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.

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