22 Nov 2017

Brexit and the question of Ireland

Jeremy Corbyn made a rare PMQs foray into Brexit focusing in his first question on Ireland.

The PM said the government had provided policy ideas for handling the border issue in its papers over the summer. She didn’t mention that these met with some ridicule in Brussels.

Ireland remains a neuralgic issue as Britain tries to close the Brexit Phase 1 talks and move to getting a transition and the outline of a final new trade agreement.

One Cabinet minister told me that the government was still working on a form of words to give the Irish Taoiseach enough to go home with after the December European Council. The worry, the minister said, wasn’t Ireland pressing its case too hard but countries (he specifically mentioned France) who don’t particularly want the UK to have the stabilising help of an early(ish) agreement on transition and who might try to “hide their own commercial interests behind the shield of Ireland.”

Some in Dublin detect a little more flexibility (emphasis on “little”) in elements of the DUP than are obvious in the leadership. But they detect no attempts yet by the British government to move the DUP one inch towards anything like the sort of plans emerging from Dublin.

One UK Cabinet minister insisted that the sort of carve outs for Northern Ireland being talked about by Dublin and Brussels, effectively staying in the customs union and the single market while the rest of the UK leaves, amounted to a substantial constitutional change in the status of Northern Ireland without going through any of the democratic requirements (a referendum north and south of the border) required by the Good Friday Agreement.

Brussels and Dublin are pointing out the vast array of special arrangements already in place emphasising the uniqueness of the north/south relationship in the island or Ireland and insist their proposals are in this spirit.

And as I wait for the Budget to start, a vignette from an MP I spoke to yesterday.

The Tory backbencher told me she had recently taken a delegation of vets from her constituency to the galleries above the Commons chamber to watch proceedings. On the way in she apologised for the “odd smell” that “always seems to be here.”

“Oh, that’s mice urine,” the vets chorused. “It’s unmistakable,” they said.

Tweets by @garygibbonblog

One reader comment

  1. H Statton says:

    At a recent Treasury committee the ex-permanent UK representative to the EU Ivan Rogers stated a “no deal” Brexit would not essentially lead to having no deal ( I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean). He warned given the snail’s pace with which this is all moving along, come December things “may be so bloody by then that both sides are looking to knock chunks out of each other and start a trade war.”

    A trade deal he states is not doable within the next twelve months. So, under these circumstances the UK might end up a corpse from which the EU could pick.

    A recent EU paper suggested that in order for Northern Ireland to avoid a hard border with no post-Brexit border checks, it would have to follow certain EU rules such as staying in the EU customs union. However, No.10 has rejected this idea saying it would create a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

    David Davis chose to defer at the meeting on the question of how a physical border with Ireland would operate when Hilary Benn asked, “How can that be if there is no deal?” Davis replied: “the government set out plans in the paper it published earlier this year.” So, why is everyone not in agreement, and discussing only the finer points? Rogers insisted “a no deal situation would create a huge problem for the Irish economy.” It’s far from settled.

    Benn put it to Davis, “What are the positive benefits the UK will have in April 2019 it did not have before?” Davis, “the UK will not be in the EU.” You can’t make this up.

    Following her meeting with Theresa May at Downing Street, leader of the DUP Arlene Foster said the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar “should know better” than to “play around” with Northern Ireland over Brexit, charging Varadkar with being “reckless”, and for him to not use the Irish/Northern Ireland border as a force to disrupt Brexit.

    The Irish government has insisted that a hard border with Northern Ireland should be rejected, floating the possibility of an ‘Irish sea-border’ with the UK. But, deputy leader of the DUP Nigel Dodds warned this would be “gravely destabilising” to the UK government.

    Last week Varadkar gave Theresa May a deadline asking for detailed proposals to circumvent a hard border Ireland and Northern Ireland: “after 18 months, 18 months since the referendum, 10 years since people started agitating for it, and [we’ve] yet to see anything in black and white.” Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney echoed this saying the Irish government was right to pursue guarantees concerning the border before agreeing to the next phase of Brexit talks. He went on, “this is about division on the island of Ireland” and not simply trade talks.

    In May this year Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams attacked Michel Barnier’s opinion that a good deal will be achieved between Ireland and England, condemning Barnier’s ignorance on the historic difficulties the two countries had faced. In his criticism on the reinstatement of a hard border, “Brexit will affect our entire island if we let it. It is already having a major negative effect”. Adams asserted Northern Ireland should be granted special status and permitted to stay part of the EU, particularly as it voted overwhelmingly to remain.

    So, the two pieces of Ireland don’t fit together despite the land border, each political half blaming the other. It’s a major problem for the hard Brexiteers to ponder.

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