The Best of Both Worlds?

It was with a complete lack of irony that Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson MEP supported remaining because the EU brought peace to Europe. This was said at a panel event in Coleraine during the 2016 Referendum on EU membership. Seriously.

What did the murderous gang of thugs, the IRA, do for peace in Europe?

Sadly, one example among many.

And it could have been more.

Not a surprise that Ms Anderson now supports the Draft Withdrawal Agreement (DWA) as it stands this day 29thNovember 2018.

While members of Sinn Fein have been happy enough to live with a Royal Pardon, or take the salary of a Member of Parliament (Her Majesty’s), actually turning up and voting in the House of Commons is deemed unacceptable.

“Have cake and…” springs to mind. Though that phrase is rapidly being replaced with “best of both worlds”. This has become a popular description given to the Brexit backstop, much loved by Ms Anderson.

How exactly an Irish Republican doesn’t see that supporting “best of both worlds” tends to suggest that Irish Unity would compromise a truly brilliant arrangement for which Sinn Fein has fought so hard would only be a contradiction were it any other Party. That said, Sinn Fein has never been slow to ditch a Party policy when it suited politically, electorally, to be on the ‘right’ side of an argument (usually, for which some other Party has sweated).

Neither has the phrase “best of both worlds” been rarely too far from the cliché pack of NI business organisations. Just like Sinn Fein, the business approach to Brexit is one of ignoring inconvenient facts – though previously that has usually meant saying nothing at all.

The outlined backstop is presented as a triumph of enabling Northern Ireland business to be both in the EU and the UK trading zones at the same time. This is both a lazy consideration of the DWA, and just plain wrong.

The whole point of the backstop provision is that NI remains in the UK, but must follow EU regulations. There is a constitutional point that NI would have regulations imposed, without any accountability to the people of Northern Ireland – that accountability is State to EU, and the State of which NI is part is no longer represented. For all the talk of the EU protecting the democracies and rights of small states, it has been happy to play footloose with the democratic rights of Northern Ireland citizens.

Even leaving aside the constitutional or democratic flaws of the backstop, even on the economics NI business organisations seem to be rather overstating the case.

There has been a persistent representation of the backstop as good for trade, which has been allowed to be a shorthand for “exports” – hence best of both worlds. Many of those supporting Leave would give two cheers if this were the case. It is not.

Trade and exports could be conflated if discussing around an agreement that impacted only State to State. The backstop is not that sort of arrangement. For NI it involves not just exports outside the UK, but also trade internal to the UK. While, again, NI business organisations have emphasised goods leaving NI, or trade (exports and imports) with the EU, it has been silent on the impact of goods being carried from the rest of the UK into Northern Ireland.

This has been raised briefly by Dr Esmond Birnie:

“Importantly, Northern Ireland’s total product “imports” from GB are vastly greater than the level of imports from the Republic of Ireland (or RoI/rEU combined).  In 2016, NI imported £11bn of goods from GB but only £2bn from RoI and a further £2bn from rest of EU ie the imports flow from GB three times that of entire EU27.” 

For all the talk of best of both worlds the backstop arrangement increases the cost of doing business with NI for GB based business, and a potential barrier has been set in place that may impact on supply chains and the very significant investment into NI from GB. That may have consequences for consumer choice and consumer costs also.”

However, the issues go deeper.

It should be no surprise that big business is happy to see consumer costs increase – it will be the High Street that bears the cost of the backstop. The cost of the weekly shop is likely to increase as time critical produce such as food, fruit and flowers for supermarkets will face additional paperwork, and cost.

Though even online, the NI consumer is likely to find choice restricted, as small companies find the restrictions of regulatory checks: in Annex 5 (DWA) most goods would require additional checks/certifications into Northern Ireland. Small traders make up the majority of suppliers on Amazon (directly or indirectly).

This will apply to all goods coming into NI from (or into and then on from) the rest of the UK.

Big business may of course be able to avail of the sort of consultancy or support to not have to worry too much about such barriers. Even so, there is specific trade barrier implicit in the backstop that has the potential to impact on supply chain, especially where there is just-in-time requirements. Further doubt on business organisation grasp of detail has to be noted in respect of the way support for backstop arrangements has been communicated. Manufacturing NI, a business campaign organisation, was quick to show overwhelming support for the Prime Minister’s way forward.

Not exactly a scientific, or credible, poll. It was (and still is at time of writing) entirely possible to vote without declaring who you are, and to vote more than once using different browsers from same device.  Literally anyone could vote.

While the poll certainly represented the corporate view of Manufacturing NI, it was hardly based on any credible foundation.

Hospitality Ulster were similarly quick to support Mrs May:

The tweet, and its link, focused on the 74% who went along with the corporate view. Elsewhere things weren’t as clear.

It seems that the 74%, in PM’s option or no-deal context, was less than a third of the members polled, so about 20% of the membership overall. Clearly, more than two thirds had better things to do than be bothered to engage.

