Brexit summary, before the next round….






Policy Exchange’s Chief Economic Adviser Dr Graham Gudgin gave evidence to the House of Lords EU Select Committee on UK-Irish relations after Brexit. Dr Gudgin argued that electronic solutions should be prioritised for the border and argued that securing a free trade agreement with the EU must be a priority.

This is an extract of his presentation; a better version is on the Parliament live site (the embed output quality isn’t great):

The full hearing of evidence can be found at Parliamentlive.TV

The written submission to the EU Committee is below:

  1. How would you assess the evolving views and opinions of people in Northern Ireland on Brexit, and on the implications for Northern Ireland, since the June 2016 referendum?

a) Life and Times Survey 2016

The most authoritative survey of public opinion in NI is the ESRC funded Life and Times Survey run by QUB and UU. This is the NI equivalent of the highly respected British Social Attitudes Survey. The latest survey was taken between September and December 2016, and hence after the June 2016 referendum. It uses a personal interview technique. The 2016 survey registered 69% support for remaining in the UK, with 19% preferring an eventual United Ireland and 4% an independent NI. The percentage of don’t knows was 11%. Excluding the don’t knows, support for an eventual United Ireland was 21%. Among 18-24 year olds it was higher at 29% reflecting the larger proportion of Catholics among this age group.

There was a small but noticeable tendency for respondents to say that the Brexit referendum had increased their support for Irish Unity but 75% of those answering said that it had made no difference. Among 16-24 year-olds, 29% said that Brexit had increased their support for Irish Unity.

b) other Opinion Polls

More recent polls by Lucidtalk and Ipsos-Mori are more difficult to interpret. They use an online methodology which may be biased against older people and hence Protestants and Unionists. Some also use vague terminology including a ‘hard Brexit’.

The October 2017 LucidTalk Panel Survey reported that 63% of its 2070 respondents preferred to stay within the UK, with this falling to 54% in the event of a hard Brexit. Another poll by the same organisation in December 2017, commissioned by the left leaning GUE/NGL EU Parliamentary Group (of which Sinn Fein is a member), reported only 45% preferring to remain within the UK.

An IPSOS-Mori poll organised from QUB asked the question ‘people should be prepared to accept border controls between Ni and GB if this is agreed in the Brexit negotiations between the Government and the EU.’ Of those answering the question 48% agreed, but the pattern of answers suggested that the question had been widely misinterpreted.

c) Elections

The most obvious recent measure of public opinion in NI was the result of last June’s General Election. This was a triumph for the pro-Brexit DUP which won all of the non-nationalist seats except Lady Hermon’s North Down seat, which it came close to gaining. The DUP vote share at 36% rose by the huge 10 percentage points over the pre-referendum general election of 2015. Only half of this was due to the collapse in votes for the pro-Brexit UKIP, TUV and Conservatives. The vote share of the pro-Remain UUP fell by a third from 2015 and both of the UUP’s Westminster seats were lost. Other unionist pro-Remain parties also lost vote share. This result came on a relatively high turn-out of 66%, up from 59% in 2015.

In the March 2nd 2017 NI Assembly election it had looked like Brexit had increased the nationalist share of the vote, with Sinn Fein coming close to topping the poll. This nationalist advance was mainly due to a much larger increase in turn-out than for unionist parties. The scare this caused to unionist voters seems to have caused a surge in DUP support in the following general election.

Overtly pro-Brexit parties gained 37% of the votes in the 2017 General Election. An unknown but potentially large portion of the UUP’s 10% of the vote were likely to be pro-Brexit. Overall it seems unlikely that support for Brexit had moved much from the 44% registered in the 2016 Referendum. There may be evidence however that unionists took fright at the claims that pro-remain support was being interpreted as support for Irish Unity, and as a consequence rallied around the DUP.

