Bertie Ahern: “It is worth looking for a moment at what we are in danger of losing…”

Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach and someone who has spent a political lifetime in the art of political negotiation gave this speech on Brexit to the Kennedy Summer School a few weeks back. This draft is published with the permission of both the Summer School and the author.

The uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the Brexit negotiations is unsettling, and likely to last for some time to come. Brexit has opened up for the first time since the 1990s a major divergence of interests between Britain and Ireland in relation to the EU.

There is also little doubt that Brexit has weakened cross-community support for the power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland, which remain suspended. It is worth looking for a moment at what we are in danger of losing.

The combination of the peace process and common membership of the EU and the Single Market had led for the first time since independence to a very cordial and constructive relationship between the British and Irish Governments over the past 25 years.

Taoisigh and Prime Ministers could and did meet regularly on the margins of European Council meetings to discuss Northern Ireland, bilateral matters and European issues. That opportunity may not exist in the future.

Indeed, it is already fading, as the British Prime Minister is more and more absent from the EU conference table. Without a very special effort and commitment on both sides, Britain and Ireland will be on different wavelengths. Equally, it must be said Britain will not have the same rapport with its other European neighbours.

In strictly legal terms, the Good Friday Agreement does not contain an explicit commitment by either country to remain part of the EU. The Lisbon Treaty in Article 50 recognizes the right of any member State to leave the EU.

Politically, however, it is taken for granted in the Good Friday Agreement that both Britain and Ireland would continue as EU members for the foreseeable future. One of the six North-South implementation bodies is the Special EU Programmes Body.

There is repeated reference in political discussion to the principle of consent, as it relates to unionism and their attitude to a united Ireland. Of more immediate importance is the fact that the Good Friday Agreement created a wider political framework and conditions, in which nationalists could consent for the first time to share responsibility for Northern Ireland.

One of the clearest benefits that matters is that the physical manifestation of the border has almost ceased to exist.

While credit for working the institutions in the early faltering stages belongs to John Hume, Seamus Mallon, David Trimble and their parties as well as Sinn Féin and Alliance, post-2007 the late Martin McGuinness and Dr. Ian Paisley started a ten-year period of shared government responsibility, which was an extraordinary achievement.

If it had not been for Brexit and the ill-health of McGuinness, it is quite likely that the Executive that has been down since January might still be in place today.

One of the key things about Martin McGuinness in his capacity as Deputy First Minister was his willingness to take the long view.

Brexit has undermined not peace as such but rather institutional stability in Northern Ireland.

The United Kingdom may be a unitary state, but on the issue of continuing EU membership not a united one, unlike on the previous occasion in 1975 when all parts of the UK voted to remain.

By a clear majority, the people of Northern Ireland wanted the UK to remain in the EU, even if the largest party, the DUP, did not. This was not, of course, a vote for a united Ireland by some unionists.

But the situation created by Brexit has a clear potential to produce a marked deterioration in the position of nationalists, compared with the situation that was created by the Good Friday Agreement and to the extent that the border has to be reinstated.

There is a real danger that the nationalist parties will withdraw their consent from active political participation in Northern Ireland political institutions, reverting to the situation that existed for most of the 20th century, whereby Northern Ireland exists on sufferance as far as most nationalists are concerned.

Some point to low opinion poll backing for a united Ireland among nationalist voters, but the fact is that 40% of the electorate votes for parties that support a united Ireland.

Clearly, it would be much preferable if Northern Ireland had a distinct political voice during Brexit negotiations, concentrating on making an input into addressing the many serious practical problems that may arise.

Most of us would wish the autumn political talks to restore the Executive well.

Sinn Féin, if it refuses to take further responsibility for government in the North at such an important time, may find the electorate here not too impressed, when it next seeks responsibility for government here.

It is much more important that Sinn Féin takes its seats in the Executive than, as some have urged, they take their seats at Westminster, which would require them to break their word, having been elected on an abstentionist ticket.

The EU declaration that the whole of a united Ireland would be eligible for immediate EU membership is in line with what happened in Germany in 1990 and would happen in Cyprus in the event of unity there.

It means there is a clear and unimpeded path back into the EU for Northern Ireland as part of a united Ireland.