The CBI in Northern Ireland of course took its cue from London, though it probably needed little encouragement. It is interesting that the CBI is rarely slow to line up alongside and endorse other national and international corporate voices – the Davos consensus. Yet it is clear that the voices it does not want to hear, its own experts for example, are simply closed down if they differ from the corporate view.

Sadly, the CBI track record is not great on the big issues of the day

Harsh, but not incorrect. 

At this point the voices against the people’s votes, all 17.4 million of them, is similarly being ignored. Democracy is an inconvenience for the technocrat and corporate interests that really don’t want change at all.

True, there has been a great deal of uncertainty around Brexit, largely it would appear created by commitments being given by the Prime Minister while discussions were taking a different track altogether. In business terms, her management of expectations has been poor. As has her management of negotiations, where, despite talk of ‘a deal’, there is nothing but bare bones outlined on our future relationship with the EU going forward.

It is perfectly laudable for those with a particular view to speak out. It lends to debate. It is essential for a healthy democracy.

What doesn’t contribute to meaningful debate is a tendency which has crept into our discourse, perhaps through social media (though that is mostly amplification of noise that already exists), a tendency to exaggerate, obfuscate, or just make up facts that suit in the moment. Think Donald would call it Fake News.

Who would not want “the best of both worlds”? Except that is not what the Draft Withdrawal Agreement offers. Neither is it the foundation of ‘certainty’ that businesses claim it provides. It is only the end of the beginning of another round of negotiations to which absolutely no-one is able to put an end date. The Draft Withdrawal Agreement is flawed because it tries to hard and spent too much time trying to fix a problem that never existed.

No-one is willing to establish a “hard border” and no-one needs to.

The hubris of Sinn Fein is one thing – we are well used to that. The hubris that seems to underlie communications efforts by business organisations is something else.

Selectively using statistics and methodologies, badly, in support of the DWA shows how unable (or perhaps unwilling) supporters are to explain the apparent benefits claimed – business should know better. Those benefits are less than obvious to consumers, who are likely to end up paying from their pockets.

Furthermore, as with Project Fear Mk1, crying wolf seriously undermines the ability to have the public take seriously what appears to be more of the same. Who would have thought that Jeremy Corbyn would be quoted here as simply shattering the hubris, from Prime Minister’s Questions, succinctly put:

“The Prime Minister said, this is the best possible deal, it’s the only possible deal. It’s not hard to be the best deal if it’s the only deal. By definition, it’s also the worst deal.”

The Prime Minister has a mountain to climb and, far from being helpful, business is doing her a disservice as an echo chamber. No business (or political party) can ever say never to the challenges of change, or tell consumers (voters) they only have one choice; not if a business (or Party) expects to have a future.

The Magical Mystery Brexit.

There’s been a Brexit post planned for ages, but things seem to change and each piece in time seems no longer relevant. So . . . time for a recap and quick look at where we are, which might seem not that much further on . . . 

There are a sequence of events that create a mystery in the whole Brexit process to date, and is important to solve going forward. In January 2017 the Lancaster House speech set out what sort of trade and wider relationships the UK might have with the EU and the world.

When Article 50 was triggered the UK placed on the table its vision of a wide ranging trade agreement with the borders of the UK being managed technically and electronically. ninety-one percent of non-EU trade through UK border points is managed in this way today, more than half of all UK trade.  Furthermore, the far greater trade management points are not along the UK/EU land border, but to and from the Sea Ports either side of the Channel (including much of the trade in goods of Republic of Ireland origin to the continent, by volume).

The EU rejected the UK idea of using technology as ‘magical thinking’and focused solely on the land border it will have with the UK.

In December 2017 the ‘Backstop’ was introduced to the Brexit negotiation by the EU, though not without some controversy. From that point the EU focused hard on the backstop, which increasing became regarded in the UK as a back door to hold the UK within the Customs Union and Single Market or lose Northern Ireland as an integral part of the UK.

The UK Government responded, (after lots of internal ‘debate’) with what has become known as “Chequers”. This is a rather convoluted effort to both deliver to the spirit of Lancaster House (looking at it kindly) and to take on board the stated issues the EU have in its pursuit of its “backstop”. Chequers hasn’t been universally popular – less popular than the poll tax?  Within the Conservative Party #ChuckChequers has been loudly heard at the recent Party Conference.

What of the EU response to Chequers? It hasn’t gone down well with the CommissionNor with the political leaders of the EU27.

In the run up to Salzburg there were noises that the EU might be softening its stance on the backstop. In truth the EU presented nice words, same outcome.

Here’s the thing.

Back at the outset of the negotiations the EU rejected electronic/technical checks proposed by the British along the EU/UK land border as “magical thinking”.

The EU presentation of the ‘de-dramatisation’ of the backstop was to offer electronic/technical checks along the Irish Sea. This is, apparently not “magical thinking”.

Really?

The mystery at this point is just what is the issue along the EU/UK: UK/EU land border.

The EU, in offering its own solution to trade management, has undermined its own case as to why a ‘Backstop’ is required at all.

The Backstop and Chequers both use ‘Northern Ireland’ as a tool to dogmatically reinforce negotiating positions that are fundamentally based on a problem that both have identified as fixable with broadly common agreement on the fix (magically thinking the thinkable).

