Saturday 25 January 2020

Comment: Our future with Brexit will be shaped by events in London and Belfast

EU Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: AP
EU Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: AP
John Downing

John Downing

There are days when things come together in a funny way to remind us that we are, after all, a small country fighting for space and a share of the action in a noisy and complex world.

Yesterday was such a day. There were talks affecting every Irish citizen in three centres outside of this political jurisdiction.

Most importantly, the EU-UK divorce talks finally opened in Brussels days short of a full year since the June 23 referendum result landed on us with a thud.

Fresh, and hopefully sincere, efforts kick-started again in Belfast in an attempt to get a new power-sharing government established. And the newly-elected Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, flew to London for a first meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

All of these are closely interlinked and all carry limited powers of influence for our elected politicians and their back-up teams in Dublin. These outcomes will determine our continuing prosperity in the coming years - or the lack of it.

In Brussels, the opening of Brexit negotiations finally happened, days short a full calendar year since British voters decided by 52pc to 48pc to leave the EU. It was far from an encouraging start from an Irish point of view.

Britain is our biggest trading partner and the fortunes of both islands are deeply interlinked, economically and politically, via the North of Ireland. Yet all Irish fortunes are also shaped by links with mainland Europe which we want to maintain. The upcoming process is about reconciling these divergent interests.

But this Brexit process, which will shape the lives of current and future generations, starts with a government in neither London nor Belfast, and no clear idea among the political principals in either administration about what they want to achieve.

For all of that, the opening tone between the EU's lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, and the UK's David Davis was positive and encouraging.

Mr Barnier emphasised, among other things, the Irish situation. But we are a huge distance away from tangling with "Irish issues" just yet.

First up is trying to find a formula to assess the UK's EU sign-off bill. Britain cannot just walk from long-term budget commitments on a wide variety of issues. But an assessment by the influential 'Financial Times' that the final reckoning may be €100bn is politically explosive - even if phased over years - for the world's fifth biggest economy.

Ireland shares Britain's enthusiasm for getting to talks about the future of UK-EU relations as quickly as possible. But you frequently cannot get what you want as soon as you want it.

The Belfast talks have recommenced with the biggest question being whether the two parties which count, the DUP and Sinn Féin, really mean their public claims that they want to resume coalition.

It is a lamentable situation by any standards. Everyone knows that political violence has ceased. But 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement we are entitled to say that we remain some distance away from adult politics.

The last time we had Belfast power-sharing was January. Almost six out of 10 people in the North voted to remain in the EU. There are big fights to be fought over the Border with the Republic, which will become the EU-UK's only land frontier.

There are questions about tariffs and trade and the free movement of people.

How do you do any of that without a government?

Alas, the same could be said about London where Taoiseach Leo Varadkar came calling on Mrs May.

The Taoiseach said everything you would expect him to say.

Ireland is gearing up for a sideways battle in a long series of negotiations. This one is a mega-marathon but we must stay with it. These events will decide our fate.

Irish Independent

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