  1. What is your response to the December Joint Report on progress during phase 1 of the Article 50 negotiations on Ireland and Northern Ireland?
    • What are the practical implications of that agreement?
    • It has been suggested that the fallback commitment by the UK to “full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement” makes a ‘soft Brexit’ inevitable. How would you respond?
    • What issues in relation to Northern Ireland and Ireland need to be determined in the next phase of negotiations?

a) Regulatory Alignment

The prominence of the Irish border in the stage one negotiations and in the Progress Report (where it occupies 14 out of 96 paragraphs) is a triumph of Irish diplomatic manoeuvring over common sense. The consequences of the Irish border for future EU:UK arrangements is out of all proportion to the importance of the problem.

The crux of the problem is the Irish demand, and UK undertaking, to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. The undertaking is made, in rather strange language, in paragraph 43 in which ‘The UK…recalls its commitment to the avoidance of a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls’. The Report is silent on where or how this commitment was made, and focusses instead on how this commitment is to be operationalised. The key paragraph (49) states that ‘The UK’s intention [is to avoid a hard border] through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible the UK will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the UK will maintain full alignment with the rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South co-operation, the all-island economy, and the protection of the 1998 [Good Friday] Agreement.’

The important issue here is whether the UK is promising to maintain full regulatory alignment (however interpreted) only within Northern Ireland, or across the entire UK. Some have taken the former interpretation, but most take the latter. Taken at face value it appears to commit the UK to observing all EU current and future regulations merely to avoid a hard border in Ireland. The latter interpretation imposes huge hostages to fortune, and represents a massive wagging of the UK dog by the Irish tail.

There is ambiguity both about the meaning of the word ‘alignment’ and about the geographic area to which the alignment is to be applied. The Cambridge law professor Simon Deakin, has argued (here) that the EU uses two concepts: harmonisation (directives and regulations to achieve legally binding common standards) and approximation (to achieve convergence of such things as technical standards through co-operation and other means). He views a plausible meaning of alignment as containing elements of both harmonisation and approximation. It may be read as a commitment to keep UK laws and regulations in line with those of the EU’s internal market after Brexit. The UK government appears to wish to negotiate alignment for sectors in which it is particularly important, including pharmaceuticals and aviation. This tactic may not be successful, but many of those who are pessimistic are strong believers in remaining in the EU and it is difficult to assess the extent to which the wish is father to the thought. EU negotiators resolutely stress avoidance of cherry-picking, but Brexiter’s optimism relies on the need of the EU to protect its £290 billion of annual exports to the EU. Australian negotiators tell us that nothing will become clear until the final weeks of the negotiation.

The question of the geographical area is in principle clearer. Paragraph 49 is incoherent unless alignment refers to the entire UK. However, the references to the Good Friday Agreement provide wriggle room to argue down the line (which may be in 2021 or later) that the UK government had Northern Ireland in mind, and that avoidance of a hard border means electronic customs clearing with little or no infrastructure at the border itself. The EU’s Brexit taskforce commentary on the Progress Report stated that ‘This intention [to avoid a hard border] seems hard to reconcile with the UK’s communicated decision to leave the internal market and the customs union’. However, remaining within the Single Market would mean accepting the free movement of labour while staying in the Customs Unions implies no new trade agreements. Both courses of action appear pointless, and have been ruled out by Theresa May. Some other solution will need to be found.

b) No Mention of Tariffs

What is odd about the Progress Report is that there is no mention of tariffs. If no free-trade agreement is negotiated in stage two of the Brexit talks, and the UK reverts to WTO trade rules, then there is a possibility of 20-40% tariffs on Irish food exports to the UK. Taken together with the post-Referendum depreciation of Sterling against the Euro, this would ruin the Irish agricultural sector. It would also necessitate border controls particularly on the Irish side since the EU continually asserts that it will maintain its ‘legal order’. The Progress Report focusses entirely on non-tariff regulatory barriers, but these are only part of what causes economic borders to be set up. Why are tariff omitted? Presumably because they were a stage two matter where the EU would give no commitments. The Irish maintained silence, presumably in the expectation, or at least hope, that an FTA would emerge at stage two, including agriculture.

