Belfast Telegraph

Jane Morrice: Could this novel initiative help Boris woo the DUP... or would it be a bridge too far?

An alliance of Scotland, NI and the Republic with their own trade arrangements with the EU and a bridge spanning the Irish Sea might solve the Brexit dilemma, argues Jane Morrice

DUP leader Arlene Foster shaking hands with Boris Johnson at her party’s annual conference in Belfast last year
DUP leader Arlene Foster shaking hands with Boris Johnson at her party’s annual conference in Belfast last year

By Jane Morrice

As our new PM, Boris Johnson will need to spend much of his time in office building bridges to repair the damage to the UK's global credibility caused by the 2016 referendum and its aftermath.

While his focus may be on breaking the deadlock with Brussels, if he doesn't want to go down in history as the PM responsible for the potential break-up of the UK, he must start bridge-building within these islands first.

In doing so, he should not forget that the British Isles is made up of five nations with different approaches to membership of the EU. England and Wales want the UK to leave the EU, hoping they will get a deal which will make Britain better, while Scotland and Northern Ireland want the UK to remain in the EU believing the deal we have is the best the UK could get. For its part, Ireland seems quite content to remain linked within a union of 26 other European nations which have stood solidly by Dublin throughout the Brexit negotiations.

With a no-deal Brexit threatening the break-up of the Union, the creation of deep division between the UK and Ireland and growing concern over the future of the EU, the new PM needs to find a compromise in which each separate nation in the 'Great' British Isles feels comfortable with the outcome.

By applying the combined logic of democracy, devolution and diplomacy over difference and division, the challenge is to find a creative way to accommodate all five nations in an arrangement where each takes its place closer to, or further from, the centre of EU gravity, according to the needs and wants of its citizens.

Solutions to such political, economic and cultural complexities are not simple, but one might appeal to the bridge-builder in Boris Johnson. It involves the coming together of Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland as SCINI, the Northern BENELUX of the EU. First mooted in 2016, it would create greater connection between Scotland and NI through Ireland as a pathway to the EU.

It could be developed into a new Good Friday-type arrangement in which England and Wales would pursue the Brexit they desire, while Scotland and NI would have overlapping arrangements allowing them to remain in the EU as part of the UK.

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In a fascinating twist of fate, Boris Johnson may be the one person with the chutzpah to single-handedly save Great Britain, Northern Ireland, Ireland and eventually Europe from the negative impact of Brexit. With his can-do approach, he may have what it takes to get a new deal accepted in Brussels and London.

But first, he must get it through Belfast. That means DUP acceptance of the Northern Ireland-only backstop - the original proposal put forward by Brussels, initially agreed by London but rejected after the DUP intervened, arguing it would create a border down the Irish Sea.

To get their support, the PM could back their proposal for a bridge to be built between Northern Ireland and Scotland, in return for their acceptance of the NI-only backstop.

The bridge is far from new.

It has been debated for over a century by experts and politicians alike and, during her visit to Scotland last year, DUP leader Arlene Foster called on the Orange Order to back the bridge, saying: "What better way to cement that relationship than through a bridge?"

In what would be a tremendous coup, Johnson might convince the DUP that the NI-only backstop is no threat to its place in the Union.

By backing their proposal for the bridge, in return for DUP support for the NI-only backstop, the case would be made for cementing NI's place in the Union through a concrete link connecting NI with the rest of the UK which would literally override any border in the Irish Sea.

Not only could this be a win/win for the PM and the DUP, but their acceptance of a NI-only backstop could help reconcile nationalist and unionist opinion, satisfy local farmers and business, help protect the peace process and respect the Good Friday Agreement.

Northern Ireland would itself become the bridge which links the EU to the UK and the rest of the world.

Such a massive, ambitious and visionary project providing untold benefits to all three SCINI nations and resolving the Brexit deadlock could almost be guaranteed substantial EU funding. This could come from HORIZON 2020, the European Investment Bank, PEACE and the Trans European Network (TEN) programme.

At a cost of some €20bn, for a 20-mile stretch, foreign direct investment would also be vital, particularly from those countries interested in accessing the EU market. Partial EU financing might also serve to offset some of the €39bn the UK will pay as its EU divorce settlement.

With the bridge giving Scotland a direct link to EU markets, opening up the Highlands to economic regeneration and the backstop giving NI the best of both worlds, the negative impact of Brexit would be reduced and there could be less pressure for polls on both sides of the Irish Sea.

The bridge could also revive engineering skills and develop the renewable energy potential of the northern archipelago. Ireland would also gain with the regeneration of the north west, greater trade flows from Scotland to the EU through Dublin and Cork, and a solution to the Irish/EU border.

In the transition period, after UK withdrawal, the UK would negotiate a trade deal ensuring EU border controls shift to ports, airports and somewhere along the new 'Boris' bridge.

SCINI could also help deal with the fact that all NI citizens are entitled to EU citizenship, thanks to the Good Friday Agreement which states they can be either British, Irish or both.

This means NI citizens will retain their EU rights and have recourse to the European Courts, access to the European Health card, ERASMUS, EU diplomatic protection and other EU benefits. The possibility of extending a similar arrangement to Scottish citizens could also be open for debate.

There can be little doubt that any change of this magnitude in UK/EU relations would need to be put to the British people to give the opportunity for a better informed debate with a clearer picture of what Brexit means, particularly for young people, who will be most affected.

For this, Brussels would need to agree to an extension of Article 50 to give time for a 'Preferendum' with three choices - deal, no-deal, remain.

The solution may be complex, but one that builds bridges, both metaphorical and physical, might be the answer. The bridge may be costly but the real price of a no-deal Brexit would be far greater.

Last week the basalt bedrock which created the Giant's Causeway, the 'bridge' which once linked Northern Ireland to Scotland, played host to one of the greatest sporting events ever in NI.

The return of The Open to Northern Ireland after 70 years was only made possible by the Good Friday Agreement.

Its success marked a turning point in the fortune of these islands which must never be reversed.

  • Jane Morrice - Hon President European Movement NI, Member EESC (Former Deputy Speaker NI Assembly, EC Office Head NI) - author of petition to grant NI Hon. EU Association and EESC Opinion #WhiteDoveWay

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