Arlene Foster spoke no empty words. The road to renewed cross community cooperation may run through Dublin and Brussels

Arlene Foster’s demarche surely marks a truce or even peace  between the Irish government and the DUP in the squabbles over Brexit. It will also  consolidate Dublin’s  improving  relations with Westminster. All this is welcome. Neither wants a hard land border on the island or trade barriers between the Republic and Great Britain. It was just that Dublin’s priority was elevating no hard border to a position of veto over the UK government’s whole strategy, while the DUP had a veto on any prospect of British weakening  over no economic border in the Irish Sea.

But vetoes do not produce agreements and it’s high time the circus  moved on.

Colum Eastwood’s response to Arlene Foster is positive. The SDLP leader calls it “a step in the right direction” by which she “effectively argues for access to the single market and the customs union”.

While that’s correct,  Eastwood has shifted some ground to meet her.  Making every allowance for flexibility of language,  “access” to the single market and the customs union is not the same as special status to remain  inside  them.

Michelle O’Neill’s response is more grudging, a cautious welcome but then, it’s  back to clockwork. She welcomed “the acknowledgement by Arlene Foster” that “our economy, community, and future, North and South, are interlinked and interdependent”.

“However, this cannot distract from the fact that Brexit will be disastrous for all of Ireland. There is no good Brexit. Today was a difference in tone, but not in policy.”

Foster made no specific linkage between closer cooperation with the Republic on Brexit and prospects for the restoration of the Executive. That was left to Colum Eastwood.

.. what Mrs Foster refers to as a replica of the Nordic Council model cannot be a substitute for political leadership and a local government.

“What this statement this morning highlights is that Brexit must be a basis for talks ( about the Assembly).. No political leader here can speak for Northern Ireland alone but what the DUP Leader has exposed today is that there is some common ground. Political dialogue is needed here to explore that common ground, where there is room for compromise and if there is a way to move forward.”

Foster’s speech is indeed interesting for its change of tone, but also for its possibilities  Significant too perhaps that she concentrates on a desire for a closer intergovernmental relationship over Brexit rather than the restoration of the Executive, as if Brexit is the better immediate bet.

Even so, improvements in one area might lead to progress in the other. The governments can hardly engage over one alone.

On Brexit solutions, rather remarkably, Foster seems to believe that the default option of alignment of regulations agreed in the joint Report on Phase1 of the Brexit negotiations can be reconciled with her first priority of no economic border between NI and GB. Few are so sure of that. But  she’s right, a full free trade deal between the UK and EU is the better option for Ireland north and south if the reality of Brexit is accepted.

Remember that the DUP did not endorse the joint Report’s default position in the event of a failure to find “ agreed solutions” for Brexit.

 49.In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

In the British view, this fell well short of  full membership and was  limited to  the specifics of north-south cooperation  in the  GFA. Even so Foster seized on their importance.

…we absolutely don’t want to see the creation of a hard border on the island of Ireland.  We value the trade that has developed at pace between Northern Ireland – and the entire UK – and the Republic in recent years. The UK market is critical to many Irish sectors and especially agri-foods with 40% of Irish food and drink going to the UK.

The Irish market acc“ounts for just over 30% of all of Northern Ireland’s exports and trade from Northern Ireland to the Republic rose by more than 16% in the last year.  It is, in short, an incredibly valuable market for Northern Ireland businesses.

But so too is Great Britain.  More so, in fact.  Of the £26 billion worth of sales by Northern Ireland firms that are outside of the region, 56% go to Great Britain.  Northern Ireland trade with Great Britain is worth 3.7 times more than Northern Ireland exports to the Republic.  It is, by far, our biggest external market.

 

Her fallback is  50 in the joint Report, that:

in the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.

Which means 50 gives a DUP veto on 49, any  “full alignment” with EU rules. That’s why they were  content for Theresa May to go and sign the joint Report at the second attempt.

Ireland’s role as a persuader in the Irish strand in the next phase of the Brexit negotiations will be crucial. Squaring this circle will be difficult, to put it mildly.  Foster is surely right to call for close British and Irish cooperation to try to achieve it and to continue ever afterwards. Through the pact with the Conservatives, she has  leverage which the Irish government will value, if things go well between them.  One could see a process whereby the DUP would exert influence with HM government and the Irish government with the EU, both in the interests of Ireland north and south and even perhaps in the whole Brexit outcome.

So a constructive effort for a change. But does it have any implications for Sinn Fein and the Assembly?.

The Irish government made the first move to clear the air with the DUP and are bound to respond further to re-establish a regular relationship with them. That in turn should put some pressure on Sinn Fein. So well done, Arlene. The road to  revived cross community cooperation  may run through Dublin and Brussels. Will Mary Lou McDonald change her tune from only last Wednesday or try to keep  the politics of Brexit and Stormont entirely separate?

 

 

.

 

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