Barnier/Davis press conference after first substantial round of Brexit talks.

Speaking after four days of negotiations, the Chief Negotiator for the EU, Michel Barnier, today said there had been some areas of agreement about how British citizens living abroad and EU nationals living in the UK should be treated after Brexit. However, he said the EU believes citizens’ rights should be backed by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Mr Barnier said a clarification of the UK’s position on settling its outstanding debts to the EU when it leaves was also needed.

He said: “A clarification of the UK position is indispensable for us to negotiate and for us to make sufficient progress on this financial dossier, which is inseparable from the other withdrawal dossiers…We know that agreement will not be achieved through incremental steps. As soon as the UK is ready to clarify the nature of its commitments, we will be prepared to discuss this with the British negotiators.”

On the pressing issue of the island of Ireland, there was a first discussion on the impact of Brexit on two key subjects: the Good Friday Agreement and the Common Travel Area. Mr Barnier said there was agreement that the Good Friday Agreement, “in all its dimensions, requires more detailed discussions.” In particular, “more work needs to be done to protect North-South cooperation between Ireland and Northern Ireland.”

There was also agreement that the UK should clarify in the next session how it intends on maintaining the Common Travel Area after leaving the EU.

Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, said talks had been “robust” but there was a lot to be “positive” about in terms of the overall negotiations.

The takeaway: there was scant evidence of progress in a press conference to mark the end of the first substantive round of Brexit talks. Both sides looked – and sounded- as far apart as ever on key issues, most particularly on EU citizens’ rights and the divorce bill. Michel Barnier said there was a “fundamental divergence” with the British negotiating team over the way that the rights of EU citizens in the UK would be guaranteed, adding that he needed clarity on the UK’s position on the Brexit bill. Brexit However, David Davis said “We shouldn’t expect incremental progress in every round [of talks].”

Three rounds of Brexit talks were scheduled in June: for August, September, and October. There will be an EU summit in late October, where EU leaders will decide on whether the UK has made sufficient progress on financial issues – the so-called ‘divorce bill’. Only then can the UK progress to trade talks with the EU.

The press conference came today after Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, confirmed the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will be debated in the Commons on Thursday 7th and Monday 11th September.

The UK Parliament is now in recess, and will return on 5th September.

French Presidential Election 2017 – the outcome.

There we have it. It’s been a tense election of sharp rhetoric, and discourse pondering the future of France. But the second round of voting came and went today. And France has a new President.

Emmanuel Macron – the pro-EU, social liberal-won with a decisive victory over the far-right Marine Le Pen that his supporters hailed as holding back the tide of populism.

Macron, who at 39 becomes the youngest French President since Bonaparte, is a former economy minister who ran as a “neither left nor right” independent. He promise to shake up the French political system, and took 65.1% of the vote to Le Pen’s 34.9%, according to initial projections from early counts. It is a stronger-than-expected victory, and a stunning achievement for a novice to electoral politics – Macron has never been elected to public office before.

The size of the victory margin however does not disguise the fact a section of the French electorate felt disenchantment. Pollsters said between 25%-26% of voters stayed away, meaning turnout at its lowest level for the second round of a French Presidential election since 1969. Among those who did vote, some 12% submitted a blank or other invalid ballot, indicating they did not support either candidate.

Yet the far-right can also take some comfort in its best electoral showing in French history. Although Le Pen fell well short of the presidency, her score is roughly double what her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, got in the second round in 2002. No doubt the anti-immigration, anti-EU Front National’s supporters will claim that on the back of this performance, the party has a central place as an opposition force in France.

Not too much comfort, however. This win also marks the third consecutive setback for European populist parties who preached a mix of Trump-style nationalism and protectionism to voters fed up with conventional politics. Austria saw pro-European Green Alexander Van der Bellen defeat far-right Norbert Hofer in the country’s Presidental election. To the Netherlands, which saw sitting Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) see off far-right Party for Freedom (PVV). France today ultimately decided to opt for politics of hope over hate.

Of course, there are challenges on the horizon. The next test for Macron and Le Pen — as well as the mainstream parties who for the first time failed to get a candidate through to the second round of a Presidential election — is next month’s Parliamentary election. Its outcome will determine whether Macron can translate his strong mandate into enough seats in the National Assembly, and a governing mandate to run France. Macron will have to remember that some of his voters today came from other parties across the political spectrum and turned out not in complete support of his programme, but to stop the Front National.

To win next month’s Parliamentary elections, Macron will have to defy political tradition once more. His own political movement, En Marche, was formed just last year and this will be the first time it has fielded Parliamentary candidates. And, even if Macron wins enough seats in Parliament to lead the government, he will face resistance from unions, a hostile left, and the far-right to his proposed economic reforms.

Challenges and battles lie ahead. Yet tomorrow will seem a little brighter after this result. The far-right once more could not achieve their objectives. Across Europe, the far-right, with its policies of fear and division, did not prevail.

And it will not prevail.

