It has started to happen. Will it continue? Can it be reversed? The politics of Brexit is openly dividing the UK and Irish governments and further polarising the DUP and Sinn Fein, making a return to the Executive less likely than ever. Predictably Brexit is increasingly becoming domesticated as the new big theme in a revived unionist v nationalist struggle.
What’s just happened? The sequence was best described in a cool- headed column in the Indo by Dan O’Brien, chief economist in Dublin’s Institute of International and European Affairs who has worked for the EU Commission and the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Eleven days ago, the Taoiseach told the Dail that he was upbeat about the Brexit talks. He said that there was a good chance his 26 EU counterparts would agree to move to the second phase of the exit negotiations in December…
Then things changed. The following day, Michel Barnier, the man who negotiates on behalf of the EU 27, shared a paper with all the national delegations that his team had drawn up on Irish border issues, and one which Irish diplomats were centrally involved in drafting. As tends to happen when European Commission documents are circulated to all member countries, it leaked immediately.
The Irish position was, and remains, that there is nothing new in the document. The British thought otherwise, with the following paragraph causing consternation in London.
“It seems essential for the UK to commit to ensuring that a hard border on the island of Ireland is avoided, including by ensuring no emergence of regulatory divergence from those rules of the internal market and the Customs Union which are (or may be in the future) necessary for meaningful North South co-operation, the all-island economy and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement.”
Mention in the paper of “no regulatory divergence” means Northern Ireland, alone or with the rest of the UK, would have to adopt all EU new single market laws in the future. The Irish side has been looking for written guarantees on these issues in return for moving to phase two of the Brexit talks next month. The British side (and unionists) viewed this as Ireland attempting to force Britain into accepting all future EU legislation or, effectively, erecting barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and Britain so that the North could remain a de facto part of the EU. It was also construed as a threat to veto moving forward on the entire Brexit process to the detriment of the UK.
The British government retaliated. London newspapers ran stories, sourced from Whitehall, that the Irish Government had made a grab for the North and that it had done so to prevent Fine Gael losing support to Sinn Fein in a coming election.
Over the following days, the Taoiseach, on a number of occasions, publicly stated that Ireland would not veto moving to phase two. But by Friday his position had changed. When asked by Sky News about the issue, he implicitly suggested that he would veto moving to phase two next month if the British government did not provide written guarantees on how it would fulfil its promises on avoiding a border between the two jurisdictions on this island.
Threatening a veto – whether consistently or inconsistently – in such a high-stakes situation is a very big call. It is all the more so when it is unclear what exact written guarantees the British could give that would satisfy the Government that no border would be put in place.
Leo Varadkar is due some sympathy. He has to ride EU and British horses pulling in different directions at once but he can hardly afford to be less zealous on the border issue than Michel Barnier.
The EU paper has been described as “ blackmail” by Arlene Foster. treating it as a threat to the Union.
“The people of Northern Ireland delivered peace and stability,” Foster said. “Yes, they were supported beyond these shores, but to suggest that exiting the EU will bring violence onto our streets is downright careless.
“Those in Dublin and Brussels, recklessly trying to use Northern Ireland for their own objectives, should cease. The prime minister should warn Brussels that Northern Ireland must not be used as blackmail.
The same article contains a report that HMRC officials appearing before the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee have admitted that they are prevented from planning scenarios for border checks by the absence of ministerial authority.
Meanwhile, MPs were told on Monday that senior civil servants had few contingency plans for managing the Northern Irish border after Brexit because of a political stalemate between London and Dublin.
Mandarins questioned about preparations for the UK’s borders by the public accounts committee said they could not draw up scenarios until ministers have moved forward.
Appearing before the parliamentary spending watchdog on Monday, HMRCofficials were asked how they would monitor the movement of goods and services at 300 crossing points along the border.
Karen Wheeler, HMRC’s director general, said: “That area is not within the scope that we have been working on in the border planning group because the arrangements on Ireland are still subject to negotiations and ministerial discussions.”
Jon Thompson, HMRC’s chief executive, added: “We need the process to go a bit further forward before we can fully understand it.”
Meg Hillier, the committee chair, asked when they would be able to draw up different scenarios when there was such a “fuzzy plan” around the border.
