Opinion Editorial

Wednesday 13 November 2019

Softening pain of Brexit for Ireland

Liam Fox, who wanted Brexit done and dusted in a matter of months, now accepts it will take years but still cannot bring himself to see the intervening period as “transitional”, preferring instead to called it “implementational”. Photo: Stock Image
Liam Fox, who wanted Brexit done and dusted in a matter of months, now accepts it will take years but still cannot bring himself to see the intervening period as “transitional”, preferring instead to called it “implementational”. Photo: Stock Image
Editorial

Editorial

Open division in UK Cabinets is nothing new. Margaret Thatcher had her "wets" and Theresa May is afflicted by a small number of ministerial colleagues who each think of themselves as the best person to occupy the position she holds and so they have been consistently leaking against her and against each other.

This had contributed to the slow progress in the latest round of Brexit talks aimed at having something of substance to discuss when the leaders of the other 27 member states meet next October. At the last minute, however, the British PM seems to have regained some measure of control over her Cabinet by reminding her colleagues that "there's no such thing as an unsackable minister", though this warning could equally apply to herself.

And by week's end progress was being made. Michel Barnier, the lead EU negotiator helped by not rising to Boris Johnson's jibe about the EU whistling for the €65bn divorce 'settlement' Britain owes.

It was acknowledged in London that the UK will have to make substantial payments but it will naturally dispute every penny first. Michael Gove has drawn in his horns a little on the issue he is most exercised about - immigration - promising to be "practical and pragmatic", though for now this doesn't seem to mean much more than letting in seasonal workers for the season.

Liam Fox, who wanted Brexit done and dusted in a matter of months, now accepts it will take years but still cannot bring himself to see the intervening period as "transitional", preferring instead to called it "implementational".

But more and more the reality of the British approach is being put by Chancellor Philip Hammond and the Brexit Minister, David Davis, who believe economic issues must be the criteria the battle is fought on, though the role of the European Court of Justice and the rights of EU and British citizens while in each other's territory remains pervasive.

That approach is being helped by Brussels where the appetite for making Britain suffer has receded, though it is imperative that those countries remaining within the union must see they are better off as members. With all that going on, it is good to see that the strand of the talks relating to Northern Ireland seems to be proceeding well without any rancour or game-playing, and are integral to the whole process and not some kind of sidebar event.

Mr Barnier set the scene when he said "the important issue of the Good Friday Agreement, in all its dimensions, requires more detailed discussions...in particular, more work needs to be done to protect North-South co-operation between Ireland and Northern Ireland".

These talks, led by Barnier's deputy, Sabine Weyand, and the UK Brexit Department secretary, Olly Robbins (while Simon Coveney hovers close by), are focused on all aspects of the Belfast Agreement and the preservation of the Common Travel Area between the Republic and UK. The fact that the more difficult issue of cross-border trade has been left for a later talks session means a better chance of progress for the October summit.

So far so good, but it would be naive to think there is not substantial work to be done. The direct talks between British government representatives and the EU will take several nasty turns over the next two years before they reach a conclusion.

And short of another referendum in Britain, they must be concluded in some kind of deal. In that process it will take a lot of intense diplomatic work to keep our interests at the centre of discussions and ourselves at the centre of EU affairs when the dust has settled.

And whatever the outcome, we must be prepared to face the fact that we are currently engaged only in an exercise to minimise the pain of Brexit for this country. For pain there will be.

Sunday Independent

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