Don’t let Arlene cause panic. The GFA isn’t dead, only sleeping and will acquire new life

When Arlene Foster said the GFA wasn’t  “sacrosanct” was she deliberately provoking a fit of the jitters? What did she mean? The Irish Times had no doubts:       

The apparent attempt by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster to undermine the Belfast Agreement in pursuit of a hardline strategy on Brexit is ill-considered and dangerous. It would appear that the DUP is actively pursuing a policy designed to ensure the restoration of the hardest possible border on the island regardless of the consequences for living standards of the people of Northern Ireland or, more importantly, the future of peace.

This seems over the top. But it exposed the state of nerves about the entire political future as the Brexit negotiations reach a climax.  As the lawyer she’s fond of reminding us she is, Arlene was studiously, even teasingly vague. She may have wanted to show she still has political muscle at a personally challenging time, not only in London on the brink of the final set of Brexit negotiations  but in Dublin, among GFA  faith keepers like the taoiseach. They feel disempowered by Brexit, deeply frustrated by the Stormont stand- off and discouraged by British foot dragging over convening one measly session of the British-Irish Intergovernmental conference since the Assembly’s collapse.

So we’re left with two questions.   First, have the British gone off the GFA entirely: power sharing, ” rigorous impartiality”,  north-south, the B and I partnership, the whole kit and caboodle, in an extended fit of assertive British nationalism  of which Brexit is only the main expression?

Is the DUP embolded to follow their lead, getting out from under, staking their all on their deal with the Conservatives and Fortress Ulster?  Have we at last hit on the reason why they haven’t given an inch since the collapse of Stormont? If so they’re pushing their luck.  If the Tories find elusive unity in  a deal with the EU over the next few weeks which includes some regulatory checks on more than live animals away from ports and the DUP vote it down , they’ll earn the undying resentment of their erstwhile partners. While Brexiteers are hardly the ones to do it, Arlene should be reminded that as Leavers, the DUP were  perverse accessories to the creation of  the problem in the first place. Two can play hardball at this fateful moment and the Conservatives are a whole lot bigger and more powerful than they are.

Though tender feelings towards the GFA are understandable there’s no need to panic. It is not like Holy Writ  to a Calvinist. Even full blown written constitutions take amendments, the US Constitution has 27 and the Irish, 30, although over 150 years younger.

If Arlene had chosen to be more been specific she might have referred to the need to tweak the north-south references in the GFA  to   “ taking  account of EU policies”. With a little imagination she might have looked forward to a stronger bilateral arrangements to replace EU ones. These will come.

But hold on. Is a hard border the logical outcome of the DUP’s apparent refusal to contemplate any checks including regulatory ones anywhere between the two islands?  As the border goes unmentioned in the GFA,  it therefore doesn’t actually ban a hard border. Arlene was displaying her irritation with the broadest interpretation of GFA being treated as a document as rigid and constraining as the British view of the Treaty of Maastricht itself. A house if you remove a single  brick, the whole edifice crumbles.

Perhaps the Irish Times have a point after all? There’s a train of thought there, certainly.  But there no need to stay on it until it hits the buffers. On the backstop  while declaring ” blood red” lines, Arlene’s specific   arguments against a border in the Irish Sea were economic. Assurances along those lines may show the way out of deadlock.

I’m a unionist, I believe in the Union and therefore it is very important to us that constitutionally that is protected.

“But also, as I have said many times, from an economic point of view, Northern Ireland cannot have barriers in trade – either trade going to GB or trade coming out of GB going to Northern Ireland.”

In the FT, Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform describes the latest twists and turns:

  There is some convergence between the British and the EU on the nature of the backstop. Mrs May can accept the principle of Northern Ireland having different regulations from Great Britain, and thus the need for checks on trade across the Irish Sea, so long as they are minimal and occur away from ports and airports. But she argues, probably rightly, that MPs would not approve the backstop unless the future relationship entailed a common rule book, thereby obviating the need for controls on goods, plants and animals that cross the sea

Mrs May needs to redesign both prongs of her Chequers plan. On customs, she should spell out what she has already implied: that for a very long interim period Britain will be in a customs union with the EU. She has already proposed that the backstop include provisions for the entire UK to stay in a customs union temporarily; the EU said no, arguing that the backstop should concern only Northern Ireland. Both sides might be able to sign up to the aspiration for a clever, high-tech scheme, different to an FCA, that would one day allow the British to set their own tariffs — when the European Commission certified that it worked.

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