Belfast Telegraph

Ed Curran: Good Friday Agreement could hold key to unlocking Brexit compromise

Theresa May
Theresa May
Angela Merkel
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas

By Ed Curran

The last-ditch quest to find a solution to the so-called 'Irish backstop' is on in earnest.

Time is running out which is why the German foreign minister is meeting the Taoiseach in Dublin today and why Angela Merkel, at her express request, phoned Leo Varadkar last week and engaged in what he described as a 'brainstorming' conversation lasting fully 40 minutes.

It's a fair assumption that German chancellors and foreign ministers do not give of their time in this way unless they have something seriously in need of addressing on their mind.

The question is what precisely do they want Mr Varadkar to do and the answer will surely be evident in the coming days when the European Community responds to Prime Minister Theresa May's requirements on the Irish backstop.

The pressure is on her but it may be also on Leo Varadkar despite his assertion that the Germans are simply reaffirming their support for Dublin's position on the backstop.

What is at stake here is the future of Europe, the political stability of the United Kingdom, the sixth most powerful economy on Earth, and a deal between Brussels and London which took two years to negotiate and upon which the livelihood of tens of millions of people are dependent.

As things stand at this moment, all is at risk because the island of Ireland must avoid a 'hard' border at any cost. High stakes indeed for the Germans undoubtedly influencing the European Community as they did 10 years ago when the world's economy fell apart and Berlin dictated to Dublin the price that had to be paid in terms of austerity measures.

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What now? What is being asked of Leo Varadkar's government to keep Theresa May's deal and her government from collapsing, from leaving Europe in a no-deal mess which will cost everyone dearly.

It beggars belief that anyone will allow that to happen, which is why today's meeting in Leo Varadkar's office with the German foreign minister Heiko Maas carries such significance and expectation. The bottom line for Theresa May is that without the support of Northern Ireland's 10 Democratic Unionist MPs, her deal and quite probably her leadership is doomed.

Without some change in the current proposals for the backstop which would avoid Northern Ireland being treated differently from the rest of the UK, the DUP will vote against the Brexit deal and so too will dozens of other Westminster MPs.

Nor is it certain that even if the DUP was sufficiently reassured to vote for the deal, that enough of the 102 Conservative MPs who recently withdrew their confidence in Mrs May's leadership would follow suit.

It is far from certain that satisfying the DUP will satisfy the rest but this is an assumption many observers of Westminster seem prepared to make.

So what could be done about the Irish backstop to get the DUP on side and squeeze Mrs May's deal past the winning post without Brussels losing face? At the heart of this dispute is the fact that Northern Ireland might face different rules and regulations imposed from Europe, not London, if a new trade deal cannot be completed between the UK and the EC before December 2020.

The fear is that such trade deals can take years and years to negotiate and that Northern Ireland would be left in limbo, half in and half out of the European Community. Under the current legally-binding wording of Theresa May's deal with Brussels, Northern Ireland would be subject to EC rules and regulations, involving checks on goods from Britain, on an opened-ended basis.

Though a majority of people here voted to stay in the EC and many businesses and farmers like the idea of a half-way, best of both worlds arrangement, the DUP does not. And like it or not, the DUP holds the whip hand at Westminster and potentially the future of Europe and the UK in the hands of its MPs.

At the heart of Brexit is the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. Above all, everyone in Europe has united behind Leo Varadkar in upholding the agreement, the spirit of which, if not the actual text, requires the fullest cooperation across the island of Ireland, not least the avoidance of any border.

All of the emphasis on the Good Friday Agreement has related to the open border aspect. No one, not even the DUP, disputes the importance of keeping trade, commerce and people flowing freely across the island of Ireland. However, the actual text of the agreement has much to say about Northern Ireland's 'status' within the UK and how that cannot be changed without the consent of a majority of people here.

The question, however, is whether checks, rules and regulations between Great Britain and these shores alters the 'status' of Northern Ireland sufficiently to contravene the Good Friday Agreement?

The agreement is meant to reassure unionists on the constitutional link with the UK. It recognises 'the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly, that Northern Ireland's status as part of the UK reflects and relies upon that wish; and that it would be wrong to make any change in the status of NI save with the consent of a majority of its people.'

The phrase 'any change in the status' set against a backstop border down the Irish Sea surely offers food for thought in any revision of the current Brexit deal.

Everyone is in agreement on the need to uphold the Belfast Agreement, not least Mr Varadkar, who says it is his "only red line demand".

Perhaps the future 'status' of Northern Ireland, inside or outside Europe's influence, deserves further attention also alongside the requirement of avoiding any hard border.

It may be clutching at straws at this stage but, as the current deal stands, the status of Northern Ireland within the UK remains in question under the backstop - and with no legal guarantee that such an arrangement would be temporary.

If London, Dublin, Brussels or Berlin want a way out of this mess, it appears their only hope is to revisit the backstop with a view to ensuring that at best it will be legally limited to a brief period of time, rather than potentially open-ended, and that any barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain are just as unacceptable as any on this island with our neighbours.

Belfast Telegraph


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