“Brexit has become a central question in the identity conversation and that is dangerous”

In a commentary  “Brexit and Northern Ireland” on the EPC discussion paper( see below) the  legal academic Chris McCrudden  asserts the primacy  of the Brexit question and laments the  “ tone deafness” of the UK government to  Northern Ireland’s interests. But while he rightly sees the need to set priorities in the interparty talks, he doesn’t discuss here the reasons given for SF’s withdrawal from the Assembly such as an Irish Language Act and the legacy and other  issues  SF insist were agreed at either the GFA or St Andrew’s but on which the DUP have stalled.

While the nationalist parties have indeed called for special EU status (which the British government have rejected in the terms suggested) it is not in fact a Sinn Fein red line.

Moreover the Brexit agenda McCrudden and his colleagues have described would require a wider context than that offered by the present local talks and much more time to reach an agreement than the governments envisage. There are also political problems here such as    modifications to the border  and checks on movement between Northern Ireland and GB that are complex and controversial. EEA membership in whatever form would require more powers to the Assembly, (so good luck with that!)

Nevertheless the EEA exercise and McCrudden’s separate treatment of it are the first serious attempts locally that I’ve noticed  to grip the Brexit issues for Northern Ireland.  So far virtually nothing has come from the “ sovereign government” which the author in polite language  obviously deplores.


Selections from McCrudden’s slides

  • Hard to overestimate the extent to which EU membership brought significant conceptual flexibility into discussions in Northern Ireland, and between Ireland and the UK.
  • Difficult to conceive of alternative mechanism that can fill the vacuum, particularly where that exit was brought about by an increased concern with British (better: English) identity, resurgent English nationalism, and a perceived need to strength national sovereignty.
  • Brexit has thus become a central question in the continuing conversation in Northern Ireland about national identity, and that is a dangerous situation.
  • The potential for moves to be made in London that have unintended but disastrous consequences in Belfast is high, particularly given the current tone-deafness of those in power, and the vast majority of those in Parliament.


Key issues

  • Irish/EU citizens resident in Northern Ireland
  • Belfast/Good Friday Agreement
  • Police/security co-operation
  • EU Peace-dividend grants
  • Devolution of EU powers
  • Human rights


Priorities  for  the interparty negotiations  

  • Needs to be more than detailed wish list which essentially seeks to preserve the existing status quo without addressing any of the main issues that arise from attempts to preserve that status quo.
  • Problems of how to achieve the objectives identified must be identified, and addressed. Problem solving would give strong impression of  seriousness of purpose to negotiators.

Absence of any detailed plan

Filling the vacuum

  • UK government
  • Irish government
  • EU Commission
  • NI Assembly/Executive
  • Academy


  • Aim must be more than securing agreement between the Northern Ireland parties on a lowest common denominator basis
  • There must be a ranking of priorities proposed when the objectives sought conflict
  • Need to identify the net increase in the NI block grant from the UK Treasury that would be necessary to maintain the existing status quo is identified.
  • Must identify how to fill the gap that will be left by the non-application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights
  • Must identify what dispute settlement procedures might be available
  • Must consider whether north-south openness is more or less important economically than east-west openness, and for which sectors of the economy.
  • Must identify the priorities for the devolution of powers from the EU to Northern Ireland; which powers should be devolved and which should not; and the impact this choice will have on the Agreement, and the Northern Ireland Act.
  • Must acknowledge the operation and importance of the Sewell Convention on future discussions between Northern Ireland and the devolved assemblies.
  • Must indicate how the Northern Ireland civil service is to cope with the work required to deliver on the agenda set, and how the Northern Ireland Institutions need to accommodate to the need for speedy decision making over next few years.

