THE guarantees given by British Prime Minister Theresa May that there would be no re-introduction of a border between the Republic and Northern Ireland came because she was backed into a corner and wanted to be allowed move on to the second phase of the Brexit negotiations with the remaining European Union members. At face value, they are welcome and give the Irish government the assurances it wanted, but these promises must be kept in full.
After his indecisiveness in the Frances Fitzgerald fiasco, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar redeemed himself, politically, with the strong stance he took against the British government and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) efforts to sideline the Irish border issue until the second round of negotiations. Ironically, the deal hammered out at the end of last week was stronger for Ireland than the wording that the DUP rejected the previous Monday.
The British government’s other guarantee that there will be no border between Northern Ireland and Britain placated the DUP, who as a result of Sinn Féin’s lack of engagement, and in the absence of an Assembly there, purported to represent the people of the North even though they only speak for the minority up there who voted to leave the EU. Such a situation is an insult by both sides to all the people who voted in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections last March.
Britain will leave the single market and customs union, but has promised ‘full alignment’ with EU rules to ensure cross-border trading without tariffs, thereby protecting the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The financial settlement, or ‘divorce bill,’ payable on Britain’s departure from the EU on March 29th, 2019, was agreed at a nett sum of roughly €45bn and the third element of the first round of talks was a deal on rights of EU citizens living in the UK and of UK citizens living in the EU after the Brexit comes into effect.
The Withdrawal Agreement from the first phase of talks was ratified at this week’s European Council summit in Brussels and reduces the likelihood of a dreaded ‘hard Brexit’ that would have been far worse for Ireland than any of the remaining EU Member-States.
Its achievement is testament to all the hard work done by Taoiseach Varadkar and his Tánaiste Simon Coveney, their political and diplomatic teams, and officials whose efforts are often taken for granted. They did their work against a background of unfair and unseemly vilification by several British politicians whose ignorance of Ireland and contempt towards us was breathtakingly arrogant.
The second phase of Brexit talks will be even more important, focusing on how Britain will make its departure from the EU, which will have an inevitable effect on its trading relationship with Ireland.