The border in the Irish Sea… the future of north-south cooperation.The devil is in the detail.

RTE News’s Europe editor Tony Connelly has published two extremely useful stories on  essential detail. Does the Ireland/NI Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement threaten north-south cooperation? Does the proposed customs arrangement for Northern Ireland amount to a border in the Irish Sea that threatens its constitutional position? How the rules would actually work is explained. This new customs territory would therefore be a combination of the EU’s customs territory, set out in EU law, and the UK’s customs territory. But … Read more

The prime minister may not have the numbers but options are running out for the DUP and the Tory Brexiteers

  With a week to go before the hoped for ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, Nigel Dodds has grabbed  Dominic Raab’s reading of the Withdrawal Agreement  as a lifeline.  It  may  confirm his worst fears coming from someone who only four days ago was in the inner circle, but now, much good may it do him.   In his Sunday Times article, Raab is withering about the European Commission’s approach to the talks and accuses Brussels of deliberately trying to wound … Read more

The DUP have a good point about the democratic deficit. But the cabinet critics are offering nothing new to solve it

Read moreThe DUP have a good point about the democratic deficit. But the cabinet critics are offering nothing new to solve it

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

The DUP made little difference to the withdrawal agreement. And now they are only 10 among May’s many critics

The DUP have already started to polish up their narrative of victimhood.  Ian Paisley jr has been recalling his Dad’s roars of “Never, Never, Never,” at Thatcher’s betrayal of unionism in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. The Brits have done it again! The Shinners were right all along.

“Back then we were on the edge of the union, there were major atrocities ongoing and all of that was feeding into the mood. We also didn’t have the political engagement we have had over the last 15 years, the IRA were the IRA then, things were black and white, with the emergence of Sinn Féin that changed things in terms of political engagement.

“However, I do think in terms of relations with the Republic of Ireland we are in similar territory, largely because Leo Varadkar has changed the dynamic, he has ostracised and angered unionists to a similar level.

“Enda Kenny forged positive relationships, Leo and (Simon) Coveney (Tánaiste) on the other hand have managed to create angst, and that wasn’t and hasn’t been the case for many years.

“That makes it similar politically, in that Dublin is acting as the enemy instead of a passive neighbour, but we must always remember this is a political crisis not a security one which is what we had back then.

But glee at the DUPs discomfiture should be resisted. Paisley jr had the grace to acknowledge differences.

The DUP didn’t ask to hold the balance of power; and when they did, the script was already mainly written. Their exposed position encouraged  a false sense of security. But behind the veneer of confidence, they had their suspicions from the moment Arlene Foster hauled Mrs May out of a lunch with Commission president Juncker to approve the first draft of what became the backstop and required her to insert “no border in the Irish Sea.”

Undoubtedly, the DUP won tactical victories. Would the insistence of no border in the Irish Sea have been quite so effusive without them?

Today they appear to have strength in numbers among the unholy alliance that is the massed ranks of May’s critics. But those very numbers mean that their edge has lost its sharpness. Who can identify the real assassin if so many are willing to plunge in the dagger?

In the marathon three hour battering Theresa May took in the Commons today, the DUP spoke more in sorrow than in anger – nothing like their old lord and master. The exchanges show how the prime minister and the DUP have been talking past each other. They spoke as if they knew that by their own standards they‘d failed and half expected to.

Sammy Wilson DUP

The Northern Ireland protocols make it clear that Northern Ireland will stay under EU single market law and will also be economically separated from the rest of the United Kingdom. Articles 7, 9 and 12 show that, even if the EU allows the UK to leave the single market, Northern Ireland will remain under single market arrangements, and any border down the Irish sea will be subject to the willingness of the EU to allow that to be avoided. How can the Prime Minister give us an assurance that Northern Ireland will not be constitutionally separated from the United Kingdom and economically separated from GB? Or is this not a case of Northern Ireland being put on a platter and abject surrender to the EU?

The Prime Minister

No, that is not the case. Throughout this discussion and these negotiations, the interests of Northern Ireland have been one of the key issues that we have put at the forefront of our mind, because of the particular geographical circumstances of Northern Ireland and its land border with Ireland. Northern Ireland will leave the single market with the whole of the United Kingdsom. There will be specific regulatory alignment, which I recognise is uncomfortable. It will be in that portion of the single market acquis that relates to matters that ensure that a frictionless border can take place between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are already some regulatory differences between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There is a question in the future, which I know has raised a concern, as to whether there will be regulatory divergence between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in relation to that issue—because we are talking about a temporary period—of no regulatory divergence. The checks and controls actually relate to the degree of regulatory divergence, so if there is no regulatory divergence, obviously, that has an impact on reducing the necessity for any checks and controls. Crucially, the EU wanted to say that it would determine whether a good that was produced in Birmingham could be sold in Belfast. We were very clear that the EU could not determine that in the future. It will be the UK Government who make those determinations.

