Belfast Telegraph

You've tip-toed over the first of many minefields on this island and survived but unease about future remains

Ed Curran writes an open letter to PM Theresa May following Brexit talks

Theresa May listens to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels yesterday
Theresa May listens to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels yesterday

Thank you for your letter of reassurance to me and the other 1.8 million citizens of Northern Ireland. That you felt the need to write it at all is a recognition of how your negotiations with Europe and the Irish Republic in the past week have unsettled many in the community here.

It doesn't take much to do so. Indeed, I doubt whether the promises in your letter or the changes made to your 15 page stage one agreement with the European Union will bring an end to unease and suspicions about the future.

The impression is that Arlene Foster and the DUP were bounced into a deal not entirely of their making or approval in the early hours of yesterday morning. With your Brussels-bound plane revving on the runway, the DUP had little alternative but to accept the changes on offer and speed you on your way.

For all the party's protestations that Northern Ireland must be treated like the rest of the UK, the very fact that 15 paragraphs of your UK-EU deal are devoted to this issue shows how London and Brussels regard us as different.

And the document shows that what makes us different is the Good Friday Agreement.

The UK may escape from Europe but Northern Ireland cannot do so totally now or in the future because it is already inextricably linked to the south in so many ways.

For example, paragraph 47 states 'north-south cooperation relies to a significant extent on a common European Union legal and policy framework.'

Those involved in the negotiations with Europe identified around 140 areas of cross-border cooperation many of which would be in an administrative mess if the UK were out of the EU and the Republic remains as it will. Paragraph 49 says 'in the absence of an agreed solution, the UK will maintain full alignment with these rules ...which now or in the future support north-south cooperation, the all-Ireland economy and the protection of the 1998 agreement.'

The DUP may not like the term 'full alignment.' Nor may the party wish to accept that 'special status' is being afforded Northern Ireland and its relationship with the south in the UK-EU document.

We can dispute and play with words but reality sinks in eventually. The DUP's continued support for you Prime Minister shows how far the party has had to travel from 1998 when its then leadership stood outside the gates of Stormont and opposed the Good Friday agreement.

Prime Minister, in your letter to Northern Ireland and your deal with Brussels, you seek to be all things to us all, unionist and nationalist alike. A commitment to unionism in one paragraph, a reassurance to the Dublin government in the next.

You offer up a Utopian image of no borders, either in the Irish Sea or in the fields of Fermanagh.

You tell unionists that Northern Ireland will not be treated differently. All for one and one for all within the UK, is your message. You reassure Dublin in paragraph 49 that if necessary, the UK will 'propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstance of the island of Ireland.'

Thankfully, we can now move on from a week which saw much ridicule of your government and its relationship with the DUP. Your agreement with Brussels is on broad principles but 2018 beckons tough bargaining.

That is when we will really know Prime Minister whether your promise of an open border with the Republic and 'unfettered' access between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is achievable.

The island of Ireland holds its breath. At the moment all the attention is on the concerns of unionists. However, given the potential impact of Brexit on the economy of the Irish Republic, Dublin and London have much more negotiating to do.

Leo Varadkar had a good week but anyone looking at the impact of Brexit on the economy of his country knows that he has far more formidable challenges ahead which will require a lot of goodwill from the UK.

'Specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland' - what might that mean? A free trade treaty? No border down the Irish Sea for anyone, north or south? A tariff-free island of Ireland or indeed British Isles?

Obviously much depends on the overall settlement between the UK and EU. And what if any tariffs are proposed in trade talks, but so far so good.

Meanwhile, the extent to which Brexit impinges on all our lives is putting into poor perspective the continued squabbling of our Stormont politicians.

With or without a Stormont Executive, 2018 is an absolutely crucial year for British-Irish relations. You Prime Minister have a big part to play along with the DUP which is keeping you in power. Leo Varadkar in Dublin needs more than a few favours from you on his economy. All of you need to pull together much more than was evident in the past week.

Many doubts remain. Much apprehension is still in the air. Somehow, Prime Minister you have tip-toed over the first of many minefields on this island and survived to have a happier Christmas than many of us thought possible a week ago.

Yours, Ed

Belfast Telegraph


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