Northern Ireland news

In the crazy world of Brexit we're all winners – and losers

Boris got Brexit done and did over the DUP in the process, while Dublin and Brussels ended up securing most of their negotiating aims. As the clock ticks down to the UK's formal departure tonight from the EU, political correspondent John Manley assesses where the north now stands

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during October's breakthrough Brexit meeting in Cheshire. Picture by PA

IT'S now widely acknowledged that Ireland and the border that separates the island wasn't a major issue in the debates that preceded the 2016 EU referendum.

In the aftermath of the UK electorate's decision to leave, however, it became the key issue of contention, dominating more than three years of Brexit negotiations.

In the weeks after the vote, London and Dublin made clear that they did not wish to see "any return to the borders of the past".

This rather glib form of words, uttered many times subsequently, reflected the conundrum in which the UK government and EU found themselves as they sought to uphold the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement by maintaining an open, free-flowing frontier between the north and south of Ireland.

When Mrs May signalled in her Lancaster House speech of January 2017 that she was determined pursue a hard Brexit that would see the UK leave the EU customs union and single market, the Irish government realised it needed some kind of insurance policy.

“I don’t want to be alarmist about it but this is a political challenge here," Taoiseach Enda Kenny said at the time.

Ian Knox cartoon 31/1/20 

Meanwhile, north of the border the case was being made for "special status" for Northern Ireland – a loose concept that meant the region remained closer to the EU than Britain.

In June 2017, following a disastrous decision to call a snap general election, Mr May's minority government was forced to enter into a confidence and supply deal with the DUP.

While designed to make Brexit's passage easier for the Tory government, it effectively gave Arlene Foster's party a veto over anything that it found unpalatable, such as proposals for a Northern Ireland-only backstop.

The DUP leader's intervention in opposing any divergence between the north and Britain saw Mrs May revise her plans. However, even with support from Northern Ireland's non-unionist parties and business organisations, it too met with resistance and despite several efforts and a delay in the UK's departure, Mrs May's withdrawal agreement failed to get through parliament, ultimately leading to her demise in June last year.

The chaos and chicanery continued for months under Boris Johnson, alongside another extension to Article 50, with the threat of the UK crashing out of the EU a constant possibility.

The DUP had already conceded to a so-called border in the Irish Sea in exchange for Stormont's consent when Johnson and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar met in Cheshire in mid-October, thrashing out the deal that would later form the basis of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill that was ratified at Westminster earlier this month by a new Tory government; the DUP jettisoned, its blood red lines bent and broken.

The UK leaves the EU at 11pm tonight and an 11-month transition period begins but, as Mr Varadkar recently noted, "it's only half-time for Brexit" and many issues remain unresolved.

With the possible exception of English Brexiteers, nobody regards the circumstances under which the UK leaves the EU tonight as ideal. However, it can be argued that while the Brexit process is far from complete, the EU and the Irish government have so far managed to secure much of what they set out to get from the negotiations.

RTÉ Europe correspondent Tony Connelly agrees, saying the key objectives of ensuring no hard border, protecting the all-Ireland economy, and preserving north-south cooperation have all been met with the "pressure point not on the land border but in the Irish Sea".

"They are largely satisfied with what they achieved but privately I don't think the Irish government are hugely delighted because it does leave a bitter taste in Northern Ireland and businesses are disillusioned by the way Boris Johnson handled the whole thing," he told The Irish News.

"And it does leave open the possibility in the future that Stormont could decide it doesn't want these arrangements any more and we're back to a hard border."

However, the Derry man - who became a go-to journalist across Europe during the Brexit negotiations - acknowledges there are potential problems ahead for trade across the Irish Sea.

"There is certainly the potential there for friction, especially if there is a fair degree of divergence between the UK and EU, which would see the Irish protocol much more strictly enforced."

He characterises the agreed arrangements as "lower case special status", which sees Northern Ireland in the UK's customs territory but operating under the EU's customs rules.

"It's in the UK but it has completely frictionless access to the single market, which is definitely special circumstances," says Connelly.

The SDLP's former Brexit spokeswoman Claire Hanna also believes the north has achieved special status in that "it’s different from GB".

But she too is concerned about future trade with Britain, which - as the DUP has pointed out on numerous occasions - is the north's main market.

"Unless UK government change tack on regulatory alignment, trading access will be problematic for many businesses," she says.

In regards to Mr Johnson's assertion that there'll be no checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea, the South Belfast MP says: "It’s hard to tell whether he really doesn’t get it or is just spoofing – I think it’s the former."

Ulster University economist Esmond Birnie agrees that the EU did well out of the negotiations but he also believes that the British government achieved a reasonably successful outcome.

"There is an argument that in good negotiations everybody gets something, so nobody feels done over," he says

"Yes, the EU were successful, but if you take the view, as some do, that the they sought to make Brexit so unpalatable to the UK that it collapsed then it appears Boris Johnson and the Brexiteers were also successful."

Apart from noting that Brexit is going ahead, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson declines to say who had won or lost in the negotiations. He is now more concerned with creating a consensus that can help overcome any issues that will arise due to a regulatory border between Britain and Northern Ireland.

He acknowledges that a majority of people in the north opposed Brexit and welcomes the emergence of what he terms a "unified approach" from Stormont.

"I know that the special arrangements that have been put in place during the transition period will continue cause concern not only for politicians but for businesses too," he says.

"It's important that we work together as politicians with the business community to ensure the government mitigates the impact of those measures."

Not for the first time, Northern Ireland stands at a crossroads, its future course dictated largely by outside forces and events beyond the control of the Stormont administration.

It would appear that most of the complications arising from the new arrangements will affect businesses, though longer-term economic and political implications cannot be overlooked.

The past three years will have served as a hard lesson for the DUP, which jumped aboard the Brexit bandwagon without fully considering the self-harming consequences.

Meanwhile, the rest of us have come to appreciate the folly of embarking on a major project without a plan.

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