The document also ignores the problem of third-country imports as John Fitzgerald points out (here). Even with a free-trade agreement (FTA), the EU and UK will need checks on the content of imports to ascertain where the goods were produced. Goods may contain a majority, by value, of imported components or materials, or may be wholly from a third country. In these cases, duties may be payable irrespective of a UK-EU FTA.

c) Why Should a Hard Border Be Avoided?

What is also always overlooked in discussions about the Irish border issue is why a hard border should be avoided. Everyone on the island, north and south, would prefer no checks or stops on personal travel. This is already agreed on the British side although it is less clear whether the EU will insist on checks on individuals carrying small amounts of goods. In its position paper of last August, the British Government also proposed that goods trade would involve no border posts or lorry stops. Instead electronic monitoring, trusted trader rules and exemptions for small business, would be put in place. Jean Claude Juncker dismissed these constructive proposals as ‘magical thinking’, but they represent a practical approach to the problems of a new border.

The EU have been supporting the Irish government in rejecting the British proposals, but it needs to be made clear that this hard stance by the Irish dates largely from last June when Leo Varadkar took over from Enda Kenny as leader of the Fine Gael party, and hence as Irish Prime Minister. Enda Kenny had been co-operating with the British. Irish preparations were underway for electronic border monitoring. Quiet discussions took place between civil servants in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Kenny kept northern Unionists politicians informed of his discussions with Brussels. Varadkar stopped all of this, for reasons never made clear. One possibility is that he realised that however accommodating the British were prepared to be on the border, the EU was always likely to be less flexible and demand border checks.

The most widely stated reason for avoiding a hard border is to maintain the ‘peace process’ in Northern Ireland. This is a vague term and it is unclear what ‘process’ is being referred to. Many, including Tony Blair and John Major, imply that what is at stake is ‘peace’ itself, and hence a return of the violence of the 1968-1998 ‘troubles’. This is incorrect. No-one at senior level in Northern Ireland has suggested that largescale violence will resume, including the leaderships of the two main nationalist parties in Northern Ireland. There is a residual danger of increased violence from dissident republicans, but this danger already exists and security forces currently have to guard against violence directed at existing anti-smuggling measures on the border.

The other possibility is that there has been a switch in Irish focus from the practicalities of personal travel and trade checks (which the British assumed was the issue), to the more political and psychological issues of national identity. In the words of the Financial Times (Nov 28 2017), ‘the Irish Government sees itself as the custodian of the northern Nationalists who accepted the dropping of the Irish constitutional claim on the North in return for meaningful north-south co-operation. Dublin regards the EU as central to this. Facilitating an island with an invisible border, common trading standards and a sense of pooled sovereignty, including a shared European identity, says a memo circulated to EU negotiators ….. provides crucial reassurance to the minority nationalist community in Northern Ireland’.

Northern Ireland’s unionists might accept that this is what the Republic’s Government and northern Nationalists wish to believe, but not that this has much substance in either law or reality. The Irish claim on Northern Ireland had no legitimacy in international law. Nor was meaningful North-South co-operation opposed by Unionists. It was instead prevented by the on-going violence of the Troubles. Reassurances to the northern nationalists are built into the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and are not under any threat. Despite the claims of some, the Good Friday Agreement does not mention the border.

d) Protecting The Good Friday Agreement

A persistent claim of the Irish Government, fully backed by the EU, is that an invisible border is necessary to protect the Good Friday Agreement. Not only does the Good Friday Agreement not mention the border but it also makes little reference to the EU other than to note its existence. The main prescriptive mention of the EU comes in paragraph 17 of Strand 2 of the Agreement which states that ‘the [North-South Ministerial] Council [is] to consider the EU dimension of relevant matters, including the implementation of EU policies and programmes…’.

