Dan O'Brien: 'Farmers and unionists feel cold embrace of a deal that is still on hold'

As the Brexit saga grinds on, Dan O'Brien examines last week's proposed deal and outlines why all outcomes are still possible

Anger: DUP leader Arlene Foster addresses the media, flanked by deputy leader Nigel Dodds (left) and MP Jeffrey Donaldson, outside 10 Downing Street. Photo: Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP/Getty
Anger: DUP leader Arlene Foster addresses the media, flanked by deputy leader Nigel Dodds (left) and MP Jeffrey Donaldson, outside 10 Downing Street. Photo: Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP/Getty
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

It has been 23 months since Ireland and the EU first proposed keeping Northern Ireland as a de facto part of the EU. Last week a second British prime minister agreed to that proposal. Last Thursday's Brexit deal between the EU and the UK saw British Prime Minister Boris Johnson backing down on the big issues.

The deal largely reverts to the original Irish and EU proposal of keeping the North in both the EU's single market and its customs union. If it ever comes into force, the deal means there will be absolutely no change to how the Border on this island works so long as a majority in Stormont want it that way.

At the of time of writing yesterday afternoon, events at Westminster continued to play out and the focus had shifted to whether Johnson would request from the EU yet another delay to Brexit, currently scheduled to take place in just 11 days. Whether he is forced to back down again, and comply with existing law, or whether he finds a way around the law, as he hinted at yesterday, remains to be seen. Whether the new deal ever comes into effect is also uncertain, but its contents need deep consideration.

The downside of last week's deal is that it creates losers, as was always inevitable given the binary nature of the choices that were faced by a hard Brexit and the political and constitutional consequences that flow from it.

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It is very clear unionists are the losers politically and constitutionally. As has been observed frequently in recent times, it is hard to have sympathy for the DUP. But it has much less frequently been observed south of the Border that the minority tradition on this island overwhelmingly opposes what was agreed last week. As non-DUP unionist voices don't get much of any airing in the Republic's media, it is worth noting here some of their reaction.

The Ulster Unionist Party, which won a third of the unionist vote in the North's local elections in May and which did not advocate leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum, views the sort of changes contained in Thursday's deal as a threat to unionists' position in the UK.

Its leader Robin Swann said of last week's deal it "annexes Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom". He went on: "Unionists throughout the United Kingdom need to think long and hard about the future of the Union when they cast their vote in Parliament on this deal. What's more important? The pursuit of a puritanical Brexit or the security and integrity of the Union."

The Belfast News Letter in its editorial last Friday has this to say of the deal and its proposed border in the Irish Sea: "There is no way of disguising how serious and reprehensible that is. It is a massive constitutional change. Possible unionist responses to this will not be apparent until after Saturday's Parliamentary vote. But this is a grim day for the integrity of the UK."

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I am not a unionist and one does not have to agree with either of these points of view, but it is incumbent on all people who are genuinely pluralist to listen to minorities. It does not augur well for stability and good relations between the two traditions on these islands when the minority tradition feels as isolated and insecure as it does today.

What of the detail of Thursday's deal? Nothing has bedevilled the Brexit process like the binary choices around customs. That something as arcane as tariffs and quotas on goods crossing borders could have caused so much rancour over such a long period of time is understandably perplexing for many people.

If the deal is passed by Westminster the issue should make fewer headlines in the future, but there are more things to iron out than one might have thought.

The new protocol on Northern Ireland which replaces the backstop envisages the creation of a 'joint commission' of EU and UK representatives. In a number of areas the committee is tasked with working out more of the detail of how customs arrangements would work during the transition period - currently set to run from the UK's formal date of exiting the EU until the end of next year.

The American beef test is a good way of illustrating how things could work. If, after the end of the transition period, Britain does a trade deal with the US and removes tariffs and quotas (maximum quantities of a given product that can be imported) on American meat, because American farmers produce meat at a much lower price than in Europe, British consumers would save money by buying this meat.

Under last week's deal a British supermarket chain could import as much American beef into Northern Ireland as it wishes. As such meat will be at risk of crossing the Border it will be liable for the EU's tariff on third-country beef.

One of the major innovations of the agreement is that a British government will be able, if it chooses, to refund the tariff to the supermarket chain if the meat is destined for sale in shops in the North. But in what appears to be the biggest concession on the Irish and EU side, there would be no way of stopping shoppers in the Republic from buying this American beef in Tesco stores on the northern side and bringing it home to stock their freezers.

Among the biggest changes between the deal agreed last week and the previous one agreed with Theresa May is that the EU's protective tariffs will apply only to Northern Ireland and not to Britain. That means, as in the example above, Britain will be able to do bilateral trade deals with countries like the US on all traded goods and services. This is likely to have significant negative implications for trade between the Republic and Britain.

Under the new deal it is highly likely Britain will move towards the sort of cheap food policy discussed above so consumers benefit from lower world market prices.

This will effectively price Irish producers out of their most important foreign market.

Once it became clear - in January 2017 - that the British sought to leave the customs union, the future of this country's farming sector became much less certain.

That is particularly the case for the beef industry which is already in turmoil because - to be blunt - it is simply not competitive and survives as it currently does only because it is subsidised and protected from cheaper competition.

Some beef farmers have already seen the writing on the wall and have shifted into other areas, such as dairy and forestry. It now appears that agriculture is facing one of the biggest upheavals in its history.

But nothing is certain yet. Even after so much time since the Brexit referendum, and with so little time before Britain's membership of the EU lapses, it is still possible that the whole thing will be called off. It is also possible that the worst possible outcome - a no-deal exit - could happen. The Brexit saga has shown repeatedly that anything is possible.

Sunday Independent

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