EU versus UK: pre-negotiations

Last Saturday, the leaders of the 27 remaining EU member states quickly agreed to a negotiating path towards a quick divorce deal with the UK. It is now up to the UK to agree to the guidelines so that the talks can begin. The main delay appears to be the UK election.

Despite the unpromising lead-up to Saturday’s summit in Brussels, including an awkward dinner between European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and mutterings about the UK blocking EU budget talks ahead of their elections, the EU27 held out clear prospects of compromise.

However, EU leaders did not appear wholly confident, with concerns mounting that the British Prime Minister still does not grasp how long, complex and difficult the path to agreement will be. The main fear seems to be that even if the Conservatives record a strong victory in next month’s General Election, Mrs May will not be willing to moderate her negotiating positions. Indeed, the converse might be true: bolstered with a strong showing, Mrs May might be more inclined to refuse to engage in compromise efforts.

The European Council’s guidelines  define the framework for negotiations under Art 50 TEU, and set out the overall positions and principles that the Union will pursue throughout the negotiation. The European Council is settling itself down for a bumpy ride, and it is not pulling its punches. In the Core Principles section of the guidelines, it writes:

It reiterates its wish to have the United Kingdom as a close partner in the future. It further reiterates that any agreement with the United Kingdom will have to be based on a balance of rights and obligations, and ensure a level playing field. Preserving the integrity of the Single Market excludes participation based on a sector-by-sector approach. A non-member of the Union, that does not live up to the same obligations as a member, cannot have the same rights and enjoy the same benefits as a member. In this context, the European Council welcomes the recognition by the British Government that the four freedoms of the Single Market are indivisible and that there can be no “cherry picking”. The Union will preserve its autonomy as regards its decision-making as well as the role of the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Basically: the UK cannot boast about a hard Brexit, seek to withdraw itself financially from the EU, but still expect to benefit. After all, you cannot have the benefits of club membership without paying your membership fees.

Under Agreement on arrangements for an orderly withdrawal, the European Council  strongly reiterates citizen’s rights:

The right for every EU citizen, and of his or her family members, to live, to work or to study in any EU Member State is a fundamental aspect of the European Union. Along with other rights provided under EU law, it has shaped the lives and choices of millions of people. Agreeing reciprocal guarantees to safeguard the status and rights derived from EU law at the date of withdrawal of EU and UK citizens, and their families, affected by the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the Union will be the first priority for the negotiations. Such guarantees must be effective, enforceable, non-discriminatory and comprehensive, including the right to acquire permanent residence after a continuous period of five years of legal residence. Citizens should be able to exercise their rights through smooth and simple administrative procedures.

The European Council also recognised the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland quandary, and seeks to limit any potential damage:

The Union has consistently supported the goal of peace and reconciliation enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, and continuing to support and protect the achievements, benefits and commitments of the Peace Process will remain of paramount importance. In view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required, including with the aim of avoiding a hard border, while respecting the integrity of the Union legal order. In this context, the Union should also recognise existing bilateral agreements and arrangements between the United Kingdom and Ireland which are compatible with EU law.

Whilst EU law must be recognised and upheld, the EU is willing to be flexible in any final agreement in order to prevent the imposition of a hard border.

Developing the guidelines was the relatively easy part, highlighting as they do the elements all member state agree on: the need to negotiate withdrawal terms before agreement on future relations, and prioritising citizens’ rights, the financial settlement, and border concerns — particularly for Ireland.

However, there is always going to be differences under the surface of the guidelines. And the risk of disagreement among the EU 27 on detailed aspects of the Brexit negotiations is high, largely because the interests of individual countries in the Brexit talks diverge as much as they do on any other issue. A key priority which is subject to different interpretations and interests is citizens’ rights. On the one hand, countries such as Poland and Lithuania are concerned about their own citizens now living and working in the UK. On the other hand, countries such as Spain and Malta have a primary interest in the fate of British retirees who live in those countries, and the related costs for health care and other services.

The European Council has prepped its hand. It put on a strong, unified showing in its swift agreement on the guidelines. But for how long will it stay unified?

Fast forward to this week, and it is the turn of the European Commission to lay down its cards in advance of the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.

The EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, presenting the European Commission’s proposed negotiating directives today, said it was wrong to try to make people believe the separation will be a painless process with no impact on people’s lives. He added that it was not the European Commission’s intention to “punish” the UK for leaving the bloc.

He hinted the talks process will be long and complicated, and warned no one should expect a quick deal:

“Some have created the illusion that Brexit would have no material impact on our lives or that negotiations can be concluded quickly and painlessly. This is not the case.

“We need sound solutions, we need legal precision and this will take time.”

Barnier said in order to ensure the talks succeed and agreement is reached, the UK “must put a great deal of energy and effort” into reaching agreement on key three areas: borders (especially between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), the rights of EU citizens, and the process for calculating a financial settlement.

