Progress on Brexit to be welcomed
The joint report from the negotiators of the European Union and the United Kingdom Government on progress during phase one of Brexit highlights up front and centre the caveat that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. When the initial euphoria fades in relation to the progress that has at last been made, this caution should be borne in mind. That is not to say that the progress negotiated last week should not be warmly welcomed, not least because the agreement reached points in the direction of a soft Brexit which would represent the best outcome for Ireland, North and South.
Both the EU and UK have reached agreement in principle across the three areas under consideration in the first phase of negotiations: protecting the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU; the financial settlement; and, the framework for addressing the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland. Progress was also made in achieving agreement on aspects of other separation issues.
Under the agreement reached, the UK remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The UK's intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the UK will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the UK will maintain "full alignment" with the rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement.
The agreement also states that, in the absence of agreed solutions, the UK will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK unless, consistent with the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland.
In all circumstances, the agreement states, the UK will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland's businesses to the whole of the UK internal market.
Therein lays an apparent nub of the matter still to be resolved in phase two of the negotiations. Given the specific nature of issues related to Ireland and Northern Ireland, both the EU and UK have agreed that in the next phase, work will continue in a distinct strand.
This is to be welcomed. Such work will also address issues arising from Ireland's unique geographic situation, including the transit of goods to and from Ireland via the UK.
At this point, it is abundantly clear that there is now no issue greater on the island of Ireland than to immediately resume the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. Indeed, this should have occurred well before now.
However, it is evident that the executive and assembly will have an important function to resolve issues which will undoubtedly arise as negotiations enter the next phase.
For now, however, the breakthrough last week, and the principles established and commitments given in relation to Ireland are to be welcomed and congratulations extended to the Government here, its officials and wider advisers on a job so far well done.
However, vigilance must be maintained going forward to ensure the best possible outcome for Ireland, North and South, which will require a reasonable deal for the entire UK too.