There is no immediate prospect of this happening, but it is very important to make clear that the constitutional path to Irish unity remains open, despite Brexit, and so that it could not be argued that difficulties about renewed EU membership would in practice throw up an insuperable obstacle to future Irish unity.

A point that has not been much remarked upon is that not just nationalists but unionists benefit from Ireland’s continuing EU membership, where they take up their entitlement to be Irish citizens, which carries with it European citizenship as well.

This means that they will have a valuable right post-Brexit to take up employment or settle in any other EU country, not open to most other UK citizens.

What is difficult to determine is whether the UK’s future relationship with the EU from outside will in practice be quite close, retaining the Customs Union and perhaps even the Single Market, at any rate for a number of years, something that we might think of, remembering our own history, as external association, or whether it will be a sharp break, as desired by some hardline supporters of Brexit.

In today’s interdependent and globalised world, it is a major task to untangle so many threads that tie together longstanding EU member States. Most people would question whether there is any sense in trying to do so.

It should not be forgotten that past British Governments were the most enthusiastic champions of the Single Market as an antidote to covert protectionism, and of enlargement to the East after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

The Blair Government took the lead in immediately opening the British labour market to citizens of the 10 new accession countries that joined during Ireland’s first half of 2004 EU Presidency.

Much of Britain’s immigrant population does not come from Central and Eastern Europe at all, but is part of a mid- to late-20th century post-imperial legacy.

The reality is that wealthy countries both attract and need immigrants, not of course in unlimited quantities, but, if other EU countries and even closely associated ones like Switzerland are expected to be able to manage free movement within the EU, it is difficult to see why Britain should be an exception.

Maintenance of the Common Travel Area, formalized in the early 1950s after Ireland became a republic should not be a major problem either cross-border or cross-channel.

The Irish and British authorities have long closely cooperated on immigration, in so far as it poses potential security issues, and this will continue. The status of immigrants can be checked when they seek employment or benefit, and that is the point of control.

They are far more likely to travel from the EU directly to Britain, initially as visitors, and there would be little additional advantage in coming via Ireland.

If the British are willing to waive checks on the border, we should not quarrel with that, and that will take care of those who live on one side and work on the other.

It is ironic that one of the strongest arguments Ulster Unionists deployed against Home Rule and Irish independence was the breach of the customs union between these islands in the pre-1921 United Kingdom, and fears of what protectionism would do in closing off markets to their heavy industries.

The EU in recent decades has effectively re-established the single market and customs union that existed in these islands pre-1921, but this time also extending through most of Europe. The impetus to dismantle barrier-free trade is coming this time not from Ireland but from Britain.

There is no question that by far the easiest way to avoid a hardening of the border is for Britain to stay in the customs union and preferably the single market.

There are tentative signs of some movement towards this within the British Government and the Labour Party, but it is too early to be confident that the British position will move in this direction.

The difficulty with that as a long-term solution is that it would make the UK a decision-taker rather than a co-decision-maker.

During the campaign, Boris Johnson, now Foreign Secretary, at one point suggested that a ‘No’ vote should be used to go back to the negotiating table in Brussels, and get some further reassurances that would enable them to stay in the EU, which he certainly favoured when he was Lord Mayor of London.

That is of course what Ireland did after reverses in the initial Nice and Lisbon referendums.

If as a political leader one finds oneself on the wrong path, turning back is not always the worst option, but I appreciate it is more difficult for countries with pretentions to past and future greatness.


  • sam mccomb

    Ms Dodds MEP (DUP) has already ruled out the possibility that NI would remain in the EEA while the rest of UK departed it. M Barnier has repeatedly stated that the UK will become a “third country” on leaving. That being so there will be custom controls and any exports from NI will have to meet those custom controls. This is likely to have a severe effect on the ability of SMEs, in particular, to export agri products from NI to Ireland.

    A good summary of some of the problems a “third country” border brings to NI and Ireland is this

  • mickfealty

    If we look at external trade volumes that might well be true. And Sales volumes (the figures above) may differ in quantum. But those arguing for trade barriers to be drawn between Britain and Ireland have to then accept that GB volumes then come into play as export figures. At that point the huge sickening noise you can hear is the sound of lazy pipedreams hitting reality.

  • mickfealty

    What details were you thinking of Georgie?

