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Saturday 26 May 2018

Opinion: DUP's new-found Brexit belief may not be all good news for farmers

DUP leader Arlene Foster. Photo: PA
DUP leader Arlene Foster. Photo: PA
John Downing

John Downing

Tomorrow afternoon we'll know the shape of "Team Leo."

The Taoiseach-designate has already made it abundantly clear that his Cabinet must be a team designed to deal with Brexit. After almost a year of "phoney war" the UK-EU divorce talks are finally due to kick off next Monday and there is a crucial EU leaders' summit on Thursday and Friday of next week.

Leo Varadkar must hit the ground running. He has already spoken of his previous good relationship with Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster, when both were ministers responsible for tourism. In fact they spoke on the phone on the evening he was elected Fine Gael leader.

Given the DUP's outlook on some social issues, there was surprise in Dublin when it emerged that the unlikely pair got on rather well in their dealings with one another on tourism cooperation. That is never any load in politics.

But all of that was before last Thursday's extraordinary UK general election result which catapulted the DUP into the role of power-brokers with undue influence on Theresa May's much depleted government in London. Since the weekend's events officials in Dublin have been trying to decipher what the DUP power and influence can mean for the future of the Border and trade, especially in relation to farming.

On the one hand it cannot be all bad. After all, the DUP is a party rooted in the North's farm communities. Many of them are the milk producers bringing their product south to Cavan and Monaghan or the ones who buy pigs and other animals from the south.

A return to the Border of the bad old days is not in their interest. Equally, the prospect of tariffs is as much anathema to them as it is to farmers and agribusiness people in the Republic.

But the DUP is also centrally focused on maintaining the North as part of the United Kingdom. They took a doctrinaire stance in favour of leaving the EU in the June 23 Brexit referendum last year.

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The key question will be how far they will go in fighting for special "Island of Ireland" status within a post-Brexit EU? One would like to think that pragmatism in business would trump ideology and politics.

We had a flavour of it back in 1995 and 1996 when the UK was stricken by BSE mad cow disease which had played havoc across Britain. The Ulster Farmers' Union sought to make common cause with the Republic but in the end they fought for separate herd status for the North.

So much has happened since then and the political changes keep coming thick and fast in a volatile political world. It was not encouraging to learn yesterday that Britain tried to block a move by Taoiseach Enda Kenny to get an Irish unity declaration into the EU leaders' summit text at the end of April, which fixed the EU's Brexit negotiating ground rules.

It is important to stress that all Ireland was seeking was a general assurance, that if at some future date, the majority of people in the North opted for a united Ireland, then the North could automatically come into the EU. In summary, we wanted the same treatment as given the former East Germany in 1990.

Britain failed in that one but their stance does indicate a particular attitude favouring the union of Britain over the European Union.

There will be consternation if Michael Creed does not, as expected, stay in the Agriculture Department. But there is an interesting tussle between Simon Coveney and Charlie Flanagan for the crucial Brexit job of Foreign Affairs Minister.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent


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