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Stormont leaders’ new unity of purpose to strike the best possible deal for NI has to be welcomed

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published 12/08/2016

Nicola Sturgeon
Nicola Sturgeon

Much of the media coverage of the letter sent by the Executive Office to the Prime Minister has treated it as shocking evidence that Arlene Foster has suddenly realised Brexit is a bad thing.

And the case against her is strong. She urged a vote for leaving the European Union without any agreement having been reached on how the billions we get from there could be replaced.

Still, now that that side of the story has been aired and she has been duly tramped on, and kept her composure under fire, perhaps it is time to ask why this letter was sent, why it was aired in the media and what it really implies, beyond its listing of the "challenges" presented by the referendum result?

Surely if the Executive Office wanted to remind Downing Street what issues Northern Ireland was likely to bring to the Brexit negotiations, that could have been done with a memo between civil servants, none of whom would be in their jobs anyway if they hadn't already recognised these problems.

I smell a bigger story.

That story is the emergence of a joint approach by Foster and Martin McGuinness in approaching negotiations which will be at least as difficult and historic as the political deals of the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements.

And I sense that they moved to make their joint statement because they feared that Theresa May was moving on without them, despite her assurances.

They have been motivated by May's "stated intent" to trigger Article 50 in the new year. That's a decision she has made since meeting them in Belfast, and without apparently seeking their opinion.

There are huge forces pulling our Executive ministers in separate directions. McGuinness must defend the Belfast Agreement, and must foresee the strains within the UK itself now as offering a potential pathway towards a united Ireland. Foster, if she has sniffed the wind and discovered that the actual character of the Union is in question, must surely be more inclined to fight to preserve it. But she helped put it in question herself by urging a vote that demonstrates horribly how the English can pull the rest of the UK along regardless of local opinion. The fear among many now is that Northern Ireland is not part of the UK in the same way that the UK is part of the EU. For the EU gives component parts a veto and the UK doesn't.

I would like to know how much the nature of the Union itself is featuring in the thinking of the First Minister and her Deputy, how much each perhaps fears that it might move to the front of the negotiations and how they think they will deal with that.

Neither of them need bring it to the table. Nicola Sturgeon will do that. She will play her hand with an independence card in the deck. And Foster and McGuinness need to be there lest she makes gains which would make them look like failures if they stayed away.

Can either risk Scotland getting concessions that Northern Ireland did not? So, the letter is a public statement that our Executive ministers are working together despite the forces that would pull them apart.

And it is a clear reminder to May that Northern Ireland expects to be at the table.

Fair enough, bash Foster for helping us blunder out of the EU. But she is now moving to do what she must, alongside McGuinness. And as with McGuinness, it is what she is focused on now that counts, not what she did in the past.

Belfast Telegraph

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