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Turning the Brexit negotiating table on the 1998 Agreement

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Dr Anthony Soares

Deputy Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies

IN the run-up to last year's EU referendum and in the months that have followed much has been said about the threat Brexit poses to the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

The UK's withdrawal from the EU is the latest – although perhaps one of the most serious – in a long line of events casting its shadow over a political settlement whose nuances and compromises can often be a source of frustration for some.

Because the Agreement relies on the functioning of a complex and interrelated set of relationships within Northern Ireland, between the north and the Republic, between the island of Ireland and Great Britain, as well as between the Irish and UK Governments, it can be seen as enormously fragile.

Seeking to avoid damaging the 1998 Agreement seems to be the approach being taken by the main players around the Brexit negotiating table.

Its importance was underlined by the directives setting out the European Commission's negotiating position, which includes arriving at a Brexit that does nothing “to undermine the objectives and commitments set out in the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts”. In other words, is what we have come up with as a Brexit deal going to damage the 1998 Agreement?

While we at the Centre for Cross Border Studies certainly share others' concerns on how Brexit may threaten the Agreement, especially in regards to cross-border cooperation, we think it's now time to think of it differently.

Instead of seeing it simply as a problem to be solved during the negotiations, it should be seen as the “flexible and imaginative” framework capable at least of maintaining the totality of socio-economic relations within and between these islands, if not even of providing a template for the UK's post-Brexit relations with the EU as a whole.

It's not a weak point – it's a strength. The Irish and UK Governments and the European Union have all placed the 1998 Agreement on the negotiating table, and the European Commission has said it will do nothing to undermine it in all its parts.

And here's the crux: the strength of the Agreement will only be felt if it's seen as encompassing the totality of relations within and between these islands – it's three strands and their respective institutions; it becomes a weakness if one set of relations is privileged to the detriment of the others.

To go down this road is to face the cul-de-sac of the hardening of an existing border or the creation of a new one, unacceptable to one side or the other.

If we opt for the alternative path, valuing all three strands of the Agreement equally and not contemplating one or other of them with indifference, suspicion or downright hostility, then we will open up wider avenues for ourselves.

To arrive here we need to remember that the Republic will continue to form part of the institutions under Strands 2 and 3 of the Agreement (the North South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council, and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference), and it's the EU Member State that has been recognised as likely to suffer the most from Brexit.

With this in mind, the Centre for Cross Border Studies proposes two possible models using the framework of the 1998 Agreement: one where goods, services and citizens should be able to move freely between the Republic of Ireland and the UK, although what travels from the UK cannot move freely from the Republic further into the EU; and another where goods from Northern Ireland would have access to the Republic and the rest of the EU, but without disrupting trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK or undermining its constitutional position.

What we're proposing is certainly ambitious and undoubtedly challenging, not least to the UK Government, which would need to adopt an entirely different approach to its relations with Northern Ireland and the other devolved administrations, as well as it how it deals with the EU post-Brexit.

Above all, it cannot function without the part of the 1998 Agreement that's currently absent: the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive.

With the clock loudly ticking to March 2019 when the UK will have left the EU, it's more urgent than ever that we have an Assembly and Executive in place and recommitted to the 1998 Agreement in all its parts.

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