Owen Polley is a writer, commentator and consultant, who previously worked for the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland and co-authored ‘An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit‘.
It may once have been possible to hold a negotiation like Brexit in an atmosphere of diplomacy and relative calm, but social media has put an end to that.
Every rumour or development is now surrounded by a cacophony of virtual shrieking and shouting – chiefly on Twitter – before it is either explained or properly understood, and there were some reactions in this heightened tone to reports that Britain is close to agreeing an ‘Irish border deal’.
Yesterday’s Times claimed that the UK is prepared to devolve powers to Northern Ireland that “enable customs convergence with the Irish Republic on areas such as agriculture and energy”.
When it picked up the story, the Belfast Telegraph chose the headline, “Northern Ireland may stay in the single market under border deal tabled by London”. By this interpretation, the Government intends to break its promise that the whole UK will leave the Customs Union, capitulating to demands from the EU, the Republic of Ireland, and other Irish nationalists.
A number of Democratic Unionist politicians responded to this perceived threat, with varying degrees of tact. Arlene Foster warned that “there can be no arrangements agreed that compromise the integrity of the UK single market”. The BBC reported that Ian Paisley Jr said Britain, “should not seek convergence with EU regulations after Brexit”.
Sammy Wilson, the MP for East Antrim, struck the most confrontational note, implying that his party may be prepared to withdraw its support for the Conservative administration at Westminster, “if there is any hint that…. they’re prepared to have Northern Ireland treated differently than the rest of the UK, then they can’t rely on our vote”.
We don’t know in detail yet what the Government is proposing, but it has reportedly developed its position paper on the Irish border, which set out practical arrangements aimed at minimising disruption to trade. At the time, the document was dismissed disdainfully by the EU Commission, whose chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, described it as ‘magical thinking’.
Yet a limited commitment to ‘convergence’ in areas like food safety, animal health and energy markets, which are particularly closely aligned with the Republic, is very different from an agreement to keep Northern Ireland in the Customs Union (or the Single Market). There are already, for instance, controls on moving animals across the Irish Sea, so these proposals need not create the type of ‘internal UK border’ that unionists vehemently oppose.
The government plans to incorporate all existing EU standards and regulations into domestic law, as part of the Brexit process. The UK also intends to keep trading with Europe, whatever the shape of a final deal, which means that, by necessity, most exporting firms will continue to conform with Brussels’ requirements for the foreseeable future. The potential for widely different rules is probably exaggerated.
If the Times report is accurate, the Government suggests that Stormont, or whoever is then in charge of the powers it plans to devolve, keeps up with the latest EU developments in a limited number of areas.
Agriculture and energy are specialist sectors that were always going to prove difficult to untangle cleanly. The other industry that has been mentioned, pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, is highly internationalised and the drive to harmonise standards will continue irrespective of Brexit.
DUP politicians will want to ask themselves whether these arrangements are likely to affect Northern Irish trade with Great Britain adversely, or if they’re simply a realistic approach to sections of the economy that were likely to remain closely linked across the British Isles anyway.
There’s no merit in creating problems, or inventing dubious points of principle, so long as the movement of most goods across the Irish Sea and Northern Ireland’s access to any trade deals that London negotiates are unlikely to be affected.
It’s possible to understand the difficulties that Brexit creates for the Dublin government and Irish nationalists, without necessarily accepting their demands. Northern Ireland’s biggest market by far is Great Britain and that trade must be protected as a priority, as well as the Province’s political position as a full part of the UK.
That means that all the fundamentals of Britain’s final deal with Brussels should apply equally across all its regions. But if there are parts of the economy that benefit from harmonising regulations with the EU, without compromising the United Kingdom’s integrity, we should be clever and pragmatic enough to show some flexibility.