EEA Option     

  • Free movement of persons from the EU, including the Republic of Ireland, into Northern Ireland. Accordingly, access to migrant labour would be maintained, as well as the right of tourists from other EU Member States to come to Northern Ireland
  • Northern Ireland would withdraw from the EU, be outside the customs union and outside the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union
  • EEA is a known quantity, well established, and obligations and benefits are clear
  • Dispute resolution, where necessary, would be through mechanisms already provided for in the EEA Agreement. For Northern Ireland, outside the EU, this would involve reference to the EFTA Court.
  • EEA option for Northern Ireland would achieve much of what the First Minister and deputy First Minister were seeking in their August 2016 letter to the Prime Minister.
  • It would retain current arrangements regarding the movement of goods, services, capital and labour.
  • It would also allow existing levels of market integration on the island of Ireland to be largely maintained
  • Would allow the existing regime relating to the bespoke single electricity market on the island to be maintained — Northern Ireland would remain a member of the Internal Energy market
  • The EEA would go some way to safeguarding the status quo as regards maintenance of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, in providing membership of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in a common European economic entity
  • Other than continued EU membership, the EEA is the only existing arrangement that can achieve this
  • A modest payment into the EU budget would need to be made on behalf of Northern Ireland
  • EEA option would require UK legislation and Northern Ireland legislation to allow for Northern Ireland’s participation.

UK legal/ constitutional changes necessary

EEA option would require UK legislation and Northern Ireland legislation to allow for Northern Ireland’s participation

  • Would involve an increase of the powers devolved to the Northern Ireland authorities.


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  • 1729torus

    Other than continued EU membership, the EEA is the only existing arrangement that can achieve this

    I disagree. Strictly speaking, staying in the EEA isn’t the minimum level of EU integration required to satisfy the GFA, a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, like the ones with Moldova or Georgia would almost certainly provide an “invisible and seamless” border as well, and maintain an all-Ireland economy.

    This is an “off-the-shelf” arrangement that can be applied to the entire UK as a whole, there’s no requirement for free movement of labour, and the UK is “cleanly” outside of the EU. It provides for free trade subject to appropriate EU law in things like Finance, Agriculture, Energy, and Telecoms. Dispute resolution is by a three person panel. The UK can opt into EU programmes and agencies as necessary.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Is there a precedent for a region being in the EEA and the rest of the country not?

    I note he also points out the need to establish the relative priority of N/S trade vs E/W (NI to mainland UK). My understanding the latter is way bigger, but there’s a point too about this not being a purely trade question but one about democracy and sovereignty. That is, even if there were more trade with the Republic, that doesn’t mean people want or have voted for closer harmonisation with it. The status of NI is not to be decided by trade bureaucrats but by its people. We can take trade aspects into account but they are hardly – have we not learned this by now – a big determining factor in what people want NI’s status to be vis-a-vis the rest of the UK.

  • Oriel27

    Its bread and butter issues that win the day. You will find that the majority of people will prefer the status of NI to be decided on trade issues.

  • Smithborough

    The link doesn’t seem to work to the McCrudden paper.

  • Smithborough

    Faroe Islands seem to be exploring the possibility of EEA membership too at the moment, so there might be scope to amend EEA agreement.

  • ulidian

    I can’t help but notice among the priorities the following words: “net increase in the NI block grant from the UK Treasury that would be necessary to maintain the existing status quo”. Seriously Brian? Where is that going to come from? The magical money tree?

  • Fear Éireannach

    Are goods or vehicles coming from Moldova inspected at the Romanian border? If the answer is yes, then this is not good enough.
    Are Moldovan companies entiitled to tender on an equal basis for public contracts? If the answer is No, then this is not good enough.

    The only acceptable outcome on the island of Ireland is one where there no additional encumbrance to the travel of any person, vehicle or animal, and preferably where existing encumbrances are removed.

  • 1729torus

    Not even the EEA guarantees unencumbered transit of animals. Look at this press release from the IFA, on the lifting of barriers with Norway.

    What the EEA/DCFTA can guarantee is regulatory conformity for agrigoods and smooth transit without burdensome inspections at the border. Tariff quotas etc. have to be built on top of that.