It was said that the so-called divorce bill – now estimated at €100bn (£84.5bn) -was not a punishment for the UK leaving, but rather a “settling of accounts”.

Barnier made sure to highlight the remaining 27 member states’ show of unity at last weekend’s summit.

It is evident that the looming negotiations will not be straightforward – perhaps much to the displeasure of the British government, especially if time is spent wrangling over the divorce bill. ‘Take Back Control’ must seem like a distant memory, now.

I for one welcome the stance taken by the EU institutions pertaining to the island of Ireland. It is great to see the EU confirm it will attempt to be as flexible as possible when considering the imposition of a border. It certainly makes a change from the endless refrain of “no return to the borders of the past” from the British government…

French Presidential Election: Second Round

I recently wrote the night before the French electorate took to the polls to vote in the first round of the Presidential election. I thought I would write an update post following the outcome of the first round of voting.

As predicted, no candidate won a majority. The pollsters were vindicated. Consequently, a run-off election between the top two candidates, Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! and Marine Le Pen of the National Front will be held on the 7th May 2017.

Macron, a pro-European centrist, took first place with 24.01% of the first round voting, while the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Le Pen came second on 21.30%, according to final results released Monday by the French Interior Ministry. This marks highest-ever voting tally for the National Front party – Le Pen’s advancement to the second round is not without precedent as her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to a runoff against the then-incumbent Jacques Chirac in 2002.

After their respective eliminations in the first round, both François Fillon and Benoît Hamon called to vote for Emmanuel Macron, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon refused to pronounce in favour of either candidate, preferring to first consult activists from his movement. He has since issued a suggestion that his voters do not vote for Le Pen. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, however, has since endorsed Le Pen during the evening of 28 April. He was subsequently revealed as her choice for Prime Minister the following day.

The key take-away message? Out with the old, in with the new. France opted to dump its political establishment in a collective spirit of ‘now for something completely different’.

France’s two major parties — the Républicains and the ruling Socialists — were relegated to third and fifth place respectively. The Socialists, who just five years ago controlled every level of the French government, managed to get only over 6% of the vote.

It is the first time since the establishment of the fifth French Republic in 1958 that no candidate from the two main political parties of the left and right has made it into the second round of the Presidential vote.

Evidently, the majority of the French electorate sent a clear signal of their intent to see change. In Macron, they are now also a step away from putting a cosmopolitan, pro-EU, economically liberal non-politician into the Élysée.

Macron goes through to the second round as the clear frontrunner, with most voters expected to switch to him from mainstream defeated candidates. Le Pen, meanwhile, faces an uphill struggle.

Yet… concern remains with Le Pen’s candidacy. It is no surprise that European political leaders, including German ministers, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, all broke with tradition, and either congratulated Macron or called on the French to vote for him. Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate, urged his voters to vote for Macron, reminding them that there is a difference between a political rival, and “an enemy of the Republic”.

Going forward, Macron will continue to build on his pro-European, centrist message whilst Le Pen has made it clear she would intensify the nationalist, anti-Islamist rhetoric that propelled her into the second round. Interestingly, the Monday after the first round, she announced she was taking a leave of absence as leader of the National Front party to focus on the election campaign. (Clearly in the hope to appeal to voters with less extremist views.)

And don’t forget, whoever wins will have to work alongside the French Parliament. There’s a big question over whether either candidate is capable of achieving a parliamentary majority when that vote takes place in June.

Today, May Day, saw thousands of people marching in Paris in rival political rallies. Le Pen and Macron held overlapping rallies in the French capital at the same time as nationwide May Day union marches.

Currently, opinion polls are predicting Macron will win around 60% of the vote on Sunday. Le Pen is expected to claim around 40%. The race is on, and it is too early to call.

French Presidential Election: First Round.

Election fever is in the air – and I am not talking about Northern Ireland, or the UK. I am focusing on France, the citizens of which will take to the polls sooner than June.

This Sunday, France will vote  in the first round of a closely contested Presidential election. After a dramatic campaign, four candidates in particular are all in with a chance of making the top two, and qualifying for the decisive second round on the 7th May. The Presidential election will be followed by a legislative election to elect members of the National Assembly on 11th and 18th June (so France will also engage in more election fever in June. ‘Tis the season…)

Fun fact, part one: Incumbent president François Hollande of the Socialist Party was eligible to run for a second term, but declared in December 2016 he would not be seeking re-election in light of low approval ratings, making him the first incumbent President of the Fifth Republic not to seek re-election.

Fun fact, part two: This is the first French Presidential election in which nominees of both the main centre-left and centre-right parties were selected through open primaries.

‘Closely-contested’ in one way to describe the situation at hand. According to one of the final published polls from this week, just 72 percent of the electorate said they will cast their vote, meaning there are millions of French voters still undecided or planning to abstain.

