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?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London