Sunday 24 February 2019

Moment of truth on Brexit arrives

As the negotiations on Brexit enter a crucial and, probably, defining phase, the need for calm heads and wise counsel has never been more essential. The options available to the United Kingdom and the EU have been narrowed and more clearly defined by recent events in the House of Commons to the point that one of three outcomes now look likely: the current withdrawal deal, heavily rejected in the Commons last week, is revived and somehow secures the necessary majority support; the UK crashes out of the EU on March 29, or the exit date is avoided through an agreed extension or a unilateral decision by the UK to revoke its resignation from the EU. One of the main, although by no means only, obstacles to the proposed withdrawal deal receiving the necessary support is the so-called backstop element which has been strongly opposed by both the Democratic Unionist Party and hard-line Brexiteers in the UK.

The darkest hour is just before dawn. Last week a chink of light could be detected from reports which indicated that the DUP may be open to a softer Brexit which kept the whole of the UK in a customs union with Brussels. These reports were subsequently, apparently, denied by the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, as an attempt to cause division. Although the words of the DUP's astute leader at Westminster, Nigel Dodds, which hinted at an evolving situation, should be borne in mind. Asked if the UK government signing up to a customs union and high regulatory alignment would be acceptable to the DUP, he said: "It certainly deals with the issue of the UK being treated the same." In other words, such a negotiated outcome would negate the requirement for a backstop on the Ireland question, although undoubtedly the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, would have to reconsider her red lines in such a scenario for progress to be made. But as both Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster also said, any movement would need to deliver on the UK's 'borders, jobs and money' requirements. How to square the circle?

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, who has steadfastly maintained discussions with the DUP, last week perhaps wisely stated he was not going to comment on the tentative DUP evolving position - "they will make up their own minds", he said. Indeed they will. In doing so, the DUP must be mindful of business interests in Northern Ireland, in particular, and the welfare of the community as a whole, while the sensitivities and nuances of the DUP's position should be recognised by all in this country. In the Sunday Independent today, the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar hints at the possibility of a development when he states: "Solutions and special arrangements that are specific to Northern Ireland are easier to negotiate and implement given its size and unique history and geography, but UK-wide solutions are possible too."

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The question remains, can a majority be secured in the House of Commons for a soft Brexit, which after all is what the DUP advocated in its 2017 election manifesto? The possibility remains that such a majority could be secured, although it may alienate the hard Brexiteers in the Conservative Party, perhaps leading to a damaging split among the Tories. Were a House of Commons consensus, to include the DUP, to emerge around a soft Brexit however, it is likely the UK government would have to seek and would surely receive, EU approval to defer the exit date for a period of months as is provided for under Article 50.

Sunday Independent

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