Belfast Telegraph

We are in Humpty Dumpty land after Friday's EU agreement - a place where words mean whatever we want them to mean

Whatever impact the hastily cobbled-together accord has on Brexit phase two talks, the 'Irish question' hasn't gone away, writes Rick Wilford

If anyone had any doubts about the centrality of Northern Ireland and the border issue to phase one of the UK-EU talks, then Friday's "agreement" laid them firmly to rest.

Whereas on Monday last week the border and Northern Ireland, or rather the DUP, threatened to collapse the talks, by Friday they were pivotal in assuring a mutually acceptable, if interim, conclusion.

This has paved the way to the second phase of the talks that will initially address the transitional period and, thereafter, the UK's wider trading relationship with the EU.

In the space of three days Prime Minister Theresa May had persuaded her Irish counterpart (and thereby the EU as a whole), the DUP (grudgingly) and, thus far, Tory Brexiteers (or at least those who have so far gone public) that the negotiations must move on, intent as she obviously is on avoiding a "no deal" scenario (as an aside, I suspect we have now, thankfully, heard the last of the "no deal is better than a bad deal" mantra).

How she accomplished this diplomatic feat is apparent from the 15 paragraphs (42-56) devoted to Ireland and Northern Ireland.

As Jill Rutter of the London-based think-tank Institute for Government has observed, those paragraphs establish a triple-lock designed to resolve the land border question. First, and irrespective of the eventual outcome of the new trading relationship between the UK and the EU, the "agreement" reiterated the UK's guarantee that it would avoid the reinstatement of a hard border.

Secondly, if there is a failure to agree a new UK/EU trading relationship (ie "no deal"), the UK will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland - this looks remarkably akin to "special status" for Northern Ireland.

But, thirdly, if that should fail, the UK will maintain "full alignment with those rules of the internal market" (ie the single market) "and customs union" (ie EU rules) "which now or in the future support north-south co-operation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Belfast Agreement".

This safety-net provision implies, clearly, if push comes to shove and in order to secure a new trading relationship with the EU, that the UK will "align" with the rules of the customs union - although we do not, of course, have a clear understanding of what exactly such alignment means. We are in Humpty Dumpty land here, where words mean just what one wants them to mean. Yet, however one parses the term "alignment", it has much richer connotations for the advocates of a "soft Brexit" than their opponents.

This is not all. The document removes the threat to unionists of a border in the Irish Sea; restates the UK's full support for Northern Ireland's status as an integral part of the UK consistent with the principle of consent; ensures that Northern Ireland businesses will continue to enjoy "unfettered access" to the UK internal market, and seeks to ensure that no new regulatory barriers will impede access to that market. But who on Earth would seek to erect such barriers?

Furthermore, underscoring the continuing significance of north-south and east-west relationships under the terms of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, the document states that in the next phase of negotiations there will be a "distinct strand" of work dedicated to realising the details of the proposed arrangements between both Northern Ireland and the Republic and the UK and the island of Ireland. Thus, the new "Irish question" will remain centre stage throughout the wider negotiating process. So, even if special status for Northern Ireland/EU relations does not eventually materialise, Northern Ireland will certainly enjoy special attention during phase two negotiations.

There is also an implied incentive to restore devolution to Northern Ireland. Paragraph 50 of the document indicates that if none of its proposed arrangements are finally agreed, where a Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that "distinct arrangements" (both north-south and east-west) "are appropriate for Northern Ireland" (another nod to "special status"), they may be implemented provided they are consistent with the 1998 Agreement. That clause could certainly encourage a debate among our politicians about expanding the nature and extent of cross-border co-operation.

However, while nationalists would undoubtedly welcome such an opportunity, unionists would be much more cautious and probably highly reluctant to embark on such a path.

Such conflicting attitudes might merely reinforce stasis on the Hill and by themselves are unlikely to foster a further round of local inter-party talks.

So, where are we exactly regarding Brexit and Northern Ireland and the border? Quite frankly, still poised between very uncertain futures.

The immediate reaction to last Friday's document was essentially one of relief rather than celebration, and for arch-Brexiteers, muttered anger: they perceive the Prime Minister as having capitulated to the EU on the divorce bill, the European Court of Justice's continuing role (until 2025) and what they understand as the looming prospect of soft Brexit threatened by "alignment" to the customs union.

They, though, will draw comfort from the preliminary remarks in the document, which deploys what to us is a familiar phrase: "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed."

While the document has enabled the passage to phase two of the negotiations - the really difficult bit - the phrase, decoded, means "don't run ahead of yourselves, this could be nothing more than a wish-list".

That may indeed turn out to be the case. If anything, the fact that the UK Cabinet has yet to discuss - let alone agree - the Government's preferred end-state of the negotiations provides considerable pause for thought.

Though Brexiteer-in-chief Michael Gove (lest we forget, an opponent of the Good Friday Agreement) was at pains to praise the PM last Friday, he followed this up by stating that if voters dislike the final terms of withdrawal then they can change them at the next general election. As he put it, the UK electorate would, after the transition phase, have "full freedom to diverge from EU law on the single market and the customs union".

Gove's remarks are, in effect, a classic case of having one's cake and eating it: not surprising, perhaps, from a man ambitious to succeed Mrs May.

For now we are still in the foothills of the Brexit process, certainly no further on than base camp. While the border issue seems to have been resolved, how precisely it will remain seamless and frictionless - or 'bulletproof', to use Leo Varadkar's ill-chosen phrase - is by no means clear.

As the Victorian poet Arthur Clough puts it, "say not the struggle nought availeth". For both Leavers and Remainers alike, his poem conveys belief in perseverance and hope: an appropriate text for our troubled and divided times.

The struggle does, indeed, continue - not least at Westminster this very week.

Rick Wilford is Professor of Politics at Queen's University, Belfast

Belfast Telegraph

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