    Public procurement for Moldova is described in this lengthly PDF from the website I linked to. Any contracts above a given threshold have to be opened up to Moldovan firms on a fair basis, and vice versa.

    As a rule, the more trust there is, the less inspection. The PDF describes customs procedures, such as multiple lanes for different levels of inspection. Including a “Blue Lane” that allows easy transit for trusted companies.

    The only things that can make things completely smooth is the UK in the EU, or a United Ireland.

  • ted hagan

    ‘he doesn’t discuss here the reasons given for SF’s withdrawal from the Assembly such as an Irish Language Act and the legacy and other issues SF insist were agreed at either the GFA or St Andrew’s but on which the DUP have stalled.’

    Surely, first and foremost, the reason McGuinness gave for collapsing the Assembly was Foster’s refusal to stand down over the RHI scandal? Surely we’re not rewriting history already?

  • lizmcneill

    From the 350M on the side of the bus, of course.

  • Fear Éireannach

    The EU is open to NI having a different relationship than GB that would allow it remain in the Single Market. That is the solution.

  • 1729torus

    As I said above, Norway is in the Single Market, but you still had barriers to agricultural goods.

    I’m one of the more hardline Republican people on this blog, as Mr. Brian Walker will tell you! We must still try to maintain existing agreements in good faith however, and by elimination, you end up with a DCFTA.

    ~45% of NI is “ethnically” Unionist, and there is not likely to be a UI within 10 years. The GFA means that Unionists can’t be cut off from GB any more than Nationalists can be cut off from RoI.

    The only solutions that respects the economic rights of both British and Irish under the GFA is for the UK to enter into either a DCFTA or the EEA, with appropriate consideration for NI’s special circumstances.

    However, a DCFTA is the only solution that respects the UK’s vote to leave and desire to end freedom of movement. EEA is like Irish Home Rule, DCFTA is like the Irish Free State.

  • Brian Walker

    That one now looks like an insurance policy if all else fails. Remember Gerry now thinks she’s not guilty as charged!

  • Brian Walker

    Not my idea.. but more may be needed for year2 of welfare mitigation.. And then there’s the substitution for the CAP for 2020- and then what?

  • Brian Walker

    Corrected now I hope

  • Brian Walker

    This is actually off topic – although I realise you think its the only topic, 1729

  • Brian Walker

    Where did the EU say that, Fear?

  • Fear Éireannach

    They haven’t formally proposed a segmentation of the UK, that would be a gift to the Xenophobic British press. But the EU has always dealt with anomalies.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    The present (and possibly future) tory government is committed to a further program of austerity for the UK. They are not likely to be finding an increased or even maintained grant to NI, given the pressures which will be put on them by British farmers and others for substitution of EU funding.

  • 1729torus

    You did write in your post that “Other than continued EU membership, the EEA is the only existing arrangement that can achieve this”?

    My first comment was intended to to pick this apart. As a result of the complexity and Mr. Eireannach’s comments, it has gotten much longer than the single sentence originally written.

    This technical stuff is important though, and detail is where British and Irish politics tends to be weak. If people trip up on the details, they could easily undermine confidence as the error is revealed over time

    If you write about these things, you have to mindful about this. Unlike the GFA, there isn’t as much room for flexible interpretation or hand-waving to smooth over unforeseen issues. I don’t think many here appreciate this. The EU is a Franco-German construct, the rules must be applied, right or wrong.

    For example, it isn’t correct to say that EEA membership guarantees unhindered trade in agrigoods. Imagine if nationalists were offered a deal with NI staying in the EEA as described in this article, only to find out afterwards that is that milk was going to be subjected to tariffs?

    To pick another example just to illustrate my argument further. I don’t think many British people actually think that British passenger planes will be banned from EU airports. They seem to think its a bluff of some sort. It isn’t.

    Air regulators are very strict. In the 1990s, the international industry association told Russians to take the train because unregulated Russian airliners were too dangerous. Not the regulators, the industry association.

  • Karl

    But thats not what he said is it?

