New treaty between UK and Ireland could resolve Brexit border difficulties
Another crucial watershed week beckons for Northern Ireland.
Can London, Dublin and Brussels find a way out of the Brexit hole on the border? Decisions in the coming days will have an immense impact on the future of everyone, unionist and nationalist alike.
No one can be certain which way the tide will flow, for better or worse, for richer or poorer on this island.
The battles over Brexit have deepened divisions here. Unionists are spooked into fearing Dublin is using Brexit as a means to advance Irish unity and to separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
The outcome of last year's referendum has only served to polarise nationalists, who voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Community. The prospects for political compromise look bleak.
Amid this disturbing deadlock, Dublin and London have a lot of patching up to do. The British and Irish Governments must show convergence, not divergence.
Divisive rhetoric across the Irish Sea and between nationalist Ireland and Ulster unionism is not going to solve the economic issues which Brexit throws up for everyone on both sides of our real or imagined border.
One TV reporter after another is filmed in some muddy field in rural Ulster explaining to the outside world that the north is over there and the south just through that farm gate.
Like a Game Of Thrones tourist attraction, the bridge between Belcoo in Northern Ireland and Blacklion in the Republic has become the stomping ground of journalists from home and abroad. The border is back in the international headlines.
And yet, finding a Brexit solution is not simply about the border or Northern Ireland or the relationship between north and south. It is about the future relationship of the Irish Republic with the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
It is about forging a new agreement between London and Dublin that meets with the approval of Brussels and the other 26 European states.
It is about creating the means whereby, when Brexit happens, the free movement of trade, people and services between the islands of Britain and Ireland will continue as tariff-free as possible, without unnecessary border delays and physical obstacles.
It is about ensuring that the unprecedented goodwill of recent years between London, Dublin and Belfast is built upon and not shaken, as it has been recently.
An open border - similar to that which exists today - can only be achieved if the free movement of people and goods continues.
Whether that can be secured through checkpoint technology, as London has proposed, remains in considerable doubt and far from fully explained.
Prime Minister Theresa May and the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar must patch their differences and, to do so, they might choose to draw on the history of Anglo-Irish trade agreements. They might care to look back at how their respective countries resolved trade disputes.
It is now forgotten, but 52 years ago this month the UK signed an historic Anglo-Irish free trade treaty in Dublin. The then British premier Harold Wilson and Taoiseach Sean Lemass did so because Ireland wanted to join the new European Economic Community. However, since Irish trade was inextricably linked to the UK, Dublin could only join the EEC if London did so as well.
Another Anglo-Irish trade treaty was signed in 1938 abolishing the punitive 20% tariffs both countries imposed on their respective imports in the aftermath of Irish independence. In 1965 the Republic exported 70% of its goods to the UK and 50% of its imports came from the UK. The treaty abolished tariffs between the two countries and allowed for the free movement of agricultural and industrial goods.
Now, half-a-century later, as Brexit beckons, a new trade agreement is necessary, especially for the agri-food industry in both parts of this island.
It is not special status for Northern Ireland that is needed, and which will unsettle unionists. The EU should consider special status for any future trade relationship between the whole of the UK and Ireland, preserving the free access of people, goods and services which we enjoy today.
UK-Ireland trade is valued at €1 billion a week. Around €3bn of goods cross the border each year. Northern Ireland exports 25% of its goods to the South.
Those of us who live on this island know that the border remains in political and cultural terms, if not in the shape of a customs post or security checkpoint.
It cannot be otherwise for as long as two distinctive different administrations share the governance of the island, and that remains likely for a long time. While the Good Friday Agreement allows us all to live with that reality, Brexit poses a huge challenge.
The ideal solution would be for the UK to negotiate an exit deal with Brussels that allows for free, tariff-less trade with the European Community, much as is the case today. That looks a very tall order.
Failing that, the British and Irish Governments should agree a new Anglo-Irish treaty, approved by Brussels, guaranteeing the free and open movement of people and goods between the two islands and between North and South.
Nowhere else in the EC are two countries as intertwined as the UK and Republic. Those unique circumstances require and deserve a unique arrangement. Just as Harold Wilson and Sean Lemass met in Dublin in 1965, Theresa May and Leo Varadkar need to do so now to build a new, stronger relationship between these islands out of the Brexit debacle.