Time for a more equitable tune between the two parts of Ireland, the UK and Europe?

Is the ‘Shared Island’ Initiative launched by Taoiseach Micheál Martin TD at risk of sinking below the waves caused by the pandemic, a border in the Irish sea, the noise of the opportunistic and thumpingly populist ‘prepare for a Border Poll and Irish Unity’ lobby and  a nearly vaccine supply war launched by the EU on Northern Ireland’s most vulnerable?

To deploy that wonderfully mangled Dublinese Captain Boyle in Juno and the Paycock: are we all just in “a terrible state o’ chassis”? Like Zhou Enlai when asked about whether the French Revolution had been a success, it’s a little too soon to tell.

Speaking to the NI Affairs Committee of MPs at Westminster on 27 January 2021, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan warned of ‘growing discontent within PUL communities’ as the ramifications of the TCA between the United Kingdom and the EU unfold.

He referred to ‘low level intelligence’ and graffiti relating to the unease which he suggested, had it not been for the pandemic, may have found expression as ‘visible outworking on the streets of Northern Ireland’ . The PSNI is continuing to monitor the situation.

Divergence between NI and the rest of the UK as it is presently rolling out, is not popular. We wait to see if the threat of instability leveraged by the EU, Washington, Dublin and anti-Brexit parties in Northern Ireland has incentivised similar threats under a different banner.

The disclosure to the Committee is not surprising. There are many levels of discontent masked by the pandemic; social, economic, health-related and constitutional.

The Northern Ireland Protocol, with a trade border nominally in the Irish sea but operational at ports, and the unsatisfactory nature of the TCA acceded to by the Johnston government which at this stage seems unlikely to deliver anything like the economic benefits the Brexit campaign promised, has left people uncertain and wary about the future.

Will all be sorted by the end of the grace period? There is a pressing need to prioritize this. And Michael Gove as a leading light in the Brexit campaign and a self professed committed unionist, really needs to deliver.

With people already concerned by the stresses of the pandemic and its public health, social, educational, mental health and economic repercussions, are added highly publicised, maybe exaggerated, possibilities about shortages, higher costs, delays, limited consumer choice and job losses. There is frustration, unease and discontent with Britishness rationed.

It could be a combustible mix as decision-makers are targets for blame.

Prime Minister Boris Johnston, his Conservative government and the DUP have not escaped the graffiti warriors or criticism in less public conversations. The governments in Dublin, Washington and Brussels are not seen as without responsibility for the unwelcome and collateral implications of the NI Protocol when these things are discussed.

The corridor to growth which NI Ireland was supposed to become in terms of unfettered trade and business opportunities with a global United Kingdom and the EU threatens to become a cul-de-sac. You cannot buy what is not on the shelves or suppliers are refusing to dispatch, online or otherwise.

Supply chains are not so much disrupted as closing down in some instances.  Markets have disappeared for some businesses. It feels like more than teething problems. This comment may apply to lack of preparation for new administrative and bureaucratic procedures but longer-term trading issues are emerging.

Whatever your views on Brexit, these problems were always likely to occur as 40 years of practice is re-configured but in regard to the United Kingdom and Ireland, North and South, they need creative and consensual solutions. Only some can be shipped to Cherbourg.

Is this a test for the concept of a Shared Island as envisaged by the Taoiseach?

On 22 October 2020 launching the Initiative, Micheál Martin spoke of ‘shared and open dialogue, pragmatism, beyond the rhetoric, and working with Northern Ireland and the UK to address disadvantage.’ He, in turn, referred to the Good Friday Agreement as offering capacity to deal ‘in a sensible way’ with the practicalities of Brexit and trade to stimulate economies to allow life to flourish.

You can now add the unfettered supply of anti-covid vaccine. Throughout the Brexit negotiations, there was continuous reference to Northern Ireland as a special case. By implication, but rarely acknowledged, the same applied to the Republic of Ireland.

The All-Ireland Dialogues which followed hot on the heels of the UK’s decisions to opt for Brexit left no doubt as to the potentially serious economic consequences for the Republic of Ireland.

The importance of all-Ireland Bodies and the economic and unfettered linkage to the British market was made evident by every political representative who addressed the audience and by the varied spokespersons for all branches of commerce, industry, agri-food, education and tourism.

It was made clear by Taoiseach Enda Kenny who was still in office that the Republic of Ireland would be acting at all times in its own interests, have a new relationship with its former European ally, the United Kingdom, in that it would be firmly on the European side of the negotiating table and, in addition to developing a strategy for addressing Brexit issues, would launch a political and diplomatic initiative aimed at promoting Irish economic interests.

