Belfast Telegraph

Brexit is nothing more or less than the repartition of Ireland ... it will be a calamity of vast proportions

Belfast Agreement made border into a symbol of co-operation. We should keep it that way, writes Alban Maginness

Donald Tusk
Donald Tusk

Donald Tusk, the European Council president, on his visit to Dublin last week, explicitly warned the UK that the EU was standing firmly behind the Irish government in relation to the question of the Irish border. Therefore, unless the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, is satisfied by Britain's outline proposals to create a credible model for a soft border, the next phase of the EU-British negotiations will be put on hold.

In a strange twist of fate, Ireland is now in a powerful position to tell Britain what to do. Nonetheless, there is no evidence of schadenfreude in the attitude of the Irish government in addressing this most difficult of issues.

The Irish position - ably presented by Foreign Minister Simon Coveney - is businesslike, pragmatic and strategic.

There is an absence of negative rhetoric, but there is a plain sense of exasperation and worry that Theresa May is at sea on Brexit and simply does not understand the profound implications for Ireland as a whole if a credible agreement is not achieved.

Coveney, who has been outstanding in these negotiations, understands that Britain desires a 'soft' border and welcomes that aim, but in order to be certain of its realisation, it is necessary for the UK to remain within the customs union and the single market. May's government, under pressure from right-wing Conservatives, has declared that it will leave both structures. Therein lies the problem.

What the UK Government is proposing is a vain attempt to square the circle. In Dublin's opinion, it is impossible to have a "soft" border between north and south without the UK remaining within the customs union and the single market.

If that is not acceptable to the UK, the only feasible alternative is to treat Northern Ireland as a separate region of the UK and, by special arrangement, to permit it to remain in the single market and customs union.

If that were to happen, the problem could be solved for the common good of all parties and the long-term benefit of both economies in Ireland.

The DUP has put its face against this pragmatic solution. Their position is quite extraordinary, firstly, because it has not put forward any counter-proposals of its own, secondly, because it has recklessly declared its intention of withdrawing support from Theresa May's government should it go in the direction of any special arrangements for Northern Ireland.

Their objection seems to be that we should not have special status, because that would make us different from the rest of the UK. But we are different and, indeed, unique within the UK, for many historical reasons.

In addition, they also raise the spectre of a border along the Irish sea, dividing us from the rest of the UK. But this is a practical, not a constitutional, proposal, which will not affect the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

The DUP MPs believe that political debate on this issue has to be offensive and threatening. There is no sense of them calmly trying to solve this difficult problem.

Ian Paisley and Sammy Wilson actually seem to enjoy being gratuitously offensive. None of this is constructive and is contrary to the economic interests of our agriculture, industry and business.

It might, in fact, be better if, as Sammy Wilson has threatened, the DUP actually brings down this struggling Tory government. The probability is that Labour will win the next election, installing Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. In those circumstances, it is likely that Labour will opt for remaining within the customs union and the single market, as well. This would certainly suit the interests of Northern Ireland plc.

The partition of Ireland was a disaster for Ireland, both north and south. We still suffer from the negative consequences of that decision. In the same way, the economic repartition of Ireland by way of Brexit is a disaster waiting to happen.

Fortunately, the border between north and south has become less and less of an obstacle, becoming virtually invisible since the 1990s due to the organic growth of the single market within the European Union.

None of this has diminished the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK. This evaporation of the economic border in Ireland has been of enormous benefit to the economies of both jurisdictions.

It was within this borderless context that the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated and signed almost 20 years ago. While membership of the European Union was not made a specific aspect of the agreement, it was an assumption upon which the agreement was made. If there had not been mutual membership of the EU, the Good Friday Agreement would have been a very different agreement.

As Donald Tusk has put it: "The agreement has transformed the border from being a symbol of division into a symbol of co-operation."

Let's maintain that position.

Belfast Telegraph


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