Saturday 15 December 2018

I want a Brexit that won't leave everyone on this island a loser

We must focus on achieving a sensible solution to the challenge of Brexit for all of us, writes Steve Aiken of the Ulster Unionist Party

'Any reasonable person would also ask, with so much at stake, what is the real logic behind the Taoiseach and Tanaiste’s redline obsession with the Backstop?'. Photo: Steve Humphreys
'Any reasonable person would also ask, with so much at stake, what is the real logic behind the Taoiseach and Tanaiste’s redline obsession with the Backstop?'. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Steve Aiken

If the negotiations continue on their current trajectory, there will be very few winners out of Brexit, but potentially a lot of losers on all sides of the Irish Border.

While for many this is stating the obvious, some people, listening to the rhetoric of the DUP (Westminster Branch), would think that the only ''unionist voice'' is of slavish support of the Tory right's ''hard'' Brexit nirvana.

Indeed, in Dublin and in London our party engaged with political and business leaders across all spectrums of opinion, hearing a perception from them that ''Unionism'' was seeking a hard Brexit rather than any pragmatic option.

We also heard that Unionists are seemingly agnostic to the concerns about the economy, free movement of people, and above all, the provisions of the Belfast Agreement.

Well, there are other Unionist voices, and not just the voices of the Democratic Unionist Party. Our views are honed from real business experience, a deep understanding of the EU and its institutions, and many decades of political engagement with London, Dublin and Brussels. Despite the current ''megaphone'' diplomacy currently engaged between the protagonists along the Dublin/London/Brussels axis, we as a party do not see Brexit as an inevitable zero sum game.

But, without careful handling, a hard and messy divorce may become a self-fulfilling prophecy that will adversely effect everyone. My party has consistently called for an all-island solution with no hard borders on the island or Ireland or UK internal borders. How we get to that point is a conundrum - a challenge that the so-called Backstop has done little to solve and has added considerably to the uncertainty.

I also need to make a declaration of interest here - I was a remainer; but the reality is the UK as a whole (which includes Scotland, Northern Ireland and Metropolitan London) voted to leave, and regardless of what many hope or aspire to, that is going to happen.

I am, also, above all, a Unionist; I, and the many thousands like me who voted for remain are, and continue to be, Unionists first and foremost despite some thoughts expressed (with very little or any evidence) to the contrary that we are in some way crypto-EU federalists.

Opinions expressed by the likes of the Tanaiste that we ''euro-unionists'' would be persuaded to embrace a nebulous journey into an uncertain ''all island EU suprastate'' above remaining in the UK are nonsense - these views are at best ill-informed, but more likely they have been made disingenuously to further narrow political agendas.

Equally, we are not naive to the considerable challenges we all face, what we must focus on is achieving a sensible pragmatic solution that works for all of us. Unfortunately, with the EU seemingly rejecting every UK proposal, there are no agreed workable solutions currently on the table.

While the easiest answer may be for the UK to remain in a customs union, for either goods or services, or both, we need to accept that the softest of soft Brexits isn't going to happen.

Hopefully, the EU and the UK (aka the Angela and Theresa show) will agree a fudge that incorporates elements of regulation and trade. But, as hope and pragmatism have both been in short supply recently, the proposed EU alternative for all of us on the island is the so-called Backstop Protocol.

Queen's University academic, Dr Katy Hayward, argues that the protocol represents an ''insurance'' case and that within it, the EU has shown ''flexibility'' in allowing Northern Ireland to stay within the Common Regulatory Area and the Customs Territory of the EU. Many nationalist politicians and some business groups have also argued that this ''two countries, two systems'' app

Rather than seeing this as a fall-back option, they seem to believe it is an optimal position. This is categorically not the case - we see the Backstop as very clearly undermining the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom and, rather than supporting the GFA, counters many of the provisions of the Agreement that we as a party fought so hard far.

While the text for the Protocol has not been finalised, the framework, intent and direction are clearly laid out. To paraphrase the text, the draft calls for Northern Ireland to be treated as a ''common regulatory area'' between the two, with the ''territory'' of NI to be considered as part of the customs ''territory'' of the EU. Indeed, within this hybrid, EU and UK rates of VAT may both be applicable, many rules and regulations of both will apply, NI will have to comply with both sets of environmental regulations, and many aspects of life in NI will be subject to three legal jurisdictions, the ECJ, the NI legal System and the Supreme Court. All of these will imply a significant extra cost and burden on our economy.

It is inconceivable, with the absence of a devolved administration, to believe that NI has the bandwidth to deal with any of these issues. Add to this, the governance arrangements of a Joint Committee (advised by Specialised Committees) that are unaccountable to any locally devolved authority just further adds to the Kafkaesque surrealism of the proposal.

The idea that ''green line'' open border controls are introduced in Cairnryan or at Heathrow to facilitate internal movement is also farcical.

Would we be required to identify the ''unique'' status of NI people; would that result in the production of ''John Hewitt'' (British/Irish/EU) identification documents?

The desire by the EU to impose a cordon around a part of the UK, despite the fact that the vast majority of the trade and movement is intra-UK rather than North-South is, as many have said, illogical, if not perverse.

To add to the perverse nature of the isolation of NI from its natural hinterland, the Republic would also be isolated from its largest agribusiness market and its main transit route to Europe.

Any of the above factors would undermine the principle of consent laid out in the 1998 Belfast Agreement and it is counter-intuitive to believe that taking even a degree of jurisdictional authority away from any devolved administration or national parliament does not constitute a fundamental change in the GFA.

Finally, as the ex-CEO for the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, I would argue that it is Ireland that would suffer the most from the ''Backstop to Nowhere''.

Even a small reduction in the €1bn-a-week trade will have a massive impact on Ireland.

Any reasonable person would also ask, with so much at stake, what is the real logic behind the Taoiseach and Tanaiste's redline obsession with the Backstop?

Hopefully, we will not have to wait for Tony Connelly's next book to find out.

  • Dr Steve Aiken OBE is the MLA for South Antrim and Chief Whip of the UUP.

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