If Theresa May made a political mistake (aside from reading the polls too literally) it was to ignore the narrow margin of victory for the Leave camp. Now she’s looking for help to navigate through some difficult, narrow and potentially treacherous waters.
So what is Brexit, and what will it look like? Two things seem to be a given, which sit outwith the negotiation process: the UK will leave the single market and the customs union. Both pose big problems for Ireland (the island, I mean).
There appear to be two schools of thought on where this leaves us, and what might be done about it. One, from Gerry Adams, takes the view that the British (despite what they’ve actually said):
…are very good at looking after their national interest. If the British government has its way all the talk about soft border, invisible border is nonsense. It’s the frontier between the European Union and the non-European Union and it is on the island of Ireland.
It will be a hard border and that will be devastating for everybody, the island economically, in terms of the Good Friday agreement, protections that are there for human rights.
He goes on:
The people in the North have voted to stay in the European Union and I am very critical of the European Union, but the prospect of one part of the island being in and one being out just is just too dire and you need to swallow your reservations and stick with what the people in the North look for.
The other Republican view on this comes from Bertie Ahern (a voice increasingly being rehabilitated in the Republic), who is reported in the Irish Times saying that:
“There are no meetings taking place, it’s absolutely extraordinary because anywhere else in the world where you need your parliament, your government, the cooperation with other countries there are no meetings taking place.”
The report continues:
Urging Northern Ireland politicians to find a way to restore the Executive and the Stormont Assembly, Ahern, who helped negotiate the Good Friday Agreement, said it saddened him to see the power-sharing institutions at a logjam and appealed to political leaders to find “necessary compromises.”
“Over the summer period, they have to reflect on what is most important. Is it the future, economy, trade, people, capital goods, infrastructure, what is the most important? For God’s sake, we want them back doing the job they are paid for and elected to do,” he said.
He’s less admiring of the UK’s capacity to protect its own national interest than Adams:
Dismissing London’s hopes of quickly-negotiated, successful free trade deals, Mr Ahern said: “Trump says they’ll do a good deal but you know what that means; it will be a deal where it’ll be sold out, if it’s quick deal it’ll be a bad deal. The big danger with the beef is they’ll go to Australia or New Zealand and that’s where the real danger is for us,” he said.
Saying that there are very few positives about Brexit, stating: “On the advantages, I think we all agree it’s a deficit, it’s a negative. They made a democratic decision and we have to live with that decision. It won’t go away for us.
“I don’t think anyone including the Treasury or the Foreign Office had a plan B, even Boris [JOHNSON] and these guys who were blustering away in the campaign, changing their tune every day and saying whatever was on top of their heads about the national health. In fairness to them, they didn’t think they were going to win.”
There is “no hope” that the United Kingdom can reach a comprehensive agreement” by March 2019: “It’s not going to be done, it’s not humanly possible. What we need to be homing in on is how the transitional arrangement is going to work, how that’s going to play out.”
There’s a lot more granular detail to all of this of course. If the UK is freed of EU rule-taking around trade it will seek every means possible to leverage that advantage which will largely be at the expense of its English-speaking neighbour.
And there is a huge concern in the Co Cavan border area where agriculture makes up the vast majority of cross-border trade. But the land trade border (ROI sales account for just 5% of NI turnover) is unlikely to be the major economic threat to the Republic.
This is a long game, and one which will need every sinew of Irish political interest (north and south) to stay awake in whatever committee is relevant to the many decisions there are to be made that will shape the final outcome.
And that’s in part about making sure those with direct or indirect interests the future prosperity of the island’s economy, such as it is, stays awake to nature of the challenges coming down the Brexit track and respond to them earlier rather than later.
Of all the main Irish players only Adams seems to be gambling on a hard border. A hard border could be a direct corollary of a hard Brexit, but only in the extreme (and highly unlikely) scenario that some class of cold war sets in between the UK and the EU.
Because there is no preset solution to the current situation does not mean one will not eventually be found. But only if there’s someone to represent the island’s interest north as well as south. Time, at last, to put country before party Gerry?