You see, there is a crammed field, with some real characters in the mix. Moreover, the campaigning and voting is occurring against a heightened backdrop. This is an election held in a country which has endured numerous terrorist attacks (the most recent occurred just this week), is contemplating its own identity, is worried about its position in Europe and internationally, and finds itself at a political crossroads, requiring strong leadership in turbulent times.

There are five key candidates to consider and follow in tomorrow’s first round. Here’s how they got to where they are.

François Fillon of the Republicans, the victor of his party’s first ever open primary, and Marine Le Pen of the National Front had led the first-round opinion polls in November 2016 and mid-January 2017. However, the polls tightened considerably by late January, and after the satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné published revelations that Fillon possibly employed family members in fictitious jobs as parliamentary assistants, Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! (a party he formed barely a year ago) overtook Fillon to place consistently second in first-round polling. At the same time, Benoît Hamon of the Socialist Party won the party’s primary, entering fourth place in the polls. Yet, after strong debate performances, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of Unsubmissive France began to rise significantly in polls in late March, overtaking Hamon to place just below Fillon. Polls for the expected second round of voting further suggest that Fillon, Macron or Mélenchon would beat Le Pen, that Macron or Mélenchon would defeat Fillon, and that Macron would beat Mélenchon.

A reminder about the ‘main five’:

Fillon led a prolific political career starting from the early 1970s, and was Prime Minister from 2007-2012. The surprise winner of the primary of the right – the favourite, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, failed to even make the second round – is pushing liberal economic programme ending the 35-hour workweek in favour of a 48-hour workweek, dismissing 500,000 civil servants, abolishing the wealth tax, streamlining the labour code, and reforming the health insurance system. After the emergence of allegations of fictitious employment of family members, he initially said he would drop his bid if placed under formal investigation. He however continued his candidacy after such investigations began on 15th March.

This isn’t the first Presidential election for Len Pen. She stood in the 2012 Presidential election, and came in third with 17.90% of first-round votes. She rose within the ranks of the National Front, founded and once led by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, culminating in a bitter leadership struggle which she won in 2011. Her campaign programme prioritises the national interests of France and exit from the Eurozone, and emphasises her party’s traditional concern about security and immigration. She also focuses on socioeconomic issues and the sovereignty of the French state, on matters of currency, borders, the economy, and the rule of law.

Macron is the youngest candidate in the race, and is a former economy minister who has never run for elected office. He describes himself as “neither of the right nor the left”. He was appointed Deputy Secretary-General of the Élysée in 2012, and became Economy Minister in 2014, lending his name to the ‘Macron law’ to promote economic growth and opportunities. He founded the En Marche! movement in April 2016 before resigning from the Cabinet on 30 August. The most explicitly pro-European of the candidates, Macron intends to implement reforms to modernise the French economy.

Hamon, a left-wing critic of current President Hollande’s government, was the surprise winner of the Socialist primary in January 2017, which saw him roundly defeat former Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Hamon’s primary victory was driven in part by his support for a universal basic income.He negotiated the withdrawal and support of Yannick Jadot of Europe Ecology – The Greens in February, becoming the joint candidate of both parties. He also advocates for the legalization of cannabis, and reforming the structure of government to a Sixth Republic.

Denouncing the “liberal drift” of the party, Mélenchon left the Socialist Party in 2008 to found the Left Party. Like Le Pen, he also attempted a previous run in 2012, coming in fourth with 11.10% of votes, with the backing of the French Communist Party. However this time around, the fierce critic of the Hollande government launched his 2017 bid without consulting the Communist Party, instead choosing to found his own movement, Unsubmissive France.  He did win the Communist Party’s support, albeit by a narrow margin.  His programme underlines left-wing and environmental principles, including the establishment of a Sixth Republic, redistribution of wealth, renegotiating EU treaties, environmental planning, and protecting the independence of France, namely from the United States.

Phew. Are you still with me? Good.

The President is elected to a five-year term in a two-round election under Article 7 of the Constitution of France. Should no candidate secure an absolute majority of votes in the first round, a second round is held two weeks later between the two candidates who received the most votes. Based on both current polling and tradition, it seems likely this shall be the scenario upon the conclusion of the counting of tomorrow’s votes.

The official campaign began on the 10th April and ended at midnight on the 21st April. From midnight, neither candidates nor French media outlets were allowed to discuss the election. This is a long-standing tradition, which sees France’s Constitutional Council imposing a strict ban on election coverage to protect ‘the sincerity’ of the vote. Large French television outlets will commence posting exit polls an hour or so after the polls close; this will be around 7pm for most areas apart from the larger cities, where polls will close around 8pm.

Tomorrow, voting will commence at 8am, and some 47 million people are eligible to vote. Turnout figures will be released at noon and at 5 pm. At the last Presidential election in 2012, turnout was 79.5% in the first round. Pollsters expect a lower figure on Sunday. If it is substantially down, it could be good news for Le Pen as more of her supporters are determined to turn out. She will be looking to repeat history: in 2002, her father pulled off a huge upset in the first round, when turnout was 72%, to come second, and qualify for the runoff.

