Ireland, Northern Ireland and Brexit: two southern political perspectives from #MacGill18…

It’s worth drawing out some of the material from Glenties the other night. On the night, the intellectual heavy lifting was done by Micheal Martin, who as leader of the opposition: one, has time to think; and two is not hemmed in by reality.

However, the Tanaiste and Foreign Minister Simon Coveney did make several important observations:

…to some degree, on the Irish issues at least, it ground to a halt in March. The UK then turned its focus to the future relationship and how it envisages its customs and regulatory relationships with the European Union after it has left the club.

What is notable about this phase – which we had hoped would conclude at Chequers – is that it has primarily involved the UK negotiating with itself. Not negotiating with Brussels or Michel Barnier and the Task Force he leads – the UK’s real interlocutors in this process.

But instead, trying to find compromise positions between Ministers who prioritise the real benefits of a close economic and security relationship with the EU – and Ministers, indeed backbenchers, who take a more ideological approach, where leaving the EU seems to be an end in itself. [Emphasis added throughout.]

On the outcome, Coveney noted:

Ireland needs a good outcome here – we absolutely need Britain to be prosperous after Brexit. This is what gives the lie to commentators – and some people who should know better – alleging that Ireland wishes Britain ill in what lies ahead.

This could not be further from the truth. We need a prosperous Britain to keep buying our beef, enjoying our cheeses, using our services and so much more besides. We need the UK to get this right.

Coveney suggests the best relationship is a close one. He does not seem to recognise is the internal demands – coming now from the left as well as the right – that the UK must leverage its own advantages from leaving (however small or long-term).

On the constitutional issue, he tries to put to bed the notion – in part generated by some of his own expansive language  over the last year – that the backstop is some kind of bid to complete Mick Collins’ famous stepping stones to Irish unity:

we should put to bed the notion that there are any constitutional implications, or any constitutional agendas, at play here. There simply aren’t.

The only way in which Northern Ireland’s constitutional status can be altered is through the principle of consent and through a vote to change that status by a majority of people in Northern Ireland.

We are rock solid behind that absolute principle – and I am on the record as saying that calls for a border poll in Ireland are premature and unwise in the context of what we are trying to disentangle and negotiate here with Brexit.

In the early part of his speech Micheal Martin focused on how all parties might leverage the outline structure of the negotiations to compensate for the UK’s haste in triggering Article 50 before it decided what it wanted:

…the hard, inescapable reality is that everyone wants and needs a transitionary period.

If there can be agreement on at least a framework of a future relationship then the political declaration attached to the Treaty will include it.  If there is no such agreement, then all there will be is a process and a hope that something can be worked out during the next two years.

This is something Michel Barnier says all the time and we listen to it far too rarely – the withdrawal process and the future arrangement are different issues and we need to stop thinking that unless everything is agreed by the end of this year there will be a crash-out Brexit on March 30th 2019.

This makes no sense for anyone and it is highly unlikely to happen. And this is where Ireland faces the worst situation of this entire process.

On the Irish government’s position…

…the entire negotiating strategy of our government focused on two macro objectives.  Have Ireland dealt with before the final discussions and push for a relationship between the UK and EU which would be so close that the measures agreed for Ireland would be irrelevant.

…key elements of this strategy have clearly failed and were a mistake in the first place – something which was pointed out at the time.

We wasted valuable time on a doomed manoeuvre to use the backstop to cover the whole of the UK and the massive over-hype of one part of last December’s agreement has caused serious damage.

When Michel Barnier pleads for the de-dramatising of the backstop we all know where most of the drama was generated.

Ouch. He then goes on to point out what should have been obvious long before now: ie, that setting a strategy which depends almost entirely on the actions of your opponent is by definition a weak one:

Today Ireland is actually the only point of significance still to be decided in the Withdrawal Treaty and the attempts to have a close-to-membership arrangement between the UK and the EU has manifestly failed.

Prime Minister May’s Belfast speech last week confirmed yet again the backstop as understood in Dublin is incapable of securing a majority in the British government and parliament.

All sides say there must be no North/South border.  The British government insists that there must be no East/West border, while the EU negotiators say there must be some checks if Britain has a different relationship with the EU to Northern Ireland’s.

Having said last December that no new East/West checks will be required as a result of the backstop, our government today has little to say on the matter.

So we are left in a position where even the optimists are throwing their hands in the air and saying that a crash is on the way.

On Northern Ireland…

As Mary Murphy has written in her excellent new book on Northern Ireland and Europe, Europe has gone from being a common-ground where parties worked together to achieve things for their communities, to a dangerously divisive and potentially radicalising issue.

Today marks 560 days since the Assembly and Executive were collapsed over a renewable heating scheme.  We all earnestly hope that this Thursday’s meeting of the inter-governmental will mark some major initiative to restore representative institutions in Northern Ireland, but until this happens whatever is the Brexit outcome will lack essential democratic legitimacy.

Clearly we have to look for an approach which overcomes the fears of a constitutional slight-of-hand created by the ridiculous and almost messianic over-spinning of the backstop last December.

This was in line with Coveney’s position, who was at pains to point out how devolution means that divergence within the UK is commonplace in the constitutional settlement, and not the singular aberration claimed by Foster and the DUP.

However, Martin provides detail on how that might be achieved to the advantage of both north and south without necessarily scaring any restless unionist horses…

Instead of seeing Brexit just as a threat to be minimised, which it undoubtedly is, we have to also find a mechanism for securing a new development agenda for Northern Ireland.

I believe that a special economic zone status offers the best opportunity.There are hundreds of such zones in the world, and it is a concept which was developed here in Shannon.

In some cases the populations covered are numbered in the millions and even though they by definition operate to different rules than other regions, there is no question of any diminution of national sovereignty.

In Northern Ireland’s case it would, in effect, benefit from the best of both worlds.  It would have full access to both the UK and the EU markets and not be forced to choose between them.  The wider Border region could also be included to provide a bigger economic base.

And, he argues, returning to his first point, there can be space and time added to the agenda to adequately address the Northern Ireland problem…

…it appears foolish to expect that the legal formula proposed in the draft Withdrawal Treaty will be in the final version.  Equally there is a vanishingly small chance of Northern Ireland being satisfactorily addressed in the final status arrangement to kick in post 2020.

So we need to try to do something to reframe the issue and create some common ground.

We need to rebuild relations between Dublin and the parties and groups which, I believe falsely, see any backstop as a threat to the agreed constitutional position of Northern Ireland.

We need to understand that time has run out and our room for manoeuvre is disappearing.

A dose of reality. Those, particularly in Northern Ireland, who think this stuff will get easier once Brexit is over miss the reality that Brexit (catastrophe or otherwise) will take years and layers and layers of negotiations to complete/fix.

NOTE: The other two speakers were the Foyle abstentionist MP Elisha McCallion and the DUP’s sitting MP for South Belfast Emma Little Pengelly. I’ll come to these two northern perspectives under separate cover later.

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Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty