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Brendan Keenan: 'Whatever the Brexit, Irish Question will still need an answer'


Border Communities Against Brexit holding protests on Old Belfast Road in Carrickcarnon on the northern side of the Irish border, between Newry and Dundalk. Photo: PA

Border Communities Against Brexit holding protests on Old Belfast Road in Carrickcarnon on the northern side of the Irish border, between Newry and Dundalk. Photo: PA


Border Communities Against Brexit holding protests on Old Belfast Road in Carrickcarnon on the northern side of the Irish border, between Newry and Dundalk. Photo: PA

Journalism, according to a well-known saying, is the first draft of history. My own experience leads me to think that the second draft, in the equally well-known words of Henry Ford, is usually bunk. It took a centenary to get what looked like a polished draft of the events of 1916.

Yes, sorry, it's Brexit, where even the first draft is anything but satisfactory. It turns out that dissatisfaction was the attitude of the man to whom the saying is usually attributed - Philip Graham, publisher of the 'Washington Post' from 1946-63 .

As often happens, the full quotation significantly changes the meaning. Mr Graham may not have been the first to use the phrase but his exact words were: "So let us today drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing every week a first rough draft of history that will never really be completed, about a world we can never really understand."

There's a lot of truth in that. One could scarcely get a better description of trying to follow Brexit and convey what is happening to the public. The troubling thought is that the rough first draft which is now circulating seems seriously inadequate.

In particular it skips rapidly over the crucial point that UK approval of a withdrawal deal failed because of the Irish Question. The point is crucial because, as the new ESRI analysis of Brexit options shows, approval of the withdrawal agreement before the original deadline of March 29 would have been the best of the four possibilities laid out in the analysis.

The best for Ireland, north and south that is.

Getting such a deal should have been the relentless focus of Irish policy. Instead, the outcome of the 2019 version of the Irish Question was left in the hands of the DUP MPs while the two governments, and even the Tory Brexiteers, looked on.

To arrive at such a situation can only serious policy failure. The ESRI report shows just how serious, because the consequences of failure are far more immediate and damaging than the benefits of success would have been.

The analysis is the first to try to forecast the impact of the different kinds of Brexit. Instead of models for the whole economy, it concentrated on the effects on trade of tariffs and non-tariff measures under different scenarios. This allowed the researchers to consider three; Deal, No-Deal, and Disorderly No-Deal.

Deal would see the UK make an orderly agreed exit from the EU,with a transition period to 2020 and a free trade agreement between the UK and the EU after that. Under No-Deal there is still an orderly period of adjustment for trade but ultimately the stringent WTO tariff arrangements apply, along with non-tariff barriers.

The disorderly exit is one where there are additional disruptions to trade between the UK and the EU beyond those which are inevitable in any no-deal departure. Such a scenario implies a political crisis which would prevent even temporary measures to reduce the immediate disruptions.

Even the deal scenario will have negative effects; One alarming thing is that the forecasts suggest that there is little long-term difference between the civilised no-deal and the disorderly one.

In the first case Irish economic output in 2030 would be 4.8pc lower than if there had been no Brexit at all. With a disorderly one, the loss of output is 5pc.

There is however a major difference in the short run. The analysis finds that by the end of next year, a deal would see Irish output 0.6pc lower, while no deal would result in a shortfall of 1.2pc. But a disorderly exit would cut 2.4pc off Irish growth in just two years.

If an orderly deal can somehow be secured, the loss of output after 10 years would still be a not insignificant 2.6pc. It is worth remembering that this loss would be concentrated in certain sectors and regions, where the impact would be worse than this, but it would be a lot more manageable than the consequences of a crash-out.

If one could apply the ESRI methodology to the fragile northern economy, the results might well be worse than for the Republic.

It is beyond any methodology to analyse the unknowns of the backstop, where Northern Ireland would remain in the UK but keep the EU regime, but there seems little reason to suppose that it would significantly reduce the economic damage to either jurisdiction, since west-east trade matters much more than cross-border to both.

But the backstop is about politics rather than economics: an attempt to find an answer to the new Irish Question. Had it succeeded, it would have been the greatest achievement of Irish diplomacy since staying out of World War II.

But it failed, as it was always likely to do, and is no longer relevant.

The bizarre events of the last fortnight may have created an unexpected but welcome opportunity to discard the zero-sum rhetoric about the Border in favour of much less provocative, and far more relevant discussions on the wider arrangements. There is every possibility that achieving the ESRI definition of a deal, with a transition period and a free trade agreement at the end will make the Border question largely irrelevant when the new regime is fully in place.

The Irish government had a justifiable fear that, by leaving things to the end, this country might be squeezed between the UK and the EU. Perhaps it chose the wrong response, although it could not have foreseen Mrs May's disastrous general election. But that was then, and now is very different.

It cannot be a question of doing nothing while events take their course. Whatever or whenever the final outcome, thoughts should be turning already to the future economic governance of the island. Any opportunities to begin the process should be seized as and when they arise.

In a working paper for Dublin City University's Brexit institute, Trinity College associate professor Etain Tannam charts the failures of all-island governance since the Good Friday agreement. Despite all the megaphone diplomacy of the last two years, the agreement is meaningless without its institutions.

The northern one has collapsed and the British-Irish one, the Inter-Governmental Council (IGC) was pretty much abandoned by the two governments. Both will have to be resuscitated if the peace is to be preserved. It may be all about politics but the trick could be to concentrate on the economics. The better they are handled, the less damaging the politics will be.

As Dr Tannam says, the IGC was the obvious institution for both governments to discuss Brexit' in the wake of the referendum, but it is also the obvious focus for securing an orderly deal and managing the Irish question after Brexit, whatever the final outcome.

It is in the nature of the question that it will not go away. Well hidden in the debates, but laid bare by Tánaiste Simon Coveney this week, was another Dublin fear - that its membership of the EU might be compromised by playing too active a role on the island's future during negotiations.

Fair enough, but what happens when negotiations are finished, even if successfully?

The Irish Government will have to find ways to play its proper role on north-south and UK issues, while preserving he integrity of its EU status.

It is an unenviable task. Britain can be expected to look for Irish support in the inevitable squabbles over regulation and trade post-Brexit.

Ireland cannot be seen as a stalking horse but, it is entitled to pursue the economic and political well-being of the whole island in a post-Brexit world.

Dr Tannam argues that, after Brexit, what she calls "the dense institutional framework and extensive policy competence of the EU" means we must not only have to dust off the neglected all-island institutions but develop them more vigorously than before, without at the same time infringing on EU responsibilities.

She suggests bilateral approaches to areas of British-Irish concern such as free travel, energy and infrastructure, all within the remit of the EU. There is a couple of years' worth of useful debate in that short sentence and it is high time it began.

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