Once exit polls have been published, and the results start to become clear, expect the candidates to start giving statements. If, as expected, we will see no candidate emerge with an overall majority win, we will proceed to a second round. That means nine of the eleven candidates will see their candidacy stop after tomorrow. They will, however, have a role to play still by telling their supporters who to support in the second round. And the question becomes this: if Le Pen reaches the second round, will any of the nine aim to rally around her opponent, or will they suggest abstaining from voting?

Regarding the two surviving candidates: immediately, the second round starts. They will have to determine whether to change their talking points to appeal to new voters, or emphasis the same points.

French polls are traditionally topsy-turvy at best, and if the past few years have taught us anything, it is that polls in general are notoriously unreliable (see: UK General Election 2015, UK EU Referendum 2016, US Presidential Election 2016). Speculation abounds, but with tomorrow’s outcome, all we can really do is wait and see.

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.

Northern Ireland, Brexit, Consent, and the need for Special Status.

Tick tock, tick tock. The countdown to the triggering of Art 50 is slowly but surely winding down. We have merely two months until the UK Prime Minister’s self-imposed deadline of March 2017. I must confess I feel rather nauseous at the prospect.

As a young person living in Northern Ireland, who identifies as Irish and European, I dread the inevitable, prolonged negotiations. The uncertainty surrounding the outcome of same worries me, and I am less than impressed or reassured with the response of the British government towards Northern Ireland. Whilst we have genuine fears about the potential of an imposed border between the North and South, we are treated to something akin to a shoulder shrug and the ever-present comment of faux comfort: “we do not want a return to the borders of the past”. In Northern Ireland, this comment from the British government is on a par with the now infamous “Brexit means Brexit” (i.e. mockery and parody).

I had been involved in canvassing during the EU referendum in Belfast. I spoke to many people as they went about their day, and had noticed the general view was Northern Ireland would suffer a more negative impact from a potential withdrawal from the EU than the rest of the UK. True, there were those who believed withdrawing from the EU would save the UK money, and there were those who believed that the EU “interfered” in the UK. I remember explaining the role the EU played during The Troubles when it was still called the EC, providing funding and support for investment, peace projects, and cross-community work. The EU’s financial assistance continued to this day, I explained. Did they know our buses and trains benefited from EU funding? No, came the reply.

What was also noticeable was there were those who said to me, “what does it matter how we vote here? Everyone knows England will take us out”. This was a statement ringing with truth. The size of the potential electorate in England outmatched Northern Ireland. The majority of us might desire one outcome, but our vote would be a drop in the ocean compared to the overall vote from England. So whilst I felt strongly confident that both Northern Ireland and Scotland would vote remain, I was always nervous about the results in Wales and England. When the dust cleared and the result became known, I realised I had been right: 56% voted Remain in Northern Ireland, but it was smothered in the larger-than-expected Leave mandate from England and Wales.

I had watched throughout the campaign as the polls narrowed, but I was conscious of not pinning my hopes to the polls, given their performance in the 2015 General Election. Watching the polls narrow and spike, I asked myself how we had ended up in this mess, why David Cameron had gambled on the pledge to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in the Conservative manifesto n 2015, and how could this ever provide a fair playing field, given how all regions in the UK had different views, relationships and benefits when it came to the EU.

I voted on the 23rd June 2016, and came home with a sudden, sinking feeling. I did not feel optimistic about the results. It was foreshadowing in motion. I stayed up all night, and throughout the morning of the 24th June. I can recall watching with increasing nervousness the decisions across the UK flashing across my television screen, and soon realised that the UK had overall decided to leave. It was a surreal feeling. I felt shocked and disappointed at the decision; my friends felt the same way. My mobile screen was ablaze with messages and texts from friends wondering what on earth would happen to us in Northern Ireland. I suppose we felt uncertain: uncertain of the future, uncertain of Northern Ireland’s status and future, and simply uncertain in ourselves as a strand of our identity had essentially been voted away. I personally felt frustrated at the state of affairs which had been brought about to appease Eurosceptics, without any consideration for the devolved regions, their own history and political landscape. I was frustrated too that Northern Ireland and Scotland had voted to remain, but would have to leave regardless. Watching as the main broadcasters- ITV, the BBC and Sky News – announced the projected Leave result one by one in a parody of a domino effect, I realised I was watching an historic moment. And I felt sick to my core.

My Remain leaflets are still in my bedroom. I kept them, along with the leaflets posted fromm England and the official Leave campaigners. Sometimes I look at them, with their comments of “The UK gives £350m a year to the EU. Let’s fund our NHS instead”. I look at them, and I wonder whether faux facts and inaccurate statements are what is needed to win in politics.

