As Matt O’Toole points out in precisely the right terms the whole Brexit thing is tricky for Northern Ireland, not simply from an economic point of view from a cultural angle too. There, as he says, so many wrong answers and no right ones.
The measured tone of Arlene Foster’s speech in Killarney yesterday stands in stark contrast with the exasperation of David Trimble during the week. The idea of dictating what other sovereign nations should do is a tricky territory. It raises hackles and prompts negative tit for tat.
Micheal Martin at the same conference did some straight talking of his own (pointing out that since Brexit began UK costs were rising by an estimated £350 per week), although he was careful to put in the context of a need for continued stable relations between the UK and Ireland.
Significantly, he noted that
…the EU has confirmed that it will fully respect the EU citizenship rights which will be retained by residents of Northern Ireland. This was an issue which we raised in Dublin and London before the negotiations began and it is extremely important.
It is also an acknowledgement that Northern Ireland represents a special situation.
The 1.8 million residents of Northern Ireland, and future residents, have a right to both British and Irish citizenship, and therefore EU citizenship, which is enshrined in British, Irish and European law. And lest there be any question about the legitimacy of this, it was supported by an overwhelming majority of the people in a free referendum.
With regard to some of the hotter-headed rhetoric passing between the Dublin Government and the DUP before Christmas…
…it’s important that we put to rest the idea that politicians in the Republic advocating a deal which respects the rights and opinions of Northern Ireland is a constitutional threat. It’s actually the exact opposite.
It is a vindication of long-established policy which underpins the core concept that the people of Northern Ireland alone will decide on its constitutional status.
And on nationalism’s aspirations in Northern Ireland …
…we have a right to express our aspiration for a single state for all on this island without this being presented as a threat to anyone.
And I think through my words and actions I have more than earned the right to speak on this topic without being accused of following the agenda of Sinn Fein – which is in fact this island’s most entrenched anti-EU party.
I have also been very clear in calling on Sinn Fein to allow the Northern institutions to get working. Only this will enable the anti-Brexit majority to have a place at the table during critical negotiations in the next nine months.
In the Downing Street Declaration and in every agreement since then the overwhelming majority here have been true to the principle of free consent.
Equally, our legitimate interest in Northern Ireland has been recognised by the UK government and parliament. It has been recognised by every Prime Minister from Margaret Thatcher onwards.
And I hope everyone will acknowledge that my party’s official engagement with communities in Northern Ireland has always been open, unthreatening and constructive.
In contrast to the Taoiseach’s more aggressive (nay, traditionally FF) approach to the matter of continuing north-south relations, in the calmer environment of Killarney Martin put something on the table that did not seem to be immediately rejected…
For all parts of Ireland, there is no good Brexit. If what we end up with is a new customs border with light-touch technology administering it, it may not look like there is a border, but it will be there and it will be damaging businesses and communities on both sides.
To give one small example, Northern businesses are likely to be hit with serious cash-flow problems because of exiting the EU VAT regime and thousands of companies will be obliged to comply with large numbers of new administrative tasks.
I believe that the only credible means of addressing the economic needs of Northern Ireland is for it to become a special economic zone.
This would threaten no one’s sovereignty but it would enable a means of allowing free flow of trade both North/South and East/West. It would not in any way undermine the internal market of the UK as it is a model used throughout the world by states seeking ways of developing regions.
As Brian notes Arlene’s mention of the Nordic Council as a possible model going forward suggests the DUP remain committed to the institutions of the Belfast Agreement. Interestingly, Martin raised both it and the economic zone idea at the BIA in September.
That’s an interesting point of confluence, albeit between Northern Ireland’s lead unionist party and the Republic’s leading opposition. It stands in contrast with the politics of the impossible and utter pessimism that’s been dominant in Northern Ireland in the same period.
Martin’s concluding phrases could be cut and pasted for what’s needed here as well:
To get through the rest of these negotiations we need more cooperation, more urgency and more ambition. We must be open to new models of cooperation and development.
This is a once in a generation challenge and we must stop the drift and damage which has defined the issue since June 2016.
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