The Irish Government has extended its references to the Good Friday Agreement to include not only the Agreement itself, which is an international treaty, but also any subsequent arrangements made under the auspices of the Good Friday Agreement’s North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC). This includes issues such as the ability of ambulance services to operate freely on either side of the border taking people to the nearest hospital irrespective of country. It is unthinkable that the UK would wish to unwind such sensible co-operation, and once again any potential problem comes not from the UK but from the EU. The Irish government appears to have quietly judged the EU inflexibility was unlikely to be overcome, and that Ireland’s best course of action was to attempt to force the British to effectively remain within the Single Market and Customs Union, or at least to force Northern Ireland to do so. The latter idea was quickly squashed by the British, leaving the Irish with only the options finally built into the Progress Report.

e) The Border and the Politics of Partition

The more psychological aspects of the border issue were well expressed in a recent letter to Leo Varadkar from 200 prominent northern nationalists. This said that ‘Brexit threatens to reinforce partition on this island and revisit a sense of abandonment [of northern nationalists by the Irish Government]’. Although there is already a currency border, and differences in excise duties (occasioning much smuggling and hence surveillance by police and customs officials), the greater salience of a border between the UK and EU makes it clearer that Northern Ireland is part of the UK despite the rights of all in NI to claim Irish (and hence EU) citizenship. This claim of reinforcing partition ignores the Good Friday Agreement which states that ‘the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union, and accordingly that Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK reflects and relies upon that wish.’. Nationalists may wish to feel that partition is currently limited, but the reality is that sovereignty is wholly British, albeit with protection for the Irish identity of nationalists.

The fact is however that the Republic of Ireland and northern nationalists have not given up their active desire for Irish Unity. The Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney recently caused concern among Unionists in asserting to a Irish parliamentary committee that he wishes to see Irish unity within his political lifetime. Leo Varadkar has also recently speculated on the conditions under which unity could occur. The opposition to a hard border, or indeed any border, should be seen with the context of this continuing desire for unity. Brexit does in a sense reinforce partition in Irish eyes, and in the view of nationalists must be resolutely opposed.

To the British, this renders the Irish border issue virtually insoluble without backtracking on the decision of the 2016 Brexit Referendum. The hope must be that enough progress is made on free-trade and regulatory alignment in stage two of the Brexit talks to take the heat out of the Irish issue. Free trade will not be a problem to the British (although they should perhaps consider including agriculture only if financial services are also included). Full regulatory alignment across the whole UK will however close off options for trade with the USA and other non-EU nations. In practice, it seems that the British negotiating position is not to offer full regulatory alignment across the entire UK. The FT, for instance, reports that regulatory convergence will be sought for pharmaceuticals and aviation (here). Such sectoral detail would not be needed of all activity was to be aligned.

The problem of the Irish border is far from solved. The old saw that ‘every time the British think the Irish question is solved, the Irish change the question’ remains relevant. The ambiguous and potentially contradictory language of the Progress Report got the UK out of a late stage impasse, but should have been avoided by better preparation. Aficionados of Anglo-Irish agreements will recognise in the Progress Report the much greater care and focus on Irish rather than British concerns. These stem from the proportionately greater importance of the issues to Ireland rather than the UK. Characteristically, the care that Northern Ireland unionists might be expected to exert is inserted only belated and partially. In this case the DUP only saw the text of the Report when Theresa May was already in Brussels to rubber-stamp the Report with the EU Commission. It is late in day to point out the shallow nature of the Irish concerns, but better late than never.

  1. What issues in relation to Northern Ireland and Ireland need to be determined in the next phase of negotiations?

A free-trade agreement between the UK and EU will greatly ease the problem of the Irish land border. A move instead to WTO rules would greatly damage the Irish food industry which is already hampered by last year’s appreciation in the Euro relative to Sterling. The ESRI study commissioned by InterTradeIreland, on the impact of Brexit on North-South trade, suggested that NI might lose 11%, of its exports, very largely from the dairy industry. These losses would however be likely to be restored by NI producers taking up part of the GB markets lost by the Republic of Ireland’s producers.