  • mickfealty

    I’m a grumpy Remainer (precisely because I value our historic settlement) but some facts are inescapable and ignoring them only makes me even grumpier. In fact the low levels of reflect the lack of commitment to the opportunity the Belfast Agreement has offered the northern nationalist leadership. If we’d spent the last twenty years building a real cross jurisdictional relationship in trade and other forms of commerce it might forced more people (and I mean genuinely committed unionists in NI and GB) to think twice before pulling the trigger.

    Instead the clown car act since 1998 has (in all meaningfully material terms) reduced us and our historic actions to a liminal expedience.

  • mickfealty

    In terms of this deal, the balancing act will be done at country level is what I meant. In terms of legislative power in the normal run of things, of course it’s not. The likelihood of Parliament untying the deal is vanishingly small.

  • mickfealty

    Mine, or Georgie’s? 🤓

  • mickfealty


  • sam mccomb

    There is a faint possibility that the UK government has begun the long road back to conducting negotiations with an appropriate sense of realism. The influence of the Legatum Institute on the wilder spirits is worth noting

  • sam mccomb

    And building more than trade and commerce. Might you consider putting this up as a post, please?

    Am I right in supposing that the UK government also has been apathetic in supporting the development of cross-border relations? Its interest in the interests of NI is clear enough from the use of NI as a bargaining chip in negotiations i.e. we can’t say or do anything of substance until we get to the second stage. Meanwhile trying to conceal that it has no settled negotiating position to which to move.

  • sam mccomb

    An absence of realism here. The EU has a desire to limit damage to the integrity of the EU. It has no interest beyond that in the UK now that it is leaving. A “sensible” FTA for the EU encompasses the EU’s desire to limit damage. That is the only reason there is talk of a transition period. It will be on EU terms, if there is one. That is because the UK will not have preferential treatment – even in transition. The UK is likely to find this unacceptable and “walk”, blaming the EU for something it brought on itself. It’s a cultural thing they do.

  • Roger

    The EEA comprises states; UKNI isn’t one. Ms Dodds is right though hardly deserves a prize for spotting that…

  • Roger

    Things fiscal include things customs, common external tariffs etc. Big things here. Remember vast, vast majority of UKNI’s ‘exports’ are to mainland UK. The laughable theory that UKNI province will be in while mainland UK out splits UKNI from its overwhelming dominant trade area.

    The idea splits up lots of sectors too. Ulster Bank is an RBS affiliate. Your theory suggests the bank will operate an extra regulatory regime all of its own for its banking services in the province. Substantially different bank licensing and capital ratio requirements to those for its UK mainland outfits.

    A province and a state are miles apart. Courts. A UKNI court matter ultimately gets decided in London. Your theory suggests courts in a jurisdiction where EU law doesn’t apply will decide matters for an EEA territory.

    Decision making. Are Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein to accept a province as equal decision maker? Clear danger that its decisions will simply be those of London, capital of a third country.

    Is the province to have a foreign minister too?

    The difference between a state and a province are vast.

  • Accountant

    Common external tariffs on imports and non-GB exports is the status quo. I would seek UK to agree no tariff on exports to GB of NI produce.

    Rest of fiscal and monetary policy would be status quo. Banking regulation and foreign policy would also be UK-led. NI would be a rule taker on Single Market (just like RoI and Luxembourg); whether they get a vote or not is kind of irrelevant.

    The only current challenge I really see is legislative supremacy, although I am sure there are ways of having an EU lead on product standards under a UK law default, as arbitrated through NI Assembly.

    Forced adoption of the euro could, however, throw a cat among the above pigeons.

  • john millar

    What certain customs matters?

  • sam mccomb
  • sam mccomb

    “The Institute of Directors, a UK business group, praised the ECJ for overruling most of Ms Sharpston’s opinion. The business leaders pointed out that neither the UK nor the EU had expressed much interest so far in putting investment provisions into a future trade deal. A trade agreement ought to be possible without the risk of Wallonia-style resistance.

    However, John Forrest, head of international trade at DLA Piper, a London-based law firm, takes a different view. “Given the vital importance of non-direct foreign investment and investor-state dispute settlement provisions for trade deals . . . our expectation is that EU member states will still continue to press for these two issues to form part of EU trade agreements, and for national and regional parliaments to be required to approve the final outcome,” Mr Forrest says.

