While Arlene is stuck in the grove of her blood red hard line, the local business community has found their own voice independent of politicians and have talked to Peter Foster, Europe editor of the Daily Telegraph
700 miles away in Belfast, where the business community is trying to prepare the best it can for Brexit, despite all the uncertainty, the tone was markedly less apocalyptic ( than Arlene’s, stuck in a grove of red lines) .
Declan Billington, the chairman of the Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association lobby group and boss of the animal feed manufacturer Thompson’s, was just back from his own trip to Brussels where he met members of Michel Barnier’s Task Force 50.
His consultations about how the Northern Ireland backstop might actually work, if it kicks in at the end of the transition period in December 2020 or in the event the EU and the UK cannot reach a trade deal, were rather more reassuring than Mrs Foster’s.
Under a compromise being proposed by the British Government, the whole of the United Kingdom will remain in a customs union with Europe (to avoid a customs border in the Irish Sea) but only Northern Ireland would stay aligned to the EU single market for goods.
For Mr Billington – and the farmers who are his customers – that raises the question of how to obtain the certifications and approvals needed to trade in the EU if the backstop kicks in. What he heard in Brussels surprised him.
“They said that where factory-based tests are taking place, the UK authorities in Northern Ireland would still be considered a ‘competent authority’ to certify goods for the EU,” he said. “That seems to me a big concession on their part.”
In December, after a four-day stand-off, the DUP were promised “the same unfettered access” to the UK’s internal market as before Brexit – a promise that Mrs Foster reminded the Government of again in Brussels yesterday.
The first obstacle is to get the EU to agree that the entire UK should remain in a customs union with the EU – without this, businesses like SDC would find themselves making customs declaration when they send their trailers into the UK. That, says Mr Cushnahan, would be a disaster.
The second obstacle is smoothing the regulatory checks that would still be necessary to protect the EU single market in the event that, say, the UK diverged and allowed imports of chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-injected beef.
Details are still to be confirmed, but the assumption is that the border will work on a one-way basis and the British Government will not impose checks on goods coming from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.
That just leaves the issue of regulatory checks, particularly on potentially ‘dangerous’ goods like food and pharmaceuticals coming the other way.
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