Wednesday 18 September 2019

Richard Curran: Brexit Border call by UK House of Lords a sign of sea change in Anglo-Irish relations

First Minister Arlene Foster has refused to say whether she would push for any kind of special status for Northern Ireland following Brexit. Photo: PA
First Minister Arlene Foster has refused to say whether she would push for any kind of special status for Northern Ireland following Brexit. Photo: PA
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

It shows you how far Anglo-Irish relations have improved when the House of Lords in the UK publishes a report showing more concern than most for the implications that Brexit will have on the island of Ireland.

The House of Lords' EU Committee report also makes one of the most sensible recommendations about how to proceed to protect the interests of both sides of the Border. It suggests that a separate bilateral agreement should be negotiated between Ireland and the UK that safeguards the freedom of movement of people and goods on the island.

It would ensure there is no hard Border, something to which the British government has not been able to commit.

It also suggests that such an agreement could preserve the free travel area and "guarantee open land borders and sea boundaries, support cross-border trade and preserve EU funding for cross-border projects".

This concern for protecting the economic interests and rights of people in Ireland is a long way from the obstinacy of that particular Westminster chamber in the past, when its collection of unelected old duffers blocked Home Rule Bills passed by the House of Commons on three separate occasions.

So it is a little ironic that such a body should produce a report like this on Brexit. The report acknowledges the basic truth that because the Republic of Ireland will remain in the EU, any deal between the two countries would have to ratified by the EU itself.

However, it suggests that Ireland should go ahead and draw up a conditional deal, which would be presented to the EU for approval.

Unfortunately, as Minister for Finance Michael Noonan quickly pointed out, under EU rules there can be no "side deals". If we were to open up discussions with the UK on any kind of basis, ahead of the formal exit negotiations with Brussels, we would be in trouble with our European colleagues.

Instead, Irish politicians must wait and feed into the wider negotiating process that will ultimately take place between the UK and the EU. We must act as cajolers, encouragers and minor players in a bigger EU process.

Our Government is confined to traipsing around European capitals reminding various heads of state or departments of foreign affairs that we stand to lose the most from a hard Brexit.

Our politicians have to outline, through a basic history lesson, some of the subtleties and complexities our relationship with the UK and a modern post-Troubles open border.

Push too hard for a soft Brexit and we sound like we are working against the interests of the EU and for the British. Don't push hard enough and the complexities and uniqueness of the land border we share with the UK could be ignored.

But there are other obstacles to taking up the advice of the House of Lords on this matter. For example, Dublin cannot push for a particular Ireland/UK border deal without having an agreed position with the elected government in Northern Ireland.

Given that the DUP cannot seem to agree with Sinn Féin on what that position should be, the Irish Government is left on indefinite standby. How can you negotiate or even seek to influence people towards a particular solution, when you cannot get cross-border agreement on what that position should be?

For example, First Minister Arlene Foster has refused to say whether she would push for any kind of special status for Northern Ireland in a new arrangement. She has simply said these are "all matters of course for negotiation". That is not the same as saying this is what she wants and will push for.

So it is all the more interesting to see how Irish-British relations have changed. In the past the House of Lords continually denied the democratic rights of so many Irish nationalists in order to preserve the interests of Irish unionists.

Yet this week, a House of Lords committee report is advocating a special status for Northern Ireland in a post-Brexit world, which goes much further than anything suggested by the main leader of Unionism in the North.

There are other factors at play too. We don't know how some European countries will react to exceptions that might be made for Northern Ireland after Brexit. Guaranteeing EU funding for cross-Border projects might be hard to swing if some EU countries refuse to provide public money (albeit relatively small) for projects in a part of the UK, when the UK is effectively turning its back on the EU project.

Exceptions being made to safeguard the free travel area for Irish people living in the UK might be questioned by some EU countries whose citizens will have to apply for work visas.

So far British Prime Minister Theresa May, has not even guaranteed the post-Brexit rights of the 2.8 million EU citizens living in the UK, other than in the context of a reciprocal agreement being reached for Britons living in EU countries.

She has not been prepared to move first on that issue. This is despite the fact that over 25pc of the workforce in Britain's food and drink industry are from other EU countries and are 15pc of its academic staff in universities.

Perhaps, for many people in Ireland, what happens after Brexit along the Border is of minor interest. Many Irish people have little interest in the economy of the North.

In reality, the make-up of a future deal on the Border will have the most serious repercussions for those who live in counties along it. The economies of those areas are inextricably linked to what happens on the other side of what is now an open border crossing.

The real impact of Brexit hasn't happened yet because Brexit hasn't happened. However, the fall in sterling, which is just an opening skirmish, is already costing jobs.

Recently employment figures from the CSO, show that, in the three months to the end of September, there were 57,000 more people working in Ireland than a year earlier.

In fact there were over 25,000 more people at work compared to the previous three months. Yet the Border region was the only one in the country to show a decline in people at work compared to the previous quarter.

There were 600 fewer people working in the border counties in September 2016 than in June 2016. Yet in the Mid-West job numbers in the same period were up 4,800; by 1,300 in the South East and 3,500 in the Midlands. Only the Border counties recorded a fall.

When it comes to the EU, the rules are the rules. We are told this mantra about fiscal deficits, environmental legislation, state aid and dealing with banking crises. Yet, across Europe special deals and exceptions seem to be made all the time for bigger players.

Now the rules say the Irish Government cannot even open up conditional bilateral negotiations with the UK on one of the most fundamental challenges our country has faced in decades.

For all its advantages, sometimes the EU is not an easy place to be.

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