    Gerry Adams has said he has “no reason to doubt” that Arlene Foster may be innocent in relation to accusations over the “cash for ash” Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.

    He also has not reason to doubt that Arlene Foster may not be innocent. Hence the inquiry.

    This one is still open to run.

  • Brian Walker

    I think there’s plenty of room for flexibility. Governments bend rules when they want to. Fudge in the EU is endemic. But frankly none of us know about the details to be sure of all the legalities. In the end politics will win but we can’t be sure how, and won’t for quite some time.

    I believe that the Germans and other main drivers are not so unconfident about the EU’s future as to feel compelled to humiliate the UK and create a deep fissure in Europe which although aeons away from the old warlike habits of millennia would take generations to heal.

    Britain has quite a strong hand to play.

    I expect the UK to renew strategic partnerships that have kept Europe secure for 50 years. These are real strengths which only the French come near to matching. The dance has yet to start and we don’t yet know the steps .

  • lizmcneill

    Should regions that voted remain not be first up for replacement of EU funding? Regions that voted leave must be ok with losing it, right?

  • Fear Éireannach

    I don’t think Germany wants to humiliate the UK. But the fairy land Brexit ‘have your cake and eat it’ projected by the press and the Tories would define a reasonable deal as a humiliating one. Expectations are not reasonable.

  • 1729torus

    Usually, the situation is primarily governed by political dynamics, and the technical stuff is secondary housekeeping to be sorted out afterwards. In this case, both are equally intertwined, like chess-boxing.

    If there is to be “seamless and frictionless trade”, you need to have the same basic regulatory regime in force everywhere, otherwise customs inspections are necessary. Nobody will risk buying milk from Britain tainted with melamine or whatever. To achieve that, you need a degree of political integration.

    The loosest arrangement would be for the UK to stay outside of the EEA entirely, but to promise to ensure that its domestic legal space closely approximated the Single Market as necessary. You’d have an annual meeting of heads of government and other institutions to ensure that everything is kept up to date. The EU would want to be able to check that the UK is actually upholding the common regulatory space. You’d need a dispute resolution mechanism independent of the ECJ. It would also suit everyone to allow the UK to opt-in to EU agencies as necessary to avoid needless duplication. This is basically the DCFTA I described above.

    The UK can join EFTA as well, negotiate its own trade deals, be as sovereign as realistically possible given the circumstances, and avoid having to grant freedom of movement.

    If the UK can’t get a clear sense of what it wants, or understand the fundamental constraints, it’ll inevitably look silly.

    The UK will be consumed with Brexit, and the sterling depreciation will weaken its ability to operate abroad. This can’t be handwaved away – the UK will be spending all its energy to avoid falling behind. The British Armed forces will experience a shortfall of 700m-1000m per annum because of the increased cost of foreign imports for example.

  • Devil Éire

    Its bread and butter issues that win the day. You will find that the majority of people will prefer the status of NI to be decided on trade issues.

    Since when have the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted on bread and butter issues?

    Unionists will be led by their ideology to reject any form of special status for NI, even if it might ameliorate the effects of Brexit on the local economy. It’s comically Pavlovian (e.g. joining the EEA rejected as ‘closer harmonisation’ with Ireland, above), but I do wonder: will the face miss its nose after wielding the knife?

    For Nationalism, the instinctive forces pull in the other direction: special status, softer border. This is likely better for the NI economy, but worse for a Nationalism seeking to capitalise on pro-EU sentiment.

    So, Unionist tendencies are likely to benefit Nationalism and vice versa. Where will this strange Brexit Pushmi-pullyu end up?