Hard to follow, isn’t it? This is the kind of nuance the DUP refuse to take in. She’s saying the less the regulation the harder the border, adding that there will be no disruption to trade in either direction across the Irish Sea. Is this really the slippery slope to Dublin rule? Should we not wait and see and complain if need be to the new oversight body?

If the DUP had never existed the  draft withdrawal agreement  would have been much the same. In truth whatever outcome is finally reached, there will always be pressure to avoid a physical  border  between the UK’s only land frontier and the EU.  And it is a basic error to assume the pressure comes only from the south.

Now they are looking a No Deal in the face that would guarantee new barriers no one wants by next March and risk serious damage to the whole island.

Apart from no Brexit, the practical alternative is to make the common customs area and regulatory alignment within the island a success and revive the moribund relationships of the Good Friday Agreement. If the DUP refuse the opportunity, the two governments should fulfil the pledges in the Withdrawal Agreement and do so themselves.

What do the DUP hope to rescue out of the present mess? We can hear a note of caution in their condemnation of the prime minister.  But the argument that a hard Brexit need not mean a hard border was lost a long time ago. Do they really believe they can muster the ranks for one last heave under her or  another Tory leader?

There will be mixed feelings at Westminster if the confidence and supply pact really does come to an end.  When it was concluded, many rank and file Conservatives felt a certain fastidious distaste  at the idea of dependence on what they regarded as reactionary “backwoodsmen” in the old term of  1912, whose idea of the Union was very different from theirs. Although  usually personally courteous, the DUP were never thought of as ” one of us.” I remember  being invited to an end of session DUP party for lobby journalists to find myself the only person present. These are Tea Party unionists who had no chance of dictating  events.

The essential difference between the cause and its advocates  was only  emphasised by their outright opposition to abortion and same sex marriage when an ad hoc cross party coalition of women MPs  rode to the rescue  to recognise a distinction between the  people of Northern Ireland and its representatives, a distinction which of course  includes the absent Sinn Fein.  Pact or no pact, that distinction has been maintained over defending the “precious Union.”  In this arena Northern Ireland has  been treated generously in spite of, rather than because of, the people they elect.

It’s a fallacy to suppose that there’s no such thing as gratitude in politics. When the dust has settled, the majority in the Commons that eventually emerges may ask themselves – why were the DUP  so ungrateful  when we’d gone through the contortions of an all- UK barebones customs arrangement whether it survives or not, in order to protect Northern Ireland’s position  in the Union? Not entirely fair and not the whole story. But a little acknowledgment and graciousness would go a long 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

Northern Ireland is not disenfranchised by the Withdrawal Agreement and could enjoy the best of both worlds. Give it a chance!

It’s probably rash of me to attempt a commentary on the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol of this massive draft Withdrawal Agreement. But very provisionally, here goes. The first thing that strikes me is that the Protocol (from p301) takes great pains to give assurances that life will continue much as now, that the constitutional position is not threatened and there will be no border in the Irish Sea. It prevents a hard border by  instituting an all-UK customs alignment with the … Read more

At least backstop squared has been dropped. But May has accepted temporarily different regimes for Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Are you alarmed? Really?

The dam has burst. . Suddenly, against the background of a mass rally for a second referendum,  the “technical agreement” of the withdrawal deal has been sprung as a leak. In 600 pages it’s an all-UK customs backstop in the short term. But a form of Northern Ireland backstop survives, fragmented, scaled down from the joint report and appended in annexes we’re told  – but present. Hardly anybody has seen it but a cascade of critical comment has poured out regardless. … Read more

The cabinet line holds but the DUP are poised to vote against the government

For the cabinet, crunch time hasn’t been formally reached but it all seems over bar the shouting. Significant resignations are unlikely. After a progress report to the cabinet this morning, the old Remainer David Lidington says agreement is “within touching distance” while the younger Leaver Brexit secretary Dominic Raaab repeats the mantra of “good progress.” Raab had been reported as a possible cabinet quitter. Boris for once, sounds plausible:    “No one is fooled by this theatre. Delay after stage managed … Read more

Theresa is still stuck at deadlock with the cabinet

If the Tory press is to be believed, Theresa May is now refusing to be bounced into the early deal the EU has almost ready and waiting for her to sign – apart from the finicky wee detail of the backstop. Sunday night and Monday’s morning’s late negotiating session in Brussels  failed to clinch it. It’s politics not policy now that’s holding it up, meaning the massed ranks of her critics from left and right including the DUP. Even so, … Read more

The moment of truth may really be very close – but what truth?

All we can do it count heads and count down, for the cabinet to take a decision – or non-decision – on Theresa May’s negotiating plan or face up to the serious option of No Deal. They have until Wednesday to agree proposals for triggering a late November EU summit and 21st January to seal the deal or bid to extend Article 50. Or for the Tory party to throw Mrs May out and plunge Britain into an unprecedented political … Read more

An original commemoration of the Fallen of World War One

You might have missed the centenary of the Day the Guns Fell Silent on 11th November, as commemorated  with terrific originality in the Pages of the Sea project devised by the film director Danny Boyle. Ireland was well represented by three very different people in three spectacular beach locations. Boyle’s brilliant Olympic 2012 opening ceremony in London displayed the British gift for creating new traditions without irritating venerable traditionalists with dogmatic lessons about the iniquities of war and the  British … Read more

Arlene Foster should suspend judgement until the outcome of the negotiations

After Jo Johnson’s resignation from the government, the main focus today is the hardening view that Theresa May will fail to win a majority for any deal she negotiates with the EU.  This is in spite of claims that the UK and the EU are on the verge of agreement. It could be all- change next week. The DUP are an essential part of the calculations, but not the only part, as Mrs May is now assailed from both wings … Read more

Face it: A backstop is a necessary condition to avoid catastrophe. May’s conditions do not threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK – for now

The Times headline is unqualified: “No- deal will “include new border in the Irish Sea.”  So we know what side they’re on. Theresa May’s adoption of  a “temporary” backstop whose terms and conditions she insists would not play a part in a permanent deal with the EU was inevitable.   But here’s the bigger problem. To be temporary, it must mean that  the whole UK will remain  in long term close alignment with the EU.  A looser permanent relationship like a … Read more

The arrested Loughinisland massacre journalists are pawns in a legacy struggle

More details have been revealed by the journalist Susan McKay   about the circumstances of the arrest of the two journalists who researched Alex Gibney’s  exposé documentary No Stone Unturned.  The film gives a compelling account of alleged police negligence and collusion between some police officers and the murderers who committed the Loughinisland massacre in 1994, killing six people and wounding five when they burst into the Heights bar and sprayed it with bullets. The Ombudsman cleared one police commander.   Trevor … Read more

Unionist objections to the backstop are more than DUP paranoia and need to be addressed

Cabinet approval for Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal proposals, is again delayed as demands mount from inside the cabinet and without to have sight of the Attorney General’s legal opinion in full. (I’m not sure why is meant by “legal.” What they’re really looking for is  a navigation chart around the treacherous rocks).   The idea of ministers trooping in like junior officers to a “ secret” room in the Cabinet Office like the general’s study  to view  a summary of the … Read more

For the sake of British-Irish relations also, the backstop gap must be bridged

The urgent task now is to close the gap between Leo Varadkar’s idea of a review clause for all-UK temporary membership of the customs union and Theresa May’s. The essential first move is to discover what each means.  Both leaders are under domestic pressure for compromising already. Both sides are desperate for a deal, both economies would suffer severely from the chaos of a crash-out no deal. Both leaders would experience the bitter taste of failure affecting their own positions … Read more

Even if Theresa wins cabinet support for her ” all-UK customs arrangement”, time is running out to knock it into shape for the negotiations

In a nutshell, this is   the first problem Theresa May will confront from up to a dozen cabinet ministers this morning.  “We must have control of the backstop. If Theresa doesn’t stare down the EU and win a mechanism that does this, the whole argument is immaterial as there is zero chance of passing the Commons.  The Taoiseach indicated an openness to consider proposals for “a review mechanism”, provided that it was clear that the outcome of any such review … Read more

Confusion over the state of the Brexit negotiations increases anxiety as May’s cabinet prepares to decide on a formula

Civil society in both islands  looking on anxiously at contrasting stories about the state of the Brexit negotiations are speaking out. Persistent fears of a hard border has prompted a group of nationalists to  approach Leo Varadkar  to protect northern nationalists’ rights. This the second appeal of its kind in a year. Latest 4pm  Leo Varadkar said this afternoon Ireland is willing to consider proposals for a review clause in relation to the backstop for the Irish border. The backstop … Read more

What was that again about a breakthrough?

Yesterday to the Sunday Times, the British side was talking up the prospect of neutralising the backstop and forecasting the emergence of a winning formula. Today EU sources were clear that they were keeping the backstop in reserve and fully charged, while back home, the reported formula was being attacked by Leave and Remain.  By Tuesday we should know if there is enough agreement to call an EU special summit on 21st November. Full marks to Patrick Smyth of the … Read more

“Breakthrough on the backstop, claims the Sunday Times

In an “exclusive” pieced together from “dozens” of Whitehall and EU sources,  the Sunday Times claims that Theresa May has secured a deal that will keep the whole UK in the customs union for the transition.  A political declaration on  “a future economic partnership” (FEP)  will allow the UK to strike a Canada-style free trade deal that will appeal to Brexiteers. While the story doesn’t mention a specific time limit as demanded by the hardliners or a “break clause” floated … Read more

Can it be for real? Arlene is looking happy

While Mary Lou and friends were dismissing Brexit secretary Dominic Raab’s visit “ like a thief in the night” as  a “box ticking exercise”, Arlene  was  treating us to a rare public smile.  “Goodness, we have been here on a number of occasions and I think we are close to a deal that will work for Northern Ireland, that is what we want.” Raab was guardedly optimistic again at Stormont. But the  louder mood music came out of the intergovernmental conference … Read more