    Clearly, it is too early to predict how ambitious a new EU-UK trade deal will be, and (particularly important for legal purposes) how it will be structured. However, in order to benefit both sides, it will need to go beyond tariff questions and cover a wide range of regulatory matters.

    The more far-reaching the deal, the more it would be advisable for the EU to seek approval from its member states. The days of backroom deals, cooked up by technocrats without public consultation, are over. The future EU-UK relationship needs a solid, long-lasting basis. The freely expressed consent of all 27 EU nations will be essential.”

  • Georgie Best

    The Single market and CU can apply to any distinct territory and may not apply to all of a state.

  • Georgie Best

    Ms Dodds is not an influential voice in all of this. When her party supported Brexit, they brought it on themselves.

  • Georgie Best

    Hopefully none. But if GB eventually starts doing different deals for particular sectors this would determine the scale of the issue. It may never do so, transition might last a long time.

  • sam mccomb

    And here – this is better. It addresses the point directly.

    “Is this feasible? Recall first that many UK dependencies—including three members of the British-Irish Council, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man—are currently not part of the European Union. So it’s already true that sovereign states, including the UK, have parts of their territories subject to their sovereignty within the European Union, and parts of them outside. The terms of the foundational treaty, the Treaty of Rome, also envisioned associate status — they were designed for the UK.

    Then consider past precedent. Greenland, part of Denmark, seceded from the EEC, but Denmark remained within the EEC. That, of course, had few consequences for power within the European Union given Greenland’s small population, and the components of the UK that remain within the EU would not be entitled to the same rights that currently are held by the UK as a whole.”

  • Georgie Best

    In this case the impact of the customs type regulations are caused by standards/regulatory checks and tariffs. The volume of transactions largely determines the burden of paperwork, large quantities of a single product regularly shipped would not have a huge paperwork burden. The salt mine at Carrickfergus could send a bulk ship of salt somewhere with a single A4 page of documentation. a Wright bus has as much type approval documentation that another page wouldn’t make much difference. Much trade between the UK and the EU will pass with minimum paperwork, but critically this may not include agriculture which is important in NI.
    Despite the macho posturing from London I doubt if there will be significant tariffs, the Conservatives are too closely linked to business interests for whom this would be very disruptive. But tariffs too differ greatly by industry .

    So the composition of trade, type of products, size of shipments, urgency of delivery etc is very important in making any claims about the effect of a particular change on it.

  • Georgie Best

    Uniquely though NI residents are almost all already entitled to free movement owing to their Irish citizenship, so this removes one issue. All Ireland bodies on animal health and food standards could be a path to solving another problem, these would simply expand the role of some existing bodies.

  • Georgie Best

    Norway is in the Single Market, the Philippines is not, so your example is not very helpful.

  • Georgie Best

    NI will not be a decision maker, it will not be in the EU or EEA formally. The courts in London act in relation to the Isle of Man, for instance and can accommodate differences.

  • sam mccomb

    Yes. If UK government stopped asking the EU to be “flexible and Imaginative” on a UK / EU deal and was more flexible and imaginative with NI / Ireland it would be better

  • Roger

    Suspect Filipino legal translators would have a much better grasp of the UK/ UKNI province legal order than their Norwegian counterparts. Philippines, an ex-US territory where laws are enacted in English has some experience of Common Law principles. Norway, where laws are enacted in Norwegian has none. That and salaries being likely lower for Philippine recruits.

  • Roger

    That’s right. But only states can be members. UK doesn’t want to join and UKNI is a province….

  • Roger

    Yes. An unquestioning report on nonsense talk of a third country province being a part of the EEA…Hardly adds much, does it?

  • Georgie Best

    I’m sure someone in Dublin can do it, they’ll have better Irish also.

  • Roger

    The Isle of Man is not a member of any international organization separate to the U.K. …

  • sam mccomb

    Why is it nonsense?

  • Georgie Best

    I don’t see why forced adoption of the Euro should be required, although it might be convenient. Sweden, Denmark, Czechia are full members of the EU and haven’t adopted the Euro,.

  • NewerSouthernMan


    Of course you’re right – the border will be the irish Sea. Everyone can see that except the DUP and the Tories (?)….