Assuming a free-trade agreement is negotiated, which in my view is very likely, the main impediment to open trade will be regulatory alignment. In many sectors including pharmaceuticals and aircraft, the UK is likely to mirror EU regulations. If there is drift over time between the UK and EU in regulations on animal health and food production, it should be possible for NI to match EU regulations. Even if this involves checks at the Irish sea border of NI, these involve few issues of principle since checks already exist, for example for rabies, or have been imposed e.g. during foot and mouth epidemics.

The existing British proposals for a light border need to be reciprocated on the EU side of the border. The Irish Government needs to be realistic and accept British bone fides resulting in a border virtually invisible to those crossing it. Smuggling will be limited as long as no tariff and few non-tariff barriers are in place. Smuggling already exists due to differences in pricing and in excise duties, and any new smuggling will need to be dealt with as at present.

  1. Does the UK Government’s position paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland, in particular with regard to the movement of goods, provide a coherent way forward to solving the issues arising from Brexit for the UK-Irish border?
    • The Government paper envisages “technology-based solutions to make it easier to comply with customs procedures”, waivers from security and safety declarations, a cross border trade exemption primarily benefitting primarily smaller local traders, streamlined processes for other trusted traders, and the tracking of imports to the UK. How politically and logistically feasible are these proposals?
    • To what extent have the proposals in the Government’s position paper been superseded by the December agreement?

As indicated above, I regard the UK Government proposals outlined in last August’s position paper as practical and constructive. They mirror arrangements on many other borders, the US:Canada border which uses drones and well as land-based cameras for surveillance. Most customs clearing is now electronic and much border surveillance is automated. The EU is currently implementing its Union Customs Code (UCC). This will streamline customs legislation and procedures, and complete the shift to fully electronic customs clearing. Larger firms can also apply for the status of compliant and trustworthy economic operators (AEOs) to reinforce swifter customs procedures. These reforms will be fully in place by 2020, and hence by the time the UK leaves the Customs Union. If there are specific details to iron out for the Irish border, the proposed transition period allows time to do this.

With the UCC in place, the EU should be able to match the British measures on the Irish side of the border. Although the EU is an inflexible rules-based organisation, it is to be hoped that a degree of pragmatic common sense is applied to the issue. The EU currently claims that when the UK becomes a third country, the certificates for bottled water produced in the EU will no longer be available. At the point of Brexit, before which it was entirely satisfactory to import water, the quality of which does not change, imports could be banned from the EU, necessitating border checks. Such nonsensical situations can be avoided with a degree of goodwill. Little goodwill has yet been evident, but may emerge over the coming year as European companies make their needs known to their governments. At present we do not know whether the EU hard line on trade is merely the tough negotiating tactics that experienced Australian trade negotiators have warned us about in relation to the EU, or instead represent a pro-longed political sulk that may not go away. The frequent EU assertion that the UK cannot get better terms than EU members themselves is understandable, but the UK is seeking mutual benefit rather than cherry-picking advantage they are often accused of.

I do not believe that the UK has promised UK-wide regulatory alignment to ease Irish land-border issues. A degree of regulatory alignment will be agreed, and indeed is currently proposed by the UK. This is unlikely to be complete, and a degree of give and take will be needed for Ireland. The disciplined hard line seen in stage 1 may continue be pursued by the EU, but with UK financial contributions agreed, and EU export needs coming to the fore, more flexibility seems likely to emerge.

  1. The December Joint Report refers to the UK’s intention to develop “specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland”. Can you conceive of any such solutions, short of continued UK regulatory alignment with the EU?
    • Do you agree with the Commission that the UK’s commitment to avoid a hard border through the overall EU-UK relationship is hard to reconcile with the UK’s communicated decision to leave the Single Market and Customs Union?

