Monday 16 September 2019

Damage to Anglo-Irish relations could be fixed by rejoining Commonwealth

Yates Country

Leo Varadkar and Theresa May at a meeting earlier this year in Downing Street
Leo Varadkar and Theresa May at a meeting earlier this year in Downing Street
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

The Brexit 'slow learners' have landed with something of a bump in the reality lounge. Thankfully Monday's Brussels drama has proven to have been the darkest hour before the dawn in the EU divorce debacle.

And the fact that Nigel Farage is not happy will reassure many.

It is inevitable that an overall deal will now be done between the EU and UK in an end-game that will be every bit as bloody-minded and fraught as anything we have seen to date.

Still, we should be grateful that after all the theatrics the curtain can finally go up on the phase two talks.

The week's high-wire act has ultimately been good for Ireland.

The backing we received from the EU Council Commission, and Parliament, allied with that of the other 26 member states, has been more than we could have reasonably anticipated.

Going into the next round we have a welcome window of maximum leverage.

Even so, the picture is far from perfect. As clouds darkened last Monday we were reminded once more of the tragic reality of just how badly the North's politicians have failed their people.

The DUP and Sinn Féin are still stuck in the time warp of sectarian orange and green.

The wind whistles through empty corridors of power where there is no ministerial executive, no MLA activity, and no Sinn Féin MPs in Westminster voting lobbies.

With consensus politics so fractured in the six counties, inevitably Brexit comes as a cropper for all.

Regulatory alignment was never even mentioned, let alone debated, inside Stormont.

But thankfully enough progress has been made to start pushing the rock back up the hill. And it stems from the fact that the centre of political Brexit gravity at Westminster is shifting inexorably against hard-line Brexiteers.

It is clear that the 30 Tory MPs, led by Iain Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees-Mogg, plus 10 DUP MPs may hold the balance of power in Westminster for now.

But Theresa May has faced down the DUP and insisted that the national interest demands we move on.

The finest hour for the hardliners may have come and gone for future elections are likely to yield more MPs that favour keeping Britain in the EU single market and customs union, beyond the transition period.

The writing was on the wall when we saw first ministers in Edinburgh, Cardiff and London's mayor attempting to access the glimpse of a promised land of localised EU free trade for the North.

Sadiq Khan, Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones all openly aspire to soften Brexit with free trade for their own backyards.

Tory cabinet minister Jeremy Hunt was right on the money when he earlier concluded that what's on offer is a 'Theresa May Brexit' or 'No Brexit'.

You can't hide from fundamental truths. That's why hard-core Brexiteers will swallow successive concessions.

To date we have seen the caving on the divorce bill cash and a retained role for the European Court of Justice to determine the three million EU citizens' rights in Britain.

What it comes down to is who has the strongest hand. The EU holds two aces when it comes to the crashing consequences of a 'no deal' Brexit.

No country can function without access to air transport. Planes won't fly over Britain if it's not party to the European common aviation area/open aviation area/common transit convention. Nor can Britain detach from the internal energy market. This provides for gas and electricity pipeline infrastructure, inter-connectors and common network. So 'no deal' is not an option in either aviation or energy.

We have been reminded once again how in any negotiation, deadlines are counter-productive.

If you impose a termination timeline; it elapses; you have to walk or concede. Deadlines aren't real. Every pseudo deadline in Belfast is automatically ignored by the masters of stubborn intransigence, and Sinn Féin and the DUP are the brand leaders here.

Thankfully we have secured a breakthrough on budgetary payments, citizenship rights and no hard land Border in Ireland.

Exactly how this can be achieved has inevitably been kicked into the longest grass.

The contours of the ultimate Brexit outcome can be encapsulated in two American political maxims: Bill Clinton's "it's the economy, stupid" and Tip O'Neill's "all politics is local".

The iron rule of EU-UK economics is that trade is inter-dependent. The world's second and sixth largest economies are geographically adjacent. Total trade last year amounted to £553bn (€630bn).

When current EU trade negotiations are concluded with Japan, India and South American states (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) almost 90pc of UK trade is covered by EU regulatory access. To presume the British could negotiate more favourable liberalised terms is misguided. It is the great delusion among Brexiteers.

The best fudge allows both sides to adhere to principles, while prioritising economics.

But Anglo-Irish and Dublin-unionism relations appear to have been severely strained.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's stand has secured him a significant and commendable poll boost for his party.

But remember this is still early days.

Post-Brexit we're more vulnerable and isolated within the EU on free trade and tax harmonisation without the UK at the table. Our mutually agreed common travel area is unique to the two islands. These relationships will require repair.

After Britain's EU exodus, we'll need to find new ways to acknowledge our enduring unique special relationship of shared neighbourliness.

Perhaps then we should be mature enough to revisit the notion of rejoining the Commonwealth.

When we left on April 18, 1949, there was historic colonial baggage. Some 60 years on much has changed for the better.

Irish Independent

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