    I was waiting for the strong statement rejecting the EU parliament’s proposal from May, or Boris or D Davis but hmmmm…..

    I hope the DUP know who their friends are.

  • john millar

    So no changes in Internal or external taxation barriers and no “customs matters” (WTF are they ? ) and where has the ” “Irish sea border ” gone?

  • john millar

    There already is a division of HMRC in Belfast

  • Georgie Best

    If GB remains in the Customs Union and Single Market, there is no need for a “sea border”.

  • Obelisk

    It already came through from the Secretary of State.

    “We joined the Common Market in 1973 as one United Kingdom and we will leave the European Union in 2019 as one United Kingdom.

    “That includes leaving the single market and the customs union so that we can strike new trade deals with the rest of the world.

    “At the same time, we recognise the need to address the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, as part of the UK, and Ireland as a member of the EU.

    “That the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement is upheld, that the Common Travel Area across these islands is maintained, that the rights of citizens and relations North-South are preserved, that the border for people, goods and services between Northern Ireland and Ireland remains as seamless and frictionless as possible with no physical infrastructure at the border.

    And of course that there is no border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland or anything that fractures the internal market of the United Kingdom which benefits Northern Ireland hugely.”

    If you read that carefully, I get the sense they are (again) desperately trying to have their cake and eat it. They want everything to remain as it is but to be able to control who and what comes in and out.

    That is a contradiction.

    At some point, something has to give. Their own Brexit goals are best served by an Irish sea border, it allows them to cement fortress Britain in a way they just won’t be able to with a leaky ‘hard’ border on the island of Ireland.

    I don’t believe the border WILL be in the sea, only that given the circumstances, it should. But what I do think is that any deal reached on the north will not be to the liking of the DUP at all.

  • Georgie Best

    NI will leave the EU alright, but it may have some unusual arrangements afterwards. The presentation of mutually exclusive options will have to end, and end soon.

  • Accountant

    Universal euro adoption (and harmonised taxes) are an aspiration for Juncker.

    Would be too hard for an EU/UK NI.

  • Obelisk

    Yet the DUP have made clear that any sort of ‘unusual arrangements’ will be intolerable for them as it means recognising the reality of our different circumstances to Great Britain.

    That’s the contradiction that has to be resolved one way or another, and I am betting the DUP won’t be fans of whatever is hashed out.

  • NewerSouthernMan

    I agree, I can’t see any other way.

    The fantasies of a frictionless border is meeting the hard realities of the UK being outside the Customs union.

    It’s going to end in tears, I just hope no one in Ireland (N & S) is crying.

  • Roger

    I’d only be going over the same grounds I’ve pointed to earlier…A province like UKNI can’t be a member of the EEA or outside the same market as the other parts comprising the UK…

  • Roger

    Well, the talent probably is there.
    No need for Irish in UKNI of course; I think it has the same status as Cornish in UKNI? Not sure if that’s right but something along those lines….No laws in Irish in UKNI.

  • Skibo

    Ni as an independent country would not get automatic access to the EU and would have to go through a vetting process.
    On achieving independence, we would have to convert all our laws into NI law, the majority of which are as UK law.
    You would have to get support of all the countries of the EU, the EU council, the Commission and the EU Parliament.
    Once you have got to that level, it has to be ratified, either by parliament or referendum. I assume this would need a poll similar to a border poll as set out in the GFA.
    Then you enter the time as an accession. This should not take long unless the UK has not followed all the EU regulations following Brexit.
    In the end, as there is no political process for independence, I am not sure how you get to step one!

  • Skibo

    Not a complete division. When the company is based in GB, the profits and the tax on those profits is based in the region that holds the head office. At present, that should be around 70% of the grocery end, just to name one.

  • Roger

    There’s no political process for UKNI being in the EEA without rest of UK but people here choose to be oblivious to that too.

  • john millar

    “Not a complete division. ”

    They don`t have “divisions” they have “Executive Units”
    The NI executive unit is organised on a functional basis This means that NI will control/audit elements of taxation across the UK. They will also control locally based organisations who operate in the rest of UK

    Tax COLLECTION is via returns largely centralised with large accounting centres for individual taxes (VAT in Southend on sea)

    NI population is around 2.5% of the UK pop.