I assume that the ‘solutions’ referred to in paragraph 49 of the Joint Progress Report are largely the same as those proposed in last August’s UK Position Paper, perhaps with some additional measures if these prove necessary. I assume that the ‘special status’ for NI supported by Guy Verhofstadt and others is a non-starter. NI cannot be both in the EU and at the same time outside it as part of the UK. If border checks are necessary anywhere they must be conducted somewhere. The DUP, and unionist opinion more generally, will oppose any border at the Irish Sea (although I believe that movements of animals and fresh meat could become exceptions). The Joint Progress Report appears to guarantee in paragraph 50 that there will be no border at the Irish sea.

It is clear that the measures described in the Joint Progress Report are inconsistent unless they refer to UK-wide regulatory alignment. In any case, without any reference to tariffs, the Report falls well short of describing conditions which could underpin an invisible border. Since the UK Government has not openly accepted UK-wide regulatory alignment, the Report is a fudge. Once a free-trade agreement is made between the UK and EU the gap between the UK and Ireland on the land border may become bridgeable. The Irish are likely to come under EU pressure to compromise at a late stage in the negotiations.

  1. Does the commitment in paragraph 50 of the Joint Report go far enough to assuage the concerns of the unionist community that the links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK will not be undermined by Brexit?

I believe it does.

  1. Are you confident that sufficient progress been made to ensure that the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, citizens’ rights (including the right of the people of Northern Ireland to British and Irish citizenship), the freedom of movement of British and Irish citizens within the Common Travel Area, and continued access to cross-border EU funding are all protected post-Brexit? If not, what further assurances are needed

a) Good Friday Agreement

There is a legal issue which I have seen not challenged on the UK side. As stated above, the GFA makes little reference to the EU. However, the Irish Government claims that the GFA includes all of the cross-border measures implemented since 1998 under the aegis of the North-South Ministerial Council’s implementation bodies. This seems to stretch the definition of what the GFA actually is, although the progress report appears to concede this in paragraph 42. The cross-border co-operation measures include a range of practical measures that most people would wish to continue. If EU inflexibility gets in the way of such things as flexible ambulance working across the border, then special measures should be built into any UK-EU agreement.

b) Citizens Rights

It is difficult to see that access to UK or Irish citizenship, or other civil rights as currently understood, will be affected by Brexit. However, Irish citizenship implies EU citizenship. Currently, this does not include a right to vote in Irish and EU elections (as Lord Kilclooney advocates)but the future possibility exits for the rights of these EU citizens to be extended. There is some tendency in the Irish press to refer to North holders of Irish passports as ‘Irish citizens’. Does the status of EU citizen imply a correspondence between Poles in England and UK holders of Irish passports in NI? If EU civil rights were in future to extend to gay marriage, for instance, will this automatically apply in NI.

c) The Common Travel Area.

The UK has confirmed its support for the Common Travel Area, and has been generous in proposing to continue the special status of Irish citizens in the UK. This generosity is rarely acknowledged in the Irish press.

d) Cross-border EU funding

The economic significance of EU funding in NI are frequently exaggerated. EU funds are equivalent to around 1% of the UK subvention to NI, and are in any case merely a recycling of EU contributions to the EU. The largest components are CAP funds and the future of CAP is currently under consideration. Other EU structural and PEACE funds are small and can be funded within an extended post-Brexit NI block grant. The most obvious future path is to allow the NI Assembly to decide on appropriate levels and location of funding. It is unnecessary to tie the hands of future NI Assemblies by making undertakings in any EU Agreement. Cross-Border funds will need to be agreed in co-operation with the RoI, and should be done on a pragmatic rather than ideological manner.

  1. The power-sharing institutions have been suspended for over a year. How can this democratic deficit be addressed so that the interests of all communities in Northern Ireland are understood and taken into account in the Brexit negotiations?

The weaknesses in the design of the NI Assembly in the Good Friday Agreement have emerged in the numerous suspensions of the Assembly. The D’Hondt system of electing MLAs was used to ensure that Sinn Fein was likely to have Ministers in the Executive. The system of involuntary coalitions, in which any party with around 10-15% of the vote gains at least one Executive Minister, was almost unique in the democratic world. The number of MLAs was set at a high 108 in an attempt to ensure that candidates from fringe Loyalist paramilitary parties would be elected, but unionist voters failed to support paramilitaries, unlike nationalist voters who supported Sinn Fein in large numbers.