  • Oriel27

    thanks for reply Devil. I think the next Westminster elections in the north will have serious impact on the future of the North. Even though, SF do not take their seats, they must win this anti-brexit vote.
    NI, must be seen to be anti-brexit.
    Them along with SDLP, & alliance must gain the majority of the 18 seats.
    If the unionists win this election (pro- brexit), they have a tendency to act as if they speak for the whole of the north, we must not allow that.
    Unionists cannot be trusted to act in the interests of everyone, how many times have we seen this?

    anyway, my predictions are as follows:
    North Antrim – DUP
    South Antrim – UUP
    East Antrim – DUP
    Belfast North – SF
    Belfast South – SDLP
    Belfast East – Alliance
    Belfast West – SF
    North Down – Ind
    Mid-Ulster – SF
    West Tyrone – SF
    Fermanagh & ST – SF
    Foyle – SDLP
    East Derry – DUP
    Lagan Valley – DUP
    Upper Bann – SF
    Strangford – DUP
    South Down – SDLP
    Newry & Armagh – SF
    DUP – 5
    UUP – 1
    Alliance – 1
    Independent – 1
    SDLP – 3
    SF – 7
    Pro – Brexit – 6
    Anti – Brexit – 12
    SF will win BN if SDLP stay out. SF need to stay out of BS. SF could sneek a Upper Bann win.
    Alliance will take back BE.
    SF will win F&S T, appathy lost that seat the last time – thats gone now.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Brexit has become a central question in the realpolitik, the economics and social affairs of Northern Ireland.

    The identity politics are a side-event, mostly created by insecure pro-Leave DUP types who think the rest of the place will mock them for being irresponsible, jingoistic fools, who put their own nation in danger.

    We do that anyway, Brexit was not going to stop us.

    The mechanics of Brexit will destroy ALL the identity myths about Brexit, both in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.

    Brexit isn’t Unionism, Brexit isn’t Britishness, Brexit is a constitutional change the electorate of the United Kingdom voted on in faith, and they can abandon faith in its direction. Indeed within a liberal democracy they can reverse quite a few changes too.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Wasn’t William of Orange born in Continental Europe not Britain?

    Or is that just “Expert propaganda paid off by Brussels”?

    Maybe Billy came from Ballymena, and went out on a horse one day to Londonderry in order to stop the Jaccobite RA men conspiring with Lundy and Guy Fawkes to blow up the Apprentice Boys as they were locking the gates.

  • Fear Éireannach

    Brexit has become one example of a scorched earth policy among the unionist community, who see keeping NI as an economic basket case as a prophylactic against a UI. The founding fathers of NI, who boasted of Ulster thrift and managerial skills, would probably turn in their graves at such an approach. However, partition originated in an unholy alliance between bigotry and Belfast economic interests. The former may be happy with scorched earth policy, the latter not so much as they were always interested in the half crown.

  • Reader

    lizmcneill: Regions that voted leave must be ok with losing it, right?
    Everyone can be happy. Regions that voted remain can keep the equivalent values of the EU benefits they received previously.
    Regions that voted leave do the same, but also share out the 10 billion per annum savings from the UK’s net contributions.
    It all adds up. I only regret that North Down voted Remain, that extra 20 million per year would have been handy.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    I don’t think the tory party works like that.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    With delusions like that you are a latter day Thomas DeQuincy. I look forward to your “Memoirs of a Brexit-Eater”

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    With insecure clowns like May in charge, I wouldn’t hold my breath for ‘reversal’. Her version of liberal democracy is becoming more illiberal with every day, and every Labour defeat.

  • Oggins

    Don’t forget that Prince Philip, was only born in Greece, so is definitely not Greek….

  • Reader

    Thanks. I merely expanded on Liz’s proposal, by throwing in the 10 billion net contribution as well, to the benefit of the people who repatriated it. I have left out the rebate as the third component of the gross, as that is already included in the national finances and can’t be spent twice.

  • Deeman

    So many political experts are tipping sdlp to win south down. As a resident, I simply can’t see it.

    Unionists will not be voting for Ritchie in the usual numbers for fear of logging votes for a united ireland party.

    There are brexiter unionists who will not vote for Pro Remain Ritchie and would rather see a SF absententionist.

    Take it from me, SF will take South Down but it will be very tight!

  • Timothyhound

    Can you elaborate on the SF gains and how you see them being achieved?