EU referendum campaign

The EU referendum campaign in Northern Ireland was limited, and had commenced at a late stage. Whilst the South of Ireland had started drafting reports to examine the potential ramifications of a UK withdrawal in late 2015, Northern Ireland did not really seem to become engaged with the campaign until the spring of 2016. I think the politicians here were preoccupied with the Assembly election in May 2016; party leaders were unhappy at the decision of David Cameron to hold the EU referendum so close to the Assembly election. When the debate did get under way, it became a discussion along the traditional political lines of Unionism and Nationalism. Unionists generally favoured to leave, and Nationalists favoured to Remain. Most political parties supported the Remain campaign, from the SDLP and Sinn Féin to Alliance and the Green Party. The anti-austerity, socialist People Before Profit were the main advocates of ‘Lexit’.  The Ulster Unionists did not really seem clear on their position: the party stated it advocated Remain, but party MPs urged their supporters to vote Leave. The DUP, the largest party, argued for Leave, espousing the same lines from the British Leave campaigners regarding ‘taking back control of the UK’s future’. They were joined in the Leave camp by the TUV, the more hardline Unionist party led by ex-DUP member and former MEP, Jim Allister.

The SDLP were probably the most engaged party during the campaign, officially registering with the Electoral Commission, with canvassing and leaflet drops, and a strong social media presence. (It was with the SDLP that I took part in canvassing around Belfast, it was with the SDLP that I outlined the benefits of EU membership for NI and the need for NI to adopt an internationalist stance, and it was the SDLP I would soon come to officially call ‘my party’ when I joined in the summer after years of quietly supporting the party.)

The tone was perhaps not as divisive as it was across the water, but there was still sniping between the DUP, the main voice for Leave, and the rest of the parties. The campaign was simply incorporated into the Assembly election campaign, in that canvassing door-to-door included the candidate explaining their stance on the referendum. The main issue was the border, and there was a very real concern that it would be implemented if the UK voted to leave, triggering stark reminders of the past. The impact on trade, agriculture and business was discussed, but it was the SDLP who provided statistical evidence of the negative impact to the economy.

The campaign in Northern Ireland may have arrived late, but at least it arrived. Northern Ireland barely featured in the main, UK-wide coverage of the EU referendum, and the potential impact of Leave outcome. The referendum in my opinion had the effect of reinforcing the belief of many NI citizens that wesimply do not feature in UK-wide matters. The referendum coverage, via both the press and the televised media, focused on arguments pertaining mainly to England, and then sometimes Scotland. British politicians who were predominantly involved in campaigning and media coverage tended to be English. The sole UK Parliamentary report focusing on the consequences of withdrawal for NI was only finalised and published in late May, mere weeks before we would go to the polls. Our then Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, actively and openly campaigned for Leave, knowing full well the majority in Northern Ireland favoured Remain. Neither Ms Villiers, nor any of her fellow Leave campaigners could answer clearly whether border controls would be implemented in the island of Ireland. It was evident that no Leave campaigner had truly considered the issue. This very valid concern was simply dismissed, even as Ministers in the Republic commented on the possibility of same. The whole affair can be summarised in one point: the entire campaign centred around ‘Britain’s membership’ of the EU, and how ‘Britain’ would vote. The term ‘Britain’ both legally and politically referes to Scotland, England and Wales. Northern Ireland is only included in the UK. No one bothered to include Northern Ireland in the discourse and debate then. No one outside Northern Ireland bothers to do so now, not whilst reporters, politicians etc refer to ‘Britain’s exit’ and ‘Brexit’.

The fact that Theresa May has not appointed the Secretaries of State for all the devolved nations – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – as permanent members of her Brexit War Cabinet, informing them they will sit in when relevant, worries me.

Post-EU referendum

In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, Martin McGuinness, the deputy First Minister, demanded that a border poll be held. This however was swiftly rejected by the then-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers. Again, it felt as though NI could not have a say in its constitutional status, or future, without the approval of the British government. The GFA 1998 and Northern Ireland Act 1998 state a border poll would be permitted to be held by the British government if it was the will of the citizens. This however was not acknowledged by the British government last summer, and I doubt if it will be in the years to come.

The DUP Leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, was scathing of Mr McGuinness’ request for a border poll. She has said she would support a border poll, only so that it could put to rest “once and for all” Irish Nationalists’ quest for reunification. She believes a poll would result in a defeat for the reunification case.

The referendum has triggered new discourse on the future of Northern Ireland, and I have noticed more people discussing border polls and the potential case for reunification with the South. There is a feeling the British government in London does not understand or acknowledge the innate and natural differences in the states which comprise the UK. When Theresa May became Prime Minister, she stood outside Downing Street and spoke of the “precious, precious bond” of the Union. She later dismissed “divisive Nationalists” and their reaction to the Brexit vote at the Conservative Party Conference. This type of attitude, this type of rhetoric is evidence of the lack of understanding for the devolved regions and their genuine concerns and fears over Brexit. In my opinion, it serves only to alienate.

