Monday 19 August 2019

Flaky London opens the door on Border, then slams it shut

Theresa May and European Council president Donald Tusk meet in Brussels. Picture: AP
Theresa May and European Council president Donald Tusk meet in Brussels. Picture: AP

Colm Kelpie

For a short time yesterday it looked as if we might be on the cusp of a breakthrough on the Border question - even if it looked certain to anger unionists.

Downing Street appeared to leave open the possibility that Northern Ireland could remain in the customs union post Brexit, before sparking confusion by clarifying the matter less than an hour later.

In a comment suggesting a clear change in position from the British Government, a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said the potential for continued customs union membership for Northern Ireland was a "matter for negotiations".

Up to that point the position of the Conservative Government was that the North would be leaving the single market and the customs union with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Asked if Northern Ireland could stay in the customs union after Brexit, Ms May's spokesman said: "I think that is a matter for negotiations.

"Our position on Northern Ireland has been set out in the papers and we need to continue to negotiate to find an innovative way forward."

But a Downing Street source later reportedly moved to clarify the situation, stating that the UK's position had not changed.

The blunder comes just a week after Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's visit to Dublin was marked by the remarkable claim that he wasn't aware of the position of his counterpart Simon Coveney, that Ireland wanted a transition period of four to five years.

Irish officials were said to be deeply unimpressed by Mr Johnson's grasp of the dangers posed by Brexit.

The two events highlight that while political ructions here put Ireland's position in the Brexit talks under considerable threat, the seemingly confused approach from London to what has emerged as the most contentious - and for us by far the most important - element in the Brexit negotiations remains deeply worrying.

"It is a huge concern, but unsurprising," says Dr Kathryn Simpson, Associate Professor of Political Economy at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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"The Border issue was never an issue in the campaign. I think there is no understanding of how Northern Ireland works. I think there will be a strong likelihood of a return to direct rule. Since the referendum result, the discourse with regard to Brexit is very England centric, and as a consequence of that, the discourse is very English centric in the negotiations to the detriment of the other develoved administrations, and in particular, to Northern Ireland."

And that explains the straining of relations between Dublin and London, adds Dr Simpson.

"I think you have seen a very cooling off in bilateral relations," she says.

The apparent ignorance at political level has been matched by some of the commentary in Britain blaming the Irish Government for a perceived hardening in its stance. The language may have toughened, but the position of successors Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney has been consistent since taking office in June, it's just some in Britain haven't been listening.

Compounding the situation is the firm grip the DUP has over the Conservative Party and Theresa May, argues Labour MEP and staunch remainer, Richard Corbett.

"It means the Tory government treads very warily when it wants to do something the DUP dislikes," he says. "That is unavoidably part of the equation even if it is sometimes unspoken, or they like to think they are not being influenced. As soon as the DUP spits fire, they back off, or not even spits fire, a quiet whisper is probably enough."

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Repeated requests from this newspaper for an interview with Arlene Foster have been unsuccessful.

The Government here is at risk of allowing itself to be distracted by domestic political posturing, when it needs to have its eye firmly focused on the bigger Brexit picture as London continues to bumble along.

Irish Independent

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