’ issues. They get decided by others, who I don’t think will be influenced much, if at all, by them.

    I hope I’m wrong.

  • Roger

    What kind of border the BK wants can’t be separated from what kind of relationship it is going to have with EU post becoming a third country. I think I’m only saying what you’ve implied anyway.

  • Roger

    Yes. I’m sure that consideration will weigh heavily as the EU works out a strategy to ensure British Kingdom becoming a third country doesn’t lead to a domino effect with other members wishing to do so.

  • Roger

    The people of the U.K. and UKNI.

  • Roger

    I do love that turn of phrase.

  • Roger

    No longer an honest broker. Really, do you think it ever was?

  • Kevin Breslin

    No I’m not 100% convinced either the UK or the ROI is an honest broker for here, which is why we need to stand up for ourselves and be honest about the impact this will have on us, rather than rely on their guesswork.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    why should they have any more influence than Birmingham?

  • grumpy oul man

    Don’t choose, really were does this info come from!

  • Kevin Breslin

    Voters sunk the partnership, and at the end of the day neither man had a vote in that contest. There were certainly things both the UUP and SDLP could’ve done to compete with these groups and the godfathers.

    Whatever Blair and Ahern wanted what happened wasn’t ideal for either of their governments.

  • hollandia

    Except that Eastwood – nor anyone else – referred to retention of citizenship. he referred to the protection of the rights of Irish Citizens. So in one way you’re right, although wrong at the same time.

  • lizmcneill

    When did Birmingham get a land border with an EU country?

  • lizmcneill

    Again with the disregard for the rural border regions.

  • lizmcneill

    Why would Irish citizens in the North lose the right to live in other EU states? Ireland isn’t leaving the EU.

  • eamoncorbett

    Well,it’s obvious someone has been reading my posts regarding the single market ,however there are a couple of points here , first of all what will be the cost to the taxpayer of the enormous fees that this Norwegian style soloution will incur . Will the British government accept some of the 4 freedoms that will accompany this deal . With a predicted majority of up to 100 seats you can expect a sizeable number of sceptics , how will they view such a deal . If this kind of package does become available, one has to wonder why it was necessary to leave in the first place , anyone on this site gloating about a huge Tory victory would need to take these concerns on board and furthermore one party states always end in acrimony.

  • Roger

    Yes. Stormont is no more than a council really. A glorified one.

  • Fear Éireannach

    The nature of relationships within the island of Ireland is properly a matter for the representatives of the people of NI. So they should absolutely have more inflluence on the IRL-UK border. Let Birmingham worry about England’s borders.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I was talking about the UK’s decision on our future relationship with the EU. Of course NI representatives have a special role when it comes to the impacts in NI, though not necessarily a decisive one – it is a UK national matter too, albeit one with particular issues for NI.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Corrrection to me, I was referring just to the overall Brexit deal; I do think NI reps should be given special consideration on the N Irish aspects of Brexit.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    The country we’re in is the UK though, by choice.