Ireland, Brexit, and borders.

The rate and extent of the work undertaken by the Irish Government in preparation of the UK invoking Art 50 and triggering Brexit negotiations is staggering. It is also expected: the Irish Government started to research to investigate the impact of Brexit would have in the Republic of Ireland in 2015. The Irish Goverment is aware of the potential impact on its economy and trade, and wishes to be as informed going into negotiations as possible.

Last year, in the immediate aftermath of the EU membership referendum held in the UK, the Irish Cabinet held an emergency meeting. The Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, warned about the potentially serious implications of Brexit for the Irish economy and the severity of the consequences for the public finances.

The Irish Government then announced it had adopted a Contingency Framework to identify key policy issues to be managed by Government Departments in the event of Brexit.

The Contingency Framework is being coordinated by the Department of the Taoiseach. It is based on preparations, including contributions and responses from Government Departments to identify the key strategic and sectoral issues arising from Brexit. The Irish Government said this framework would ensure the Government and its Departments could focus on key policy areas and issues to be addressed in any negotiations, with a view to minimising potential operational risks likely to arise.

The Taoiseach said:

“The result of the Referendum means that the people of the UK have declared their wish to leave the EU.  It is important to be clear: the UK has not actually left the EU.  Until it formally withdraws from the Union, the UK remains a full Member, with all of its existing rights and obligations.

Today’s result marks the beginning of a new phase of negotiated withdrawal – one that is expected to take place over at least two years and possibly longer.

Businesses can continue to trade as normal and people can continue to travel as normal between Ireland and the UK, including Northern Ireland.

In the meantime, the Government has adopted an initial Contingency Framework to map out the key issues that will be most important to Ireland in the coming weeks and months. This will be an iterative process as issues emerge and recede in the course of negotiations.”

Identified priority issues included: UK-EU Negotiations, British-Irish Relations, Northern Ireland, North-South Border Impacts, Trade, Investment, Competitiveness and Macro–economic issues, and Research/Innovation funding and Energy.

The Contingency Framework will aim to track and monitor issues over such time as they arise: (i) period immediately following referendum; (ii) pre-negotiation period; and (iii) period of negotiations. The Contingency Framework would enable Ministers, Departments and Agencies in tracking and adapting the detail of contingencies and risk management strategies arising in each of the key strategic, policy and operational areas previously identified. It was expected that more areas and issues would be added as the terms and conditions of the new UK/EU relationship evolve going forward.

The Irish Government noted that:

Detailed negotiation strategies will be prepared on each of the key points for use in negotiations in Brussels, London, Belfast and other capitals as appropriate.  It is important to recall that Ireland – as a committed Member State of the EU – will work within the EU context.  At the same time, Ireland has unique bilateral interests with the UK, including with regard to Northern Ireland, and the Government will also have to work bilaterally in close contact with the UK Government and the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland.

The attention paid by the Irish Government to undertaking Brexit preparations and identifying issues of relevance and importance to the Irish Republic is impressive – especially when compared to the work undertaken by both the Northern Irish Executive and indeed, the British Government. As part of the its Brexit contingency planning, the Irish Government ensured a number of existing structures were in place to be utilised to manage the process on a whole-of-government basis. Such structures include:

  • The Cabinet Committee on EU Affairs and the Senior Officials Group that supports it;
  • The joint UK Permanent Secretaries/ Irish Secretaries General group and its North-South equivalent;
  • A senior official in every Government Department has already been identified to oversee this issue.  All Departments will now supplement this arrangement with a Top Management sub-committee specifically dealing with the implications of this development for their area of work;
  • Department of the Taoiseach chairs an Interdepartmental group of senior officials that has been meeting regularly to look specifically at the bilateral and national interests affected by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU;
  •  A wider consultative group of stakeholders chaired by Department of the Taoiseach comprising key business representative groups, ICTU and NGOs;
  • The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade will continue to use the expertise of the Export Trade Council to advise Government on this issue. The expertise of the Council will be focused on the issues arising from the UK’s disengagement from the EU; and lastly
  • The work of the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council will become more important as mechanisms to develop the detailed outworking of policy issues arising.

By October 2016, the Irish Government announced its intent to increase its Brexit preparatory work by announcing it would host an All-Island Civic Dialogue to seek broad based views on all-island implications of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. A broad range of civic society groups, trade unions, business groups and non-governmental organisations as well as representatives of the main political parties on the island attended the Dialogue, in held early November 2016 in Dublin.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said it was time to “intensify our engagement” after Theresa May announced the UK Government would invoke Art 50 in March 2017. Following the British Prime Minister’s announcement of her self-imposed deadline, the Irish Government met and agreed to intensify preparations; particularly through closer political and official engagement, including with Northern Ireland, the British Government, and the EU institutions and fellow Member States, and through increased dialogue with civic society. After this meeting, the Taoiseach reaffirmed the Irish Government’s priorities were the economy and trade, the peace process and Northern Ireland, and the EU Common Travel Area. He said:

“Now that we have clarity from Prime Minister May regarding the timetable, we will intensify our engagement and preparation for the negotiations. Ireland faces unique challenges from Brexit, not least given the all-island issues that arise.
I will continue to engage with Northern Ireland party leaders on the range of issues involved and I welcome the commitment of the Executive parties to working through the issues in the context of the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC). The next NSMC Summit, on 18 November in Armagh, will be hugely significant, when we will have completed our Brexit audit of North/South programmes and will consider how we can best protect the peace process and North-South interests in upcoming negotiations…”

However, working with the Northern Ireland Executive and political party leaders has proven to be quite the bumpy ride. For example, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Arlene Foster said there was “no need” for the All-Ireland Civic Dialogue. She told an event at the Conservative Party conference that such a summit would lead to “grandstanding”. In contrast, the DUP’s partner party in the Executive, Sinn Féin, supported the idea. (Sinn Féin would attend the Dialogue, along with the SDLP and Alliance. The DUP and UUP did not attend.)

