Belfast Telegraph

Ed Curran: Still time to save island of Ireland from utter madness of no-deal Brexit

As Prime Minister Theresa May comes and goes on yet another visit to Northern Ireland, her warm words do little to offer reassurance.

What are her "alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border"? Does she know herself? Does anybody have a viable idea in London, Belfast, Dublin or Brussels?

Or is it that the island of Ireland is sleepwalking towards an economic and social disaster if Mrs May or someone, somewhere cannot find an answer by March 29?

Not for the first time on this island are we all in danger of staring one another out - not giving an inch, refusing to go that extra mile, and generally heading blindly towards a political precipice.

As ever with our divisions, the arguments are clear and seemingly intractable. The backstop, like some 11th commandment, is sacrosanct, inscribed indelibly, never to be altered in the annals of European law. That is one side's view.

The backstop is intolerable, unacceptable, an offence to the constitutional rights of Northern Ireland, says the other side.

No one, but no one, seems capable of finding any middle ground, any willingness to find an escape route that would avoid the precipice and get us out of the terrible mess that is Brexit.

Something has to give, but not even Mrs May appears to know what. And yet everyone, on all sides, knows that unless something does give, we could all be shipwrecked. North and south. East and west. Unionist and nationalist. Protestants and Catholics. People everywhere from one end of this island to the other.

The rhetoric needs to change. As the deadline day draws ever closer harsh reality is starting to dawn on those who have taken opposing positions. Without some compromise there will be no winners, only losers.

The really regrettable aspect of this whole debacle is that the dawning of Brexit reality has arrived so perilously late. Mrs May should have been making the speech she gave yesterday many months ago. The politicians on this island should have stopped long ago scoring points off of one another.

This is not a pan-European problem at all. It is a uniquely Anglo-Irish issue requiring a uniquely Anglo-Irish solution, just as a former Taoiseach Charles Haughey once spoke of finding "an Irish solution to an Irish problem".

Perhaps some form of new bilateral agreement is needed urgently between London and Dublin, with input from political parties and approval by Brussels.

Today the Prime Minister will meet local political leaders and she will hear the usual pro- and anti-backstop views from the respective factions who opposed or supported Brexit.

In the absence of a Stormont Executive and Assembly, the politicians have sat on their hands with little or no evidence of dialogue. Equally, the rhetoric between Dublin and Belfast has hardly been conducive to finding answers.

If a solution is to be found before March 29 the atmosphere of mistrust across all these political leaders needs to change, just as it did two decades ago when the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement was achieved against far greater odds than those of today.

The other evening on RTE's Claire Byrne Live, DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was in surprisingly conciliatory mood in the eyes of a Dublin studio audience. He spoke of respecting the integrity of the Irish Government and suggested cross-border discussions rather than the unconstructive harsh exchanges which have marked DUP relations with Dublin until now.

Many of the majority of people here who voted Remain in the referendum will say that the DUP has been its own worst enemy over Brexit. That the party enthused over leaving the EU with little apparent influence over the withdrawal agreement nor a viable and convincing plan to ensure an open border on this island.

With March 29 looming, the arguments must move on, and if the DUP can open a better relationship and dialogue with Dublin, so much the better.

The true spirit of the Belfast Agreement was the breaking down of borders between people across the UK, Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Everyone says the agreement cannot be cherrypicked, yet no less than one of the architects of Good Friday, Lord Trimble, has challenged the open-ended nature of the backstop on the grounds that it contravenes the principle of consent.

It is in no one's interests to let the Brexit divisions fester any more. Even Mrs May and Jeremy Corbyn have buried some of their differences and agreed to meet. The question now for the politicians on this side of the Irish Sea, north and south, is whether they can do the same and salvage this island from the madness of a no-deal Brexit.

Are they really saying no alternative arrangements can be found to avoid a hard border? There is still time and solutions can be found, if the will and the way can be found - as was the case on Good Friday 1998.

Belfast Telegraph

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