It presented as a successful strategy as Ireland and the EU used the GFA and the border as leverage in negotiations with a UK, unclear as to what it wanted but unwilling to leave the EU without a deal.

Is this now the same in light of the deal recently agreed? In view of the shared border with Northern Ireland could Ireland have been treated as a special case? In the light of the mini-Schengen which Ireland enjoys through the CTA with the United Kingdom could there have been a similar joint trading relationship?

Should negotiations have focused first on trade and then created the changes to structures and arrangements which would have facilitated the trade that every country needs? The terminology, issues and tone would have been different and the introduction of jurisdiction and constitutional issues would not have skewed discourse.

Whatever the reasons (and they will be many) Ireland chose a course from which it has not deviated and harnessed it to the Good Friday Agreement and the possibility of a resumption of violence in the event of a hard border which the Irish government itself was quick to erect during the foot and mouth outbreak and police during the current pandemic.

However sincerely the views expressed, the heavy emphasis on aspects of the Good Friday Agreement and the almost complete ignoring of the principle of consent aligned Dublin with opportunistic nationalism and irredentist republicanism for whom Brexit is seen as a game changer and energised the partisan want-to-be juggernaut, Ireland’s Future.

Whilst pro-Union voters with commitment to the GFA, human rights, inclusivity and pro-European links did not endorse Brexit, so that this was not a vote for re-unification is well known but generally dismissed by government and commentators.

As Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD referred to the strain being put on Anglo-Irish relations during the Brexit negotiations and there have been nuanced calls from Dublin for this to be addressed. It is not a good place for the co-guarantors of the GFA to deliberately put themselves.

Although it has very little coverage on southern media, it is equally the case that the Brexit deal continues to have implications for, amongst other issues, the land bridge, Dublin port, supply chains and business in the Republic of Ireland.

In urging Ireland to seek alternative markets to the UK for its goods, Dublin Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond writing in the Business Post on 27th January has identified these:

‘After more than four years of protracted negotiations and preparations, the Brexit transition period has ended and reality has begun to set in. Queues at ports and airports, customs charges and trading issues are now the norm for consumers and businesses in Ireland and Britain alike.’

Not so long ago the same TD was advocating an ‘all-island economy’ but now suggests that: ‘Britain’s loss of easy access to the single market is …. potentially a gain for Ireland’ whilst at the same time acknowledging that Irish trade with the UK between 2015 and 2019 has only slightly reduced from 16% to 14% of total trade.

Not an insignificant sum when measured in billions of euros and surely, even where it seeks to diversify, Ireland wishes to retain. Diversification may only deliver compensatory replacement and not growth.

It seems, in the light of negative short-term and possibly longer-term commercial, constitutional and in regard to Northern Ireland, an identified need to repair and preserve diplomatic relations while retaining favourable trading conditions with the UK: this is an opportune time to grow and promote the spirit of a ‘Shared Island’ and strands one and two of the GFA.

We could launch into wasteful discourse as to who bears responsibility for the present state of flux between Belfast, Dublin, Brussels and London. The more important question is: who will now take responsibility for addressing it creatively?

The EU, going so far as to consider vaccine supply restrictions and impede the sale of seeds to garden centres, has revealed its worst vindictive traits as a closed and highly regulated community and seems content to let the UK ‘figure it out.’

It also brings to the surface serious concerns that Northern Ireland sits within an EU single market and customs union without meaningful representation and little evident understanding or concern for its difficulties.

Dublin, remains within the EU, understandably wary of Brussel’s concerns regarding its tax systems and wishing to grow trade with the internal market, but it has, with a vested interest in the GFA, an important role to play.

It must return to its original honest broker, co-guarantor role it has too frequently abandoned during this period of negotiation.

The deal will not alter in the immediate future but, with goodwill, there is room for interpretation and creative application of the NI Protocol with regard to groupage, goods at risks, origins of source, trusted traders and unwieldy bureaucracy as well as other issues.

In a digital age, political obduracy should not get in the way. Neither should ill-considered petulance as exhibited in yesterday’s vaccine mini-crisis. Nothing short of genuine Statesmanship is what’s needed.

It is this statesmanship that the Taoiseach displayed in his speech on a Shared Island but without further application and solution to present and pressing problems and uniting around common purpose as he stated on the day, is it at risk of being blown off course in the waters of an Irish Sea made choppy by the presence of a regulatory border and an EU in rancorous mode.

Photo by Iguanat is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA