Brinkmanship on the Border

Another day, another doubt.   After a weekend of sherpa preparations for the EU summit on Thursday and Friday, both sides are still unsure they can reach an agreed position by tomorrow night on transition terms and duration   for the UK’s departure from the EU.  From the Irish Times preview of the David/Barnier meeting, it’s clear that the Irish government neither want nor need to  take sole responsibility for imposing a veto on a transition timetable later this week. Irish and … Read more

Dublin not expected to use their “border veto” against a transition deal for the UK

Brexit talks will become more intensive over the next six months and will feature a greater focus in the Irish border, according to the EU side.  This week looks likes providing one of those so-called crunch moments when a key Brexit decision is reached in black and white but with grey edges.  The UK are hoping for agreement on a transition period longer than December 2020 as currently mooted,  during  which the UK would pay full EU budgetary contributions. The … Read more

Taking their seats at Westminster would be a high risk U-turn for Sinn Fein

Noel Whelan  in the Irish Times  today repeats  the case for Sinn Fein to take their seats at Westminster  – but only after a general election for which the end of abstention would be in their manifesto. This differs from the plea by the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee who recently wrote that ..the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, ventured to call on the party on Wednesday to take up their six – soon to be seven – Westminster seats “to make things better … Read more

No threat to the Good Friday Agreement in sight, but bolder joint action is needed after St Patrick’s Day

Traditionally the St Patrick’s Day pilgrimages to America have been occasions for everybody involved in our politics to be on their best behaviour and bask in waves of Irish-American blarney. Not so much this year, as  Arlene Foster and Mary Lou McDonald have been left off the White House invitees list for failing to clinch the deal to get Stormont going again. But Adams and Paisley jnr are lurking in the wings as  living reminders of past glories compared to … Read more

“A feature of the devolved administration here has been that the two main parties have been sensitive to criticism…”

The BBC reported a telling admission from the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, during the RHI Inquiry yesterday. Mr Sterling said the practice of taking minutes had “lapsed” after devolution when engagement between civil servants and local ministers became much more regular. But he said it was also an attempt to frustrate Freedom of Information requests. Mr Sterling said ministers liked to have a “safe space where they could think the unthinkable and not necessarily have … Read more

To check Sinn Fein winning the propaganda war, a general amnesty should replace prosecutions in exchange for official disclosure, say unionist legal experts, arguing for the scrapping of the government’s Legacy Bill

“Transitional justice has facilitated republicans turning what ought to have been a hostile environment (namely, the historical record of over 2,000 attributable deaths, almost 60 percent of the total murder count, in a sectarian campaign of assassination and bombings – not to mention the accompanying litany of bloodshed, unblinking cruelty and lives destroyed) into a fertile soil allowing them to sustain a campaign of commemoration on ‘an industrial scale.  (The approach has) saturated thinking about the past to such an … Read more

Direct Rule in action: “In the light of the ongoing absence of an Executive…”

Northern Ireland Assembly Legislative Consent Motions, required by the UK Parliament to legislate on devolved matters, may have been devalued by the absence of a protest by the then NI Assembly Speaker in March 2015, but the UK Government could at least pretend that one had been passed at that time.  Yesterday there was no such pretence by Steve Brine (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health).  Welcome to Direct Rule… My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Lord O’Shaughnessy) … Read more

Derry’s politicians should stop playing the victim and make more friends and influence people

Steve Bradley’s chastening post on  Derry part 1 is remarkable for its detailed analysis and the volume  of  comment in response -greater I think than for any of the usual subjects I’ve seen in a long time.   Certainly it touches a nerve with me. I left my Derry home to go to school in Coleraine and never lived there again after the fateful year of 1969 when the old order quite suddenly and easily fell apart, an arresting fact its … Read more

More than the leadership of Arlene Foster it’s about what the DUP under unprecedented pressure, is for

In “Arlene Foster’s authority is ebbing away“, Newton assesses the pressure on  her  in the Irish Times.  His fascinating analysis is  the latest example of local Kremlinology  peering into the suffocatingly tight networks that dominate these little parties.   But new outside elements are at play as never before to supplement rapid change at home , like the unpredictable fallout of Brexit and pressures for social change from London and Dublin. But for these pressures to have full effect, they must … Read more

Brexit battle lines drawn up, or the storm before the calm and other cliches

On the face of it,  the prospects are looking grim again but it may only mean that they’re getting down to business – at last- again. The BBC headlines “Brexit trade talks battle lines drawn.”  And the FT reports  that  the EU –  the  authoritative  Council of the nation states and not just the Commission of bureaucrats –  are taking a hard line for future negotiations with the UK –  slapping down Theresa May’s  supposedly emollient  attempt last week as … Read more

Surf and turf

Boats with EU, UK flags sailing in opposite directions

As blogger David Allen Green has pointed out, whoever produces the first draft of a legal document has the advantage. While the EU has been criticised for its backstop-Brexit draft, the UK has conspicuously failed to produce any draft at all, and shows no signs of doing so. The final transition agreement is thus unlikely to differ from the EU’s draft in anything other than some finer details and cosmetic language. This was of course predicable and widely predicted back … Read more

Both sides are now playing politics with the border


Theresa May must have been desperate to have signed the joint Report in December. She did so, knowing that it would do little but buy time before the next elemental clash, and focusing on  contradictory positions over the border. The price of a deal would then increase, just like a loan from a money shark. He didn’t force her to take out a loan, now did he? But those are the terms, dear. And so  today’s draft withdrawal Agreement which the EU have just published came as no surprise.

You’ll recall that Arlene Foster finally let May go ahead to sign the Report at the second attempt after  requiring   a cardinal tenet of unionism to be included, that no economic border would  come between NI and GB.  Foster in her statement added the rider that “more work is needed.”  But now she may be ruing the day she was so accommodating, not a position she often holds. For “more work” in DUP terms was never done.   Today Foster could only declare the draft “constitutionally unacceptable and economic catastrophic.”

It turns out those assurances were worth even less than the paper they were written on. As we reported yesterday they’re absent from the final text. This is because they were written off as a mere internal affair between the UK government and the DUP and not a matter for a lofty EU legal document.

.The status recommended for Northern Ireland is bound to raise Unionist and Tory hackles by  removing one of the usual planks of sovereignty, the main trading and border policies,  without seeking permission from the people who live there .  The Brexit cry “Taking back control” rings very hollow here. But in the end they can’t be serious. This draft is Operation Hope Not.

In cold print the EU paper really does remove traditional aspects of sovereignty which in EU parlance was pooled.

Read moreBoth sides are now playing politics with the border

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 to become an EU province” after a Brexit breakdown. Did we not know that already?

Tomorrow the EU will publish its legal version of December’s joint Report or Withdrawal Agreement that was supposed to guarantee against a hard border. The intention is to remove any idea of a fudged   political deal that could be changed later. It  will however become the EU’s law not the UK’s. Britain will argue that Withdrawal Agreement will be superseded as a result of a final free trade agreement. However as has been well trailed,  it will omit the guarantees … Read more

A timely reminder that today’s unionists and other non-nationalists have as big a stake in human rights as nationalists. Further polarisation must therefore be avoided

The stale stereotype that nationalists are all for civil rights and unionists fight them tooth and nail is challenged in an open letter signed by over 100 “civic unionists, pluralists and other forms of civic leadership” published in the Irish Times.  It’s a riposte to similar letters from “ civic nationalism” appealing to the Dublin government “to defend the legal, human and language rights of Irish citizens in the North, and warning that the British government’s deal with the DUP … Read more

For the sake of clarity, all sides should stop spreading myths about Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement

Ignorance and special pleading about the Good Friday Agreement and its relationship to Brexit and the border has been a feature of angry comment that has followed the collapse of the Stormont talks. The Daily Express led the pack The Good Friday agreement explicitly stipulates there cannot be a hard border on the island of Ireland, leaving Brexiteers launching impassioned arguments on the deal. It does nothing of the sort. Even Adam Boulton who speaks with the great authority on … Read more

Does Brexit threaten rights protection for Irish citizens in the North?

What happens to a raft of human rights when we leave the European Union and the European Charter of Human Rights no longer applies? The question is raised by the leading constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor.  Successive UK governments (and I!) thought we had opted out of it for years, but the European Court of Justice ruled in 2013 that we hadn’t. Inevitably there is an Irish angle to this that may be of  particular concern to Irish-EU citizens in Northern … Read more

Congratulations are due to the DUP and Sinn Fein negotiators. How can the DUP be persuaded to implement it in their own long term interests?

After rubbing our eyes several times, the first thing  to do about the 13 pages of  the Draft Agreement published  in full by  Eamonn Mallie is to have it recognised for what it claims to be.   As Sinn Fein has already insisted on its authenticity, the initiative now lies with the DUP.  Clearly the document was the hymn sheet the secretary state Karen Bradley was working off in her Commons statement yesterday , although she understandably  refused to publish it, … Read more

Care is needed to stop the wheels coming off the Good Friday Agreement

I suppose it was inevitable. On the fringes of Westminster politics the alignment of Leave with a Brexit Union and Remain with support for the GFA is hardening, as shown in reaction to the failure so far to restore Stormont. This is what happens when people dip into the issues and pull out again. Living with them requires steadiness. Former secretary of state, stout Brexiteer and Shropshire lad Owen Paterson tweets that the GFA “has outlived its use.” Kate Hooey, … Read more

Meanwhile on Brexit … the British fog may be about to lift a little

Don’t get too excited, but this really could be a significant week for achieving greater clarity on British government aims for Brexit. The fiercely   anti-Brexit FT reports that on an awayday at Chequers on Thursday, Theresa May will nail her ministers’ hands to  the table  (well, the FT didn’t quite put it that way) until they agree on a high level of alignment between the UK and EU rules. Haven’t we heard something like that before? Oh yes, December’s joint … Read more

The draft agreement revealed: So far but yet so near

The cats have been let out of the bag thanks to the sources of Eamonn Mallie and Barney Rowan, (Sinn Fein?). From documents of “a dozen pages or so plus annexes and separate agreements,” we pick up the story below from a week ago last Friday. The secretary of state will no doubt be questioned on the details in a statement on the talks failure  when the Commons resumes tomorrow.  The Sinn Fein leadership will meet Theresa May on Wednesday … Read more