IT is good to note that co-operation between the Irish government and the Northern Ireland Assembly on reacting to the inevitable changes that Britain leaving the European Union will bring is back on track after a rather shaky start in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote.
Straight after the UK referendum at the end of June on whether to remain in or leave the EU, Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced his intention to form an all-island forum in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Assembly to liaise on matters of mutual concern resulting from the fall-out of the Brexit decision. However, he did so without consulting Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster in advance and – embarrassingly for the Taoiseach – she refused to get involved, maintaining that there were already enough cross-border fora in existence through which they could consult.
This remains her position and, in the five months since then, relations between her and the Taoiseach had been somewhat frosty until her goodwill visit to Dublin last week ahead of Friday’s North South Ministerial Council meeting in Armagh at which the problems Brexit could create for the two jurisdictions were discussed. Ms Foster and her Democratic Unionist Party campaigned for the leave side in the UK referendum, however the majority of voters in the North of Ireland wanted to remain in the EU.
Like the people of Scotland also, it looks as if they will be forced to leave whether they like it or not along with the rest of the so-called United Kingdom. Probably the only way the North could stay in the EU would be if they opted for a United Ireland, which is highly unlikely given that First Minister Foster’s DUP is the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and for her to even countenance such a proposition would be political suicide.
A United Ireland would be very practical and convenient, given that it would remove the prospect of a land border between the European Union (including the Republic of Ireland) and the United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland) on the western front. There is agreement on both sides that a ‘hard’ border – with customs posts, etc – would be a non-runner and the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson was adamant that it would not work anyway because there are a lot more sophisticated methods for people to get across borders nowadays.
This view may not necessarily be endorsed by the European powers-that-be, who will not be as polite as we are to our nearest neighbours because of their decision to leave the EU. They will not want unchecked free movement of all people between here and the North.
What makes the Brexit issue so difficult to deal with is that a lot of its potential effects are unknown at this stage and cannot be properly ascertained until during the two years of negotiations that will only start when Britain triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to officially begin the departure process – and that probably won’t be until next Spring at the earliest. As former British Prime Minister David Cameron said before the referendum, the only certainty a Brexit vote would bring would be uncertainty; ironically, he got that much right!
This means that, if the Irish alliance is to be properly prepared to face what is coming down the line, a lot of detailed planning for a raft of different potential scenarios will have to be considered. While many of them would be hypothetical, they still need to be explored and this will involve a massive amount of work and co-operation between North and South to ensure that their common objectives are catered for.
There will also need to liaise with Scotland where the majority of the people and – in its case – politicians also are adamant they would prefer to stay in the EU. There certainly is a case to be made for more flexible arrangements between the Republic of Ireland and the North than there would be between the British mainland and the rest of Europe, especially as we are likely to be the EU country most seriously affected by Brexit economically.
We already took the hit for the bail-out of the banks and saved Europe’s blushes. Our fragile economic recovery cannot afford another big blow from Brexit and the European Union needs to recognise this fact when the negotiations on Britain’s departure eventually get under way.