4 Dec 2017

UK and Ireland close to deal on NI border

Theresa May has just gone in for her lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker at the Berlaymont building in Brussels. Earlier he met with with European Parliament leaders who obligingly shared elements of the draft EU27/UK Article 50 agreement with those of us waiting outside.

Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael government is pleased with a concession wrung out of the UK promising continued regulatory alignment on regulations between Northern Ireland and Ireland. European council president Donald Tusk just came off the phone to Leo Varadkar and said he was “encouraged” though we were “getting closer to sufficient progress” not actually there.

Fine Gael has long been cast by critics in Ireland as “the west Brits” and knew it had a content and communications struggle at this phase of the Brexit talks.

It is hoping it has extracted enough to satisfy the internal market and it will be helped by the DUP MP Sammy Wilson getting his attack in early on the deal.

Mr Wilson, it’s worth noting, is not the entire DUP. He spoke off message last week and didn’t make it back to London for the No. 10 meeting last week with Jeffrey Donaldson and Nigel Dodds. He is said by some in the DUP to “scent blood” over the investigation into the renewable energy saga and think that Arlene Foster’s leadership of the DUP may not be long for this world.

Others though are more sanguine. As I mentioned on Thursday this will focus on areas like agriculture and energy north and south of the border and the U.K. government thinks that is do-able as long as it is generated by a north/south bilateral understanding on converging standards not anything that the DUP might see as a change in constitutional status for Northern Ireland. One senior DUP source I spoke to about this last week sensed that Northern Ireland could be on to a “win win” with this sort of arrangement.

The SNP may also scent blood though as they look at the concessions for Northern Ireland implicit in the draft deal. Concessions certainly seem to have been the order of the day for the UK position so far as you look at a bill that has not, after all, been ripped up but pretty much in principle settled. Concessions seem to be the order of the day on EU Citizens’ Rights, with reports that the European Commission will try to extract one or two last ones from the UK over lunch today. And on Ireland, where Britain thought it wouldn’t have to move much at this phase of the talks it has had to produce words that go beyond “no hard border” and which, potentially, outline a Northern Ireland/Ireland bilateral understanding which means, post Brexit, two parts of the UK moving in different directions. The whole point of Brexit for many Brexiteers was divergence on rules. Northern Ireland, if these words in the draft mean anything, will not be joining the journey.

Tweets by @garygibbonc4