Moreover, the DUP consistently argued that existing cross-border bodies could be used to work out the implications of Brexit on the island of Ireland, and there was no need to established new and specific bodies or working groups. However, Sinn Féin have spoken of the need to work closely with the Irish Government outside of current cross-border bodies, evidence if needed of the disunity within the Executive in relation to Brexit.

In addition, attempting to work with the Northern Ireland Executive, most particularly on the issue of the border, is not aided when the British Government seemingly has no clue or consistent stance. In June 2016, a few days before the EU referendum was held, the then Home Secretary Theresa May said it was “inconceivable” that there would not be any changes on border arrangements with the Republic of Ireland in the event of a Leave vote. Whilst acknowledging the British-Irish Common Travel Area pre-dated the EU, she suggested that if the UK withdrew from the EU, this result in tariffs which would need some form of controls.

Fast forward to July, and now Prime Minister Theresa May revised her position. During a visit to Northern Ireland, she said whilst a border would happen, “nobody wants to return to the borders of the past”. If that doen’t cause headaches enough, the division between the First and deputy First Minister will. Martin McGuinness stressed there should not be a hard, visibile border and said that the Prime Minister needs to consider the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland:

“On the issue of Brexit, I speak for the people of the north and the people of the north who are unionists, nationalists and republicans made it clear that they see their future in Europe.”

However, Mrs Foster said politicians had to work for everyone in Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland was part of the UK, so had to work within the UK plan.

“We all know that there was an election in May of this year and the Democratic Unionist Party, as a result of that, has 38 members [of the assembly] and he [Mr McGuinness and Sinn Féin] has 28 members, so I think that jointly we speak for the people of Northern Ireland together…

“We should be looking to achieve what is best for all the people of Northern Ireland and not try to make political point scoring out of what has occurred.”

To be fair to the Executive, it has at least been firm and consistent in its approach, for all that it contains two opposing stances. The British Government’s approach keeps twisting and turning.

Theresa May was accused of reversing her position on post-Brexit border controls in September 2016. After her comments in July 2016 as previously outlined, in her first interview as Prime Minister with a journalist from Northern Ireland she said she wanted to see continued free movement. Mrs May said she agreed with the Irish government and Northern Ireland Executive about ensuring there was not a “return to the borders of the past”. On tat basis, she would work “closely together” with them to ensure free movement across the border. She denied that she had changed her view, and when questioned on how the border would be policed or controlled after Brexit, said:

“We are discussing with the Irish government at the moment how we can develop these ideas in ways that are going to ensure that we deliver on the intention of all parties.”

Evidently these discussions and also engagements over more general issues are successful (see: sarcasm) because the Irish Government criticised the British Government over its Brexit strategy in late 2016. As frustrations grew over the lack of clarity and certainty in the British intentions, and the British Government’s refusal to outline objections, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan said the “mixed messaging was a matter of concern” given that six months had passed since the referendum. He added:

“I want to see a plan. After six months we should be moving now from slogans towards having a clarified plan. I don’t see evidence of that, and I find that regrettable.”

Such exasperation is understandable. As the British Government has not outlined its objectives, the Irish Government – and indeed, the Northern Ireland Executive – is none the wiser about whether the British Government intends to lobby for the UK to remain in the Single Market, or seek an alternative arrangement. In the absence of any replacement agreement, the Republic would be required to impose a tariff on goods entering from the North and the rest of the UK, with Irish goods seeing a tariff imposed when they enter the North and the rest of the UK.In addition, the lack of clarity in relation to the British objectives means the implications for the common travel area between Ireland and the UK, which allows an open and invisible border between North and South, are also uncertain. Given the extensive investigative and preparatory work undertaken by the Irish Government compared to the British Government, little wonder then Mr Flanagan and the rest of the Irish Cabinet are frustrated, and wary of the forthcoming negotiations.

If the Irish Government did not have enough to contend with, given the British Government’s habit of reversing its position and not clarifying its objective, it now has a policial storm in the North to monitor.

As the RHI scandal runs on, it should be remembered that the designated date for invoking Art 50 and triggering Brexit draws closer. The risk of an early Assembly election could not have been more ill-timed. Should Sinn Féin decide to walk out of the Assembly, or the DUP decide to show their hand and call an election, we will have a prolonged period where Northern Ireland lacks an administrative government. Were this to occur close to the March deadline, control could be transferred back to Westminster, and a British Government which boasts a pro-Leave majority.

Apparently this is a growing concern within the Irish Government, which fears the political chaos in Northern Ireland and potential transfer of control back to London might result in a ‘hard’ Brexit. The Irish Government is concerned that if there is no Stormont representation, then the Republic’s hand in the negotiations would be weakened. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic do not want a hard border or restrictions on the Common Travel Area. Both wish to see the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process recognised and respected. The Irish Government would certainly prefer to partner with the Northern Ireland Executive, not the British Government on these issues.

Essentially, the Irish Government is that student who has their coursework completed and submitted far in advance of the deadline. The Northern Ireland Executive is trying, but is currently in the grip of a writing crisis. And the British Government? It is the student who swears they have their coursework completed, but actually waits until the night before, staring at a blank Word document in rising panic.

We can only wait and see what happens during the negotiations, but I hope the British Government does not reverse its position the border again. It is only too clear that the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive must work together to secure their shared objectives and advance their interests.

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