Impact of Brexit outcome

Ever since the vote, Brexit has dominated the discourse here. Nearly every week during plenary in the Assembly, Brexit is mentioned in some form. From discussing the impact it will have on funding for projects and schemes, particularly the impact on cross-community work funded by the EU peace fund, to implications for infrastructure, the economy, education and travel, MLAs are constantly asking questions and demanding answers and clarity. The Executive (comprised of the DUP and Sinn Féin) came under scrutiny last year when it was revealed that a report which assessed the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland was not published during the referendum campaign. It has been subjected to criticism for its lack of a unified position, which is complicated given the Executive is actually divided on the issue of Brexit, as the two parties promoted contrasting outcomes. Moreover, the Executive faced derision when it became apparent the only discourse it has engaged in with the Prime Minister was a short letter asking her to take note of the unique position of Northern Ireland. It has also been accused by the Opposition (UUP, SDLP and Alliance) that it has failed to act since the decision, given the work and consultations being carried out in Scotland and Wales in comparison. I think this brings the issue of how to clarify Northern Ireland’s position, its interests and issues relevant to negotiations, when the Executive is divided on the subject.

Special Status

Last year, the SDLP brought forward a motion in the Assembly about having a special status for Northern Ireland recognised by the EU given its history and Remain vote. The motion in full readThat this Assembly notes the current public concern arising from the European Union referendum vote; endorses the proposal of the Irish Government and others that there should be legal recognition of the unique status of Northern Ireland and the circumstances on the island as part of the arrangements to leave the European Union; believes that this is one mechanism that can safeguard the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, including future access to European Union funding opportunities; and calls on the British Government to fully endorse, and to negotiate for, this outcome in discussions on leaving the European Union.’ 

SDLP Party leader Colum Eastwood moved the motion, and argued:

The British Treasury, which is beginning to implement Brexit, has told us that a hard Brexit will cost the British Exchequer between £38 billion and £66 billion a year. What will that mean for Barnett consequentials and the Executive’s already tightened and straitened financial opportunities? What will that mean for us when it happens? People need to understand that, no matter how many glasses of champagne are poured, the British Tory party has no interest and does not care one jot for people in Northern Ireland. I am surprised that people have not learnt that lesson.

Since this happened, we have made it clear that our job here is to stand with the people who voted to remain in the European Union. Our job here is to protect their interests, not the interests of people anywhere else, not the interests of people on a different island or in a different jurisdiction. Our job is to protect people here. That is why we have to ensure that we maintain the four freedoms on the island of Ireland. That is why we have to ensure that our people have the right to move freely around this island and around the European Union. That is why we have to ensure that our businesses can trade freely without tariffs, borders or any impediments to business and growth around this island and the European Union.

That is why we clearly believe that, whilst the new mantra of the British Government is “We will not return to the borders of the past” — I think that that is the line that they keep trotting out — we need to ensure that we explain to people what that actually means. People who argued for Brexit need to be more honest about what that means. If we are not to have a border like we had in the past and if we are not going to control our border at Bridgend, Newry or anywhere across this island, where will we control it? My strong belief is that the only practical place and the best place to control the border into Britain is at Stansted Airport, Heathrow Airport or any port that you want to name, because it will not be possible to do it here.

SDLP Finance Spokesperson, Claire Hanna argued:

The Good Friday Agreement gave Northern Ireland supremacy in deciding our constitutional future. It recognised the dual identity — that people here can be British or Irish or both, as they so choose — and it gave equal status to those identities. Those who shout and roar about supporting this referendum can maybe update their response to the Good Friday Agreement, given that they believe that 52% is an overwhelming majority in this case. Under that interpretation of the Good Friday Agreement and recognising the 56% vote, only Northern Ireland can determine its constitutional status, and it is clear that a clear majority voted to remain.

The SDLP has always stood by the principle of consent, even when it supported a constitutional status that was not of our choosing or our liking. This is not just a technical issue. Please do not underestimate the importance, to nationalism in particular, of unimpeded access to the rest of this island and of the European Union, which was so pivotal in allowing sovereign Ireland and sovereign UK to work together as equals and as partners, underpinned a supernational link between the contracting parties to the agreement and provided validation to Northern nationalists that the two Governments were cooperating with equal status.

The motion was defeated by a single vote, with 46 MLAs supporting it and 47 against. All MLAs who are designated as Nationlist supported it, whilst all Unionist designated MLAs opposed it. The two PBP MLAs voted in both lobbies to have their votes negated. The two Green MLAs voted in favour, as did the Alliance contingent.

