Belfast Telegraph

Special region status offers us the best of both worlds

Alban Maginness MLA
Alban Maginness MLA
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

The DUP leader has correctly claimed that Theresa May's Brussels deal has preserved the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. But that is because there was never any attempt to interfere with or undermine the constitutional integrity of the UK state, or NI's part of it.

The extreme over-reaction by the DUP to the original text of the deal last Monday was badly mistaken and verged on the hysterical. Arlene Forster's clumsy intervention was seriously misjudged and over-the-top.

By publicly intervening at the last moment, she seriously humiliated the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, internationally and will not be easily forgiven for that by either the Prime Minister, or the mainstream of her party.

And in the light of the deal yesterday morning, one must ask what was Arlene's intervention all about and did she achieve anything of consequence by her reckless intervention? All the experts independently monitoring this new deal and its accompanying text, agree that there is little difference in substance from Monday's version. That being so, it is hard to understand why Arlene intervened in such a reckless manner, for so little return.

The deal between the EU and the British government is to be warmly welcomed, firstly because it moves the Brexit negotiations, after too prolonged a period of negotiations, into the second stage, which is the construction of a new trade deal between the UK and the rest of Europe post-Brexit, but secondly because it puts Northern Ireland as a separate and special region into a position of significant economic advantage, which should benefit all our people in the near future.

The Brussels agreement has focused in particular on the Irish border as a discreet issue, because it is the key to preserving and indeed improving the trading relations within these islands, as well as with Europe as a whole.

Objectively, from NI's point of view, it would have been better had the UK simply remained within the single market and the customs union, but although that was preferable, for obvious political reasons it was clearly ruled out by Theresa May and her government, who were beholden to the Brexiteer right wing.

That is not to say that it might not re-emerge as an option during the trade negotiations, or if the Labour Party were to replace this divided and struggling Tory government. If the UK as a whole had remained within the customs union and single market, there would have been no problem with achieving a soft border.

In essence, what has been agreed is that NI, whatever happens, will be treated as a special region within the UK and will benefit from what has been termed regulatory alignment. In other words, whatever happens at the end of the trade talks, NI is guaranteed a special position, whereby even if the UK is not in the customs union and single market, we will still enjoy the same regulatory regime as the rest of the EU. This means that our goods and services will be able to trade freely with the EU, and in particular with the crucial southern Irish market.

At the same time, NI will be able to freely trade with the rest of the UK. In those circumstances NI will have the best of both worlds, simultaneously being within the EU market and also within the UK market. This is a superb position for our businesses to be in and should be a huge magnet for attracting businesses from Britain, mainland Europe and even the Republic.

In Dublin there is a natural satisfaction that the Irish government has achieved its objective of a deal that guarantees a soft border in Ireland that will maintain the normal trading of goods and services and the free movement of labour, as well as guaranteeing co-operation between north and south and the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement. Varadkar and Coveney have much to be happy about, with their primary objectives fully achieved.

But additionally, Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, has gone out of his way to reassure unionists that this deal does not mean that Northern Ireland will drift apart from the rest of the UK. He has stated that there would be no new trading barriers between NI and the rest of the UK, unless the Assembly and Executive agree to it.

He has also bluntly declared that: "There is no question of us exploiting Brexit as a means of moving to a united Ireland without consent."

Far from being triumphalist, the Irish government is at pains to reassure unionists that there is nothing to fear. Arlene and the DUP should listen carefully and respond with magnanimity.

Belfast Telegraph


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