Thompson said that the government wanted no additional infrastructure or a hard border in Northern Ireland, but added “We are unable to go any further on that because of the political process.
The British have replied officially to the EU document with the usual bland assurances, with the chancellor Philip Hammond adding in a Sunday interview that it would be the EU and the Republic who imposed any border checks, as the British wanted free trade.
Any open quarrel between the two governments over Brexit will embolden Sinn Fein as leaders manoeuvre for new positions round the party table after the retirement of Gerry Adams. The direction of travel they’re setting was clear in speeches at the Sinn Fein Ard fheis like Elisha McCallion’s which drew the loudest applause as much by her analysis as her“ Up the Rebels” call.
“The people of the North elected seven Sinn Féin MPs on an abstentionist policy.
“Nationalists in the North wanted representation on the island of Ireland.”
The first-time MP said that in the election the nationalist electorate of the North sent a clear message. “They see their future in an Irish context.”
“Irish citizens in the North are increasingly looking to the Oireachtas as an arena to air their grievances and pursue their aspirations”.
“The Dublin Government has a cast-iron responsibility to these citizens.”
“It is long past time the Dublin Government implemented the commitment to holding a referendum on extending presidential voting rights to citizens in the North and amongst the diaspora.”
While of course there’s nothing new in any of these sentiments from the DUP and Sinn Fein, the timing and tone will hardly boost the prospects of agreement on Stormont as the DUP and Sinn Fein leaderships hold separate meetings with Theresa May today. Further steps of direct rule is the more likely theme than a resumption of the Executive, with Sinn Fein opposed and the DUP trailing them as inevitable.
In an article under her name in the Guardian today, the Sinn Fein leader in the North Michelle O’Neill shifts ground to identify Brexit politics in the form of the Conservative –DUP pact as the key obstacle to restoring Stormont government.
The failure to restore the power-sharing administration in Belfast is a direct consequence of the Tory-DUP deal to prop up Theresa May’s government. It is undermining the entire talks process and shattering any remaining pretence of British government impartiality.
Through her pact with the DUP, Theresa May has prioritised her own electoral survival over the interests of the people in the north of Ireland, who have suffered under years of Tory austerity and are now looking into the Brexit abyss. Last Friday Sinn Féin told her that direct rule is not an option. When a Sinn Féin delegation meets with her in Downing Street on Tuesday, we will make it crystal clear again.
The social, economic, and political implications of this rightwing pact on the peace process, and on the people of Ireland, are profound. And now the increasing likelihood of a “no-deal” Brexit, cheered on by British isolationists, is putting the communities and livelihoods of citizens, especially those living along the border corridor, at risk.
Designated special status for the north of Ireland within the EU is the only feasible mechanism by which our island, its people and economy, can be protected by the Tory-DUP Brexit calamity. Quite simply, Sinn Féin will not allow a return to the past.
There seems not the smallest chink of wriggle room there.
Leo Varadkar is opposed to pre- GFA direct rule but has failed to make clear what sort of “say” he wants Dublin to have. This could become another open bone of contention between London and Dublin.
Even if the EU is impressed by a nebulous and conditional British offer of more money towards the Brexit divorce bill, the future of the border remains a barrier on progress in the negotiations, as the EU negotiator Michel Barnier again made clear yesterday. .
“The UK and the EU recognise that Ireland poses specific challenges and that require a specific solution.”
“On the EU side, we must preserve the integrity of the single market and the customs union. The rules for this are clear. The UK said it would continue to apply some EU rules on its territory but not all rules.
“What is unclear is what rules will apply in Northern Ireland after Brexit and what the UK is willing to commit to in order to avoid a hard border. I expect the UK, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday agreement, to come forward with proposals. The island of Ireland is faced with many challenges; those who wanted Brexit must offer solutions.”
Foreign minister Simon Coveney rammed the point home in George Osborne’s Evening Standard:
In an exclusive interview, Ireland’s foreign minister said his country still has a veto – and is prepared to use it.
Simon Coveney told the Standard that trade talks will not be allowed to begin until the UK also agrees to maintain the open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.
Anybody who thinks that just because the financial settlement issue gets resolved […] that somehow Ireland will have a hand put on the shoulder and be told, ‘Look, it’s time to move on.’ Well, we’re not going to move on.
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