A consequence of the inflexible rules for involuntary coalitions is that disagreements between government parties tend to lead to suspensions of the Assembly rather than to a new coalition as in normal democratic systems. It is time to consider a more flexible system, in which parties are free to negotiate voluntary coalitions, albeit with safeguards to ensure cross-community government.

It is unclear why Sinn Fein brought down the Assembly or are preventing its restoration. The RHI fiasco is being investigated (slowly) in a judicial inquiry, and it would have been reasonable to wait for the result before taking political action. It was unnecessary for Sinn Fein to add extra conditions for restoration. The view of the former IRA leader, the late Sean O’Callaghan, was that Sinn Fein were under pressure from their northern base for a lack of achievement inside government in Belfast.

Whatever the reason, it is not obvious that there is much urgency to restore devolution. Brexit is souring the political atmosphere and it may be better to wait until post-Brexit arrangements are in place before proceeding. My belief is that these new arrangements will have a much less dramatic impact on Northern Ireland than many currently fear. Northern Ireland is reasonably well administered by its civil service. A lack of local legislation will build up over time, but some form of Direct Rule can overcome this deficiency. In past suspensions many voters neither knew nor cared whether the Assembly was operating and the issue of paying suspended MLAs dominated public concerns. Even so, the public prefers devolved government to direct rule. Given the long history of suspensions of the Assembly it is now time to convene an all party conference to discuss reforms which could lead to a more sustainable form of devolved government in Northern Ireland. This may of course prove fruitless, if nationalists, and especially Sinn Fein, take the view that a sustainable system is not in their interests.

  1. Events in recent weeks have placed North-South and East-West relations under strain. What needs to be done to ensure that effective intergovernmental relations are maintained during the Brexit negotiations, and afterwards?

The hard line on the Border taken by the Varadkar administration has turned a tricky, but soluble, problem into one of deteriorating UK-Irish relations. The tendency to mention Irish Unity, as Foreign Minister Simon Coveney recently did to a Irish Parliamentary committee, has caused concerns among unionists. Coveney’s stated desire to achieve Irish Unity within his political lifetime (i.e. 20 years?) added a very unhelpful dimension to an already fraught border issue. Given, that poll-evidence suggests that only 21% of Northern Ireland electors support even eventual unity, with a tiny 7% wanting it immediately, Coveney’s remarks are aggressive. It is also fatuous in that the Republic would need to replace a UK subvention to NI which is currently larger than Irish Government spending on either health or education or pensions. Borrowing is also out of the question since to do so would take the Republic well outside the EU’s Maastricht deficit limits and immediately double Irish debt servicing payments. These may be early missteps from a new administration, or they may be calculated to undercut Sinn Fein in elections which may come this year. Either way, it would be helpful, to say the least, if Irish politicians would respect that part of the GFA which states that is the wish of the people of NI to remain within the UK. Continued references to Irish Unity are a form of political harassment which could at some stage inflame loyalist opinion into violence. In this case, it would not be Brexit, per se, which endangered peace, but the result of politicians yielding to the temptation to link Brexit to Irish Unity.

There are a range of fora for Irish and British ministers to meet and these should be actively utilised. The pressing need at present is however, for a degree of civility, goodwill and realism. Brexit is going to happen. It is the democratic will of the UK electorate. It does apply to NI as an integral part of the UK, but a range of practical measures can be agreed to ensure no more than minor inconvenience to the peoples of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The co-operative approach of Enda Kenny should be revived.

For NI itself, there is representation via the DUP’s channels with Government and with the active involvement of NI officials in Brexit planning. There are advantages in extending consultation to all parties in NI, but this is difficult with Parties whose aim is to subvert Brexit as opposed to making Brexit work well for all constituents. An all-party conference might be convened to establish whether some compromise procedure might be agreed.


Dr Graham Gudgin