SDLP stance

The party had always made clear after the referendum result that it would use any legal, parliamentary and diplomatic options available had to try to protect the will and mandate of the people here. Since the referendum, the SDLP has used contacts in the Party of European Socialists, its sister parties across Europe, to try to make sure that the issues of Northern Ireland are realised and considered in Europe. The SDLP’s stance is that the future which was chosen by the English people was not that chosen by NI citizens. The First Minister in Northern Ireland and the Prime Minister in London must understand and respect this. Brexit will be considered with a determination to defend the Irish national interest, and to strongly advocate Northern Irish interests and needs. The NI Assembly must not consent to Brexit, given its uncertainty for NI and potential negative impact on the peace process and stability of the state. The Assembly should emulate its counterpart in Scotland, and resist any imposition of Brexit by the British government. The party argues for an Irish solution to the European problem. This Assembly and the Executive should now work with the Irish and British Governments to ensure that unique legal status is attained for Northern Ireland in the forthcoming negotiations. This status would ensure that any negative impact of a hard-Brexit would be minimised here.  It would mean that we would retain the four freedoms, including trade and movement, across the island. The party aims to ensure that any new border is around the island of Ireland, and not across it.  If Theresa May argues ‘Brexit means Brexit’, we argue that ‘consent means consent, and remain means remain’.

Issue of Consent

On that basis, the SDLP joined a cross-party legal challenge to Brexit in August 2016, submitting the principle of consent provided by the Good Friday Agreement was breached by the EU referendum. The legal challenge also argued that an equality impact assessment needed to be carried out regarding the impact of Brexit, and that the Assembly should be consulted and hold a vote on whether to invoke Art 50.

The Good Friday Agreement was a peace agreement between the British and Irish governments, and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland pertaining to the governance of Northern Ireland. The negotiations dealt with issues that had caused conflict, most notably the constitutional status of the north. On the constitutional question of whether Northern Ireland should remain in the UK or become part of an united Ireland, it was agreed there would be no change without the consent of the majority of citizens. This was the ‘principle of consent’. This is laid down per para (1)(ii) of the Agreement regarding the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, and the only grounds upon which it might be changed: parties agreed to ‘recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status’. This was provided as an ongoing commitment from both the British and Irish governments. Thus the legal challenge resides on the belief that the principle of consent might have been violated: the British government arguably did not uphold its commitment when holding the EU referendum. The majority of NI citizens did not wish to leave the EU, thus they did not consent to the change in constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The legal challenge was dismissed in the Belfast High Court, but the parties submitted their arguments before the UK Supreme Court in December 2016.

Ongoing quest for Special Status

In October 2016, as SDLP MPs questioned the UK Prime Minister about the impact of Brexit to Northern Ireland, Colum Eastwood went to Westminster to advocate for special status. He said:

“At Prime Minister’s questions today, we were once again subjected to Theresa May’s meaningless mantras on withdrawal from the European Union. She once again said that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and suggested there would be ‘no return to the borders of the past’ in Ireland. Unfortunately, she once again declined to detail what the border of the future will look like.

The British Prime Minister also said that Northern Ireland’s future will be decided peacefully and by consent. She may not have noticed but the people of Northern Ireland have not and will not consent to being forced out of the European Union…

Despite the rose tinted glasses the British Government, and their cheerleaders in the DUP, are wearing, it is communities in Northern Ireland that will be worst affected by withdrawal from Europe.”

In November 2016, to mark 150 days since the referendum, the SDLP published 150 questions for the Executive to answer. The questions ranged from economic and business questions on NI’s place in the single market, social questions on the effects on community and voluntary sectors, education questions on the status and impact on universities, and questions around the security and future faced by the farming community.

As the New Year arrived, Mr Eastwood vowed the SDLP would continue to lead the campaign for Special Status:

“As we collectively look ahead, Brexit remains the most significant threat hanging over this island. The inertia and uncertainty which has characterised the British Government’s and the Executive’s response to the referendum result has crippled confidence. For too long we have all been asked to tag along with meaningless mantras and the singular tactic of ‘wait and see’.

The achievement of special status for Northern Ireland does not require waiting for the conclusion of the overall British negotiation. Working with European partners and in particular with the Irish Government, a deal can be reached to bring certainty and security to this island even if it remains absent in Britain.”

Tick, tock. March 2017 is comng upon us. And my worry about the uncertainty of the impact of Brexit in Northern Ireland increases. I worry about any decline in choice for all citizens, given that withdrawing from the EU and the potential of a ‘hard’ Brexit would result in leaving the single market. This would mean in the end of free movement of people and services.The prospect of losing access to the EU Charter of Rights and Freedoms is worrying. The ECHR as enshrined in the HRA 1998 provides rights protection, but the EU Charter gives wider rights recognition and protection. Equally worrying is that, once outside of the EU, only the HRA 1998 will be present, but the Conservative government is adamant it will be repealed. Human rights protection and equality recognition is essential in NI, given our history of conflict, discrimination and sectarianism. We cannot afford to lose rights protection measures.

Many pro-Leave politicans have waxed lyrical about the opportunities Brexit presents the UK.  Call my cynical, call me pessimistic, but I cannot help but focus on the uncertainity, the loss of EU citizenship, the potential border imposition, of the impact on the NI economy, agri-food industry and farming communities.

And when we know the British government barely has any idea of what deal it hopes to acquire for the UK outside the EU, I am not exactly filled with confidence for the next two years.