    Given the low average wage and the greater dependence on social security payments -it is impossible for NI to contribute anywhere near 2.5% of the UK tax take

  • sam mccomb

    You are mistaken. Even London might be in while the rest of England is out. Is it a State?

    “But how can Scotland remain within the EU, if the UK acts on the referendum vote? One possibility is that Scotland (and Northern Ireland, London, Gibraltar?) might remain within the EU somehow, even though England and Wales leave.

    It is not as unlikely as some make it sound – in 1985, Greenland, a part of Denmark, left the then European Economic Community (EEC) , although Denmark remained.

    This is not a straightforward model for our situation. In the event of Brexit, unlike in the Greenland case, the seat of central government (London) would presumably be in the leaving part. Who would represent Scotland in European institutions? And would there be some sort of federal arrangement linking Scotland, Northern Ireland and London in EU participation?

    These are difficult questions, but maybe not insurmountable. The EU has a history of flexible and variegated participation that does not always involve single states in homogenous EU memberships. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands – crown dependencies – are not members of the EU, but a great deal of EU law applies to them. And – an interesting precedent for London (if a product of very different circumstances) – from 1957 to 1990 West Berlin was a member of the EEC, although not, as such, part of West Germany. So the EU is, and has been, open to variegated, differentiated relationships.”

  • sam mccomb

    Correction needed for the second paragraph. It is irrelevant whether Ireland vetoes a deal or whether there is no deal. In any event the UK will become a third country. Ireland’s economy will be damaged. Northern Ireland’s economy will be damaged and the UK economy will be damaged. Any option that the UK has is for a deal that is less favourable than now. The DUP is in favour of self harm.

  • sam mccomb

    “Hopefully some appropriate deal will be done.” What does this mean, please?

  • sam mccomb

    The EU automatically provides updates to EU and EEA members. It won’t do for the UK after Brexit.

  • Roger

    Something better than no deal.
    Whatever deal is done, Brexit is bad news for most.

  • Roger

    they are insurmountable and laughable.
    a province ain’t gonna be in EU when the state of which it’s part isn’t.
    Greenland is a red herring.

  • Roger

    Most on Slugger agree Brexit is bad news. Me included.

  • Georgie Best

    Nobody is suggesting that NI be in the EU.
    People are suggesting that NI have sufficient conformity of standards and tariffs and allows free movement of people so that it can trade freely with the EU. Provided it has these and the EU is happy that it does, then there is no problem with it trading with the EU. The EU has made it quite clear that it is happy to facilitate this, it is NI’s rulers that have not (yet) done so.

  • Roger

    So if it breaches the rules is UKNI subject to ECJ jurisdiction?

    How on earth would UKNI, the most London dependent UK region operate in a different market from metropolitan UK? Isn’t this all nonsense. A province having separate standards, separate customs, separate immigration rules…the list could go on and on.

  • Georgie Best

    Places like the Canary islands have distinct arrangements, there is no reason why not. NI might have the biggest London subsidy, but it has a distinct jurisprudence, the very definition of marriage is different for instance. A physically separate place with a distinct legal personality is ideal for different arrangements.

  • Roger

    Places like Canaty Islands are places under jurisdiction of a member state…do you want to try again?

  • Skibo

    John, when I say division, I mean the division in where the tax is collected.
    I agree with your final statement and note that the dependence on social security payments is linked to the fact that we are a low wage society. If we are below the average wages in the UK, we cannot contribute the 2.5% which we should be accountable for.
    The one way to increase the tax take is increase the wage levels.
    I suggest reunification will result in that.

  • Skibo

    There is no political process until there is one created. There was no GFA pre 1998. All it takes is legislation.
    There was no political process for Greenland to exit the EU while Denmark stayed in. They then created one and it happened.
    The difference here would be that the main country leaves the EU and the devolved region stays. I would expect a similar relationship for Gibraltar.

  • Skibo

    Two wrongs don’t make a right but three rights do make a left 🙂

  • Georgie Best

    Because there is a not an exact existing example does not mean that one cannot be created. If people didn’t do new things we’d still be living in caves.

  • Roger

    Yes. Of course. Let’s have United Nations membership for UKNI province too while we’re at it….

    Sounds all very plausible. No off the shelf solution for UKNI.