Thursday 19 September 2019

Gay Mitchell: 'DUP has lost plot if it sees some regulatory harmonisation as a slippery slope to Dublin'

‘Truculent’: The DUP’s Nigel Dodds, Tory MP Boris Johnson, and DUP leader Arlene Foster during the DUP annual conference last November. Photo: PA
‘Truculent’: The DUP’s Nigel Dodds, Tory MP Boris Johnson, and DUP leader Arlene Foster during the DUP annual conference last November. Photo: PA

Gay Mitchell

The free movement of citizens within the EU is a fundamental right. Within the Schengen Area, this freedom is enhanced and once a person is within one member state of Schengen, he/she can travel anywhere within the other member states without further internal border checks. This freedom applies to 400 million EU citizens, as well as visitors admitted to any one Schengen country. For external visitors to a Schengen country, the border check is at the first country of entrance.

The Schengen Area encompasses most EU states (though not Ireland or Britain) and non-EU states such as Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein. There are 26 countries in Schengen, including 22 EU states, with others waiting to join.

At present, citizens of Liechtenstein or Iceland, though they are not EU citizens, have greater freedom of travel within these 26 countries than Irish citizens do.

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This is because we opted to remain part of the common travel area with Britain. The UK opted out of Schengen, we did the same. However, Ireland obtained the right to opt in to Schengen at a future date.

Things have changed. Britain is leaving the EU. If we were to join Schengen now it would elevate our EU commitment, bring us closer to the European core and out from under one of the last remaining Irish/British common arrangements.

To do so would, of course, cause some disruption, for travel between the islands of Ireland and Britain. For the Republic, this would be relatively painless. Airlines demand passport identity already. Coming into the Republic at present, Irish citizens go through immigration control.

The porous Border with Northern Ireland would present problems for travel between there and Britain. Any traveller from the 26 Schengen states visiting the Republic could easily enter Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Official Britain rails against immigration so much that such an arrangement would surely lead to a border in the Irish Sea. Passport control between the North and Britain would likely be introduced.

Out of consideration for the sensitivities of the Northern unionist majority, we stayed in the common travel area.

Because of this, the Republic's citizens continue to have lesser travel rights within the EU/Schengen than some non-EU citizens, such as Norwegians. The tantrum-throwing DUP seems to take our accommodation with the UK for granted.

In a November 2017 report for the Constitutional Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, Dr David Phinnemore and Dr Katy Hayward, of Queen's University Belfast, provided an overview of the Good Friday Agreement and an assessment of the potential challenges posed to its implementation by Brexit. They also considered "flexible and imaginative solutions" by which the agreement can continue to be effective.

To minimise the threat Brexit poses to the agreement, minimal disruption is imperative. "This means maintaining as much of the status quo as possible in terms, for example, of the free movement of goods, services, capital and people, and ensuring every effort is made to avoid any hardening of the Border," they say.

The total trade between the Republic and the North in 1993 was IR£1,127m. Within a dozen years this had doubled to €2,988m. In 1993, Britain was the main market for Northern Irish outbound goods, 54.5pc as against 10.6pc to the Republic. In 2015, the Republic accounted for 61pc of Northern Ireland's exports to the EU and 34pc of its total exports, which by then had also grown exponentially.

The trend continues upwards, because both Northern Ireland and the Republic are within the single market, with an established regulatory environment. The active interest of the EU, through programmes for economic and regional development, has been a central driver and facilitator of Ireland's economic integration. The EU single market has been the most powerful element.

Lord Kilclooney (former Unionist MP John Taylor) has openly boasted about the £12.1bn (€13.5bn) block transfer Northern Ireland receives from Britain annually. It received block transfers in all of the years prior to EU membership too. This did little for Northern Ireland's place in the world.

Joining the EU with Britain and Ireland did. In doing so, Northern Ireland was given three permanent seats in the European Parliament, the only international political forum of real importance in which it has direct representation. In addition, the Republic's taxpayers funded road development in Northern Ireland to help keep the two-way flow of trade fluid.

Against this backdrop, the adolescent behaviour of some DUP politicians beggars belief. They continue to be chauffeur-driven, paid salaries and expenses, and even ennobled. All the trappings of power and none of the responsibility.

The notion of some DUP politicians that the "slippery slope" to Dublin will follow because of some regulatory harmonisation, or that the "slope" is even available to them, is a sign they have lost the plot.

The new Article 3 of the Constitution of Ireland requires any future agreement on Irish unity to be put to the people in the Republic. There would also be a Border poll in Northern Ireland.

Whatever prospects there are for a majority in favour in the North, the prospects of a majority in the Republic favouring taking on the estate of the DUP while it remains pampered, truculent, underemployed and oversubsidised is remote. Certainly not at a cost of €14bn per year.

The DUP should stop flattering itself and start earning its living.

  • Gay Mitchell is a former MEP and minister for European affairs who helped negotiate the Amsterdam Treaty which provided for Schengen.

Irish Independent

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