Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Rational discussions needed to solve issue of post-Brexit border

Editor's Viewpoint

Suggestions that the Westminster Government may be edging towards a deal with the EU on giving Northern Ireland special status got the predictable reaction from the DUP.

The party warned Prime Minister Theresa May that any move to put the province on a different footing post-Brexit from the rest of the UK is a non-starter and would lead to the DUP withdrawing its support, which is keeping her in power.

This response was no surprise. Any indication that Brexit may weaken the Union cuts sharply into the quick of unionism and leads to greater obduracy.

That is why the level of debate currently taking place over whether it is possible to have a frictionless frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic is so dangerous.

Brexit is the greatest challenge facing the whole island of Ireland in generations. The economic consequences for both parts of the island could be disastrous if a proper deal is not done. Both rely heavily on trade with the rest of the UK and unionists are right to emphasise the need for that trade to continue unhampered.

At the same time the movement of goods and people in both directions across the border is important to both economies. Given that context, it would seem rational that a nuanced, frank and all-embracing discussion would take place between politicians from both jurisdictions, but that is far from the case.

Former DUP leader Peter Robinson is right to point out how the current megaphone diplomacy is souring relationships between Belfast and Dublin. Building up a mutually respectful rapport was a long and delicate process that bore fruit, but the strident voices from Dublin and the fears raised by some of the comments have reduced the debate to a woefully low level.

Essentially what is a complex economic puzzle - and it is only a fortnight until a crunch EU summit on Brexit - has become something of a tired Orange v Green series of catcalls.

Unionists also have to be careful not to overplay their hand. They are currently in a powerful position, but the arrangement with the Prime Minister is far from universally popular even within the Tory Party, and issuing threats will not win any new friends.

And they should beware of unintended consequences. If Theresa May's administration was to fall Labour could be returned to power, and that would not be in the DUP's interest.

Even with the best will in the world Northern Ireland faces great uncertainty post-Brexit. With 72% of its trade with the rest of the UK it is self-evident it wants that to continue, but where will future economic growth come from?

With some people expressing doubts about the UK's ability - and it is the sixth largest economy in the world - to replace lost trade with the EU through new deals globally, how much more difficult will it be for Northern Ireland to seal new deals?

The situation is not helped by the fact that our two main political parties have failed to reach agreement on restoring devolution. Instead, they are using Brexit as a proxy for continuing their mutual loathing, so evident in recent elections.

Ideally all options should be on the table and be open for discussion, rather than being rejected out of hand by either the UK, Republic or by local politicians.

The problems can only be resolved by serious discussion and mutual compromise. After all, we are playing with our children's future.

Belfast Telegraph

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