We have wasted two years of preparing for Brexit and effective trade management across the UK and the Republic of Ireland (something Enda Kenny’s Government had started, that Leo Varadkar’s Government stopped). With a two year transition period there would have been more than enough time to set process in place to ‘de-dramatise’ any potential disruption to trade brought about by change, that is likely to have a far greater impact on the Republic of Ireland than anywhere else.

Time is running out to sort a Brexit agreement that is practical and sensible. Albeit in a convoluted manner, May has at least reached out to the EU with a plan that takes its concerns into account. The EU seems impervious to the importance of the Constitutional issue to the Conservative Government (or, in fairness, to the British generally). Theresa May, as David Cameron before her, is a natural Unionist, for whom the Union is a fundamental part of her Conservative idea. While Chequers may be questioned, it is wrong to suspect the underlying dedication to the Union that brought her to that point.

The EU underestimates the importance of the Union in regarding opposition to Chequers in the round rather than separating the principles on which it is based. May’s Unionism is shared by all shades of Conservatives, instinctively by Boris and, before the IEA launched its Plan A+, acknowledged by Jacob Rees Mogg on the Moggcast from ConservativeHome. The Union is above all else the most important thing to Unionists.

If people sincerely believe that the DUP is fundamental to the Conservative Government’s existence, then they need to listen to the DUP. While there may be doubts expressed about the DUP desire for power and money over all else, the messages from the DUP have been consistent before and after Chequers. If there was any room for doubt, the ‘blood red line’ on the Union and Brexit by DUP leader Arlene Foster is as clear as a statement on point can be made.

If the EU persists in pursuing the Backstop, failing to understand the fundamental constitutional challenge the Backstop poses and despite the contradicting its own reasoning as to why it is necessary, there are three conclusions.

  • That the Backstop is a means of achieving a humiliation deal – either break up the UK (resulting in a constitutional/political crisis) or basically stay in the Customs Union and Single Market on EU terms (resulting in a political/constitutional crisis).
  • That there is no real resolution in the coming months – a no deal (a crisis we’ll get over, eventually).
  • that either way, we can expect decades of discord between the UK and EU on bits, pieces, and meanings around trade and all manner of other issues.

None of those conclusions is good.

Back in March the EU accepted that a Free Trade Agreement seemed the only positive way to proceed with the UK determined to leave the EU. At this point we are not even on that page. Having accepted the magic of trade arrangements, it is a mystery why the EU wishes to risk a no deal; along with the consequences for the EU, including the Republic of Ireland in crisis, and creating a substantial and bombastic trading partner just across the Channel at the same time as having one across the Atlantic.

We are heading for a magical mystery Brexit unless something is conjured out of negotiations soon.

Review, refresh, re-engage.

The outcry over the attendance of Jamie Bryson at the House of Commons Northern Ireland Select Committee (NIAC) misses the point. This is a hearing as part of the Committee’s look at “Devolution and democracy in Northern Ireland – dealing with the deficit.” in Northern Ireland.

The NIAC look at “dealing with the deficit” in Northern Ireland has most probably been considered timely given the seemingly on-going impasse in discussions through 2017 (and into 2018) towards restoring devolution: or not, as at present. Presumptive or with great foresight, the Review now seems of greater interest in looking forward – notwithstanding the attendance of Mr Bryson and the subsequent Alliance Party hissy fit in that regard.

Read more… »

Playing with fire

Over on This Union Graham Gudgin makes the case that there is room for a sensible outcome from UK/EU negotiations, including agreement arrangements with respect to the Irish border.

That is not the place where Leo Varadkar and his Government seem to be right now.

In this week’s Spectator, James Forsyth calls out the dangerous gamble that is the Irish Government’s most recent position, within a wider and clear-headed report of where the UK / EU negotiations stand at present.

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More than words

Over the summer months, while things were/weren’t intense/deadlocked up on Stormont Hill, the News Letter published a series of letters and responses that provided an interesting distraction from an otherwise dull news agenda.

A little patience is required to run through the correspondence the series of letters between UUP and Alliance Party Councillors and MLAs; the subject matter ranging from bonfires to blitz, and of course an Irish language Act. What is interesting is the nature of the Alliance proposition across the points raised.

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Irish nationalism’s self-regarding single certainty.

United Ireland, inevitability and Brexit.

This long read is available as a PDF download.

In his excellent study of Ideology and the Irish Question, Paul Bew quoted a Ballymoney Free Press editorial of May 1912 at the height of the Irish Home Rule crisis. ‘The statement of Unionist Ulster’, it announced, ‘is that it merely wants to be let alone’. Unfortunately, ‘since Satan entered the Garden of Eden good people will not be let alone’.

This editorial captured a universal truth of Ulster Unionism – the desire to be ‘let alone’ – a truth with ambivalent consequences.

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False flag

The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition has been established as part of commitments made under the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements.

Given experience, and the political background to the Commission, there must be deep reservations about any final Report; and more specifically the use of that Report beyond what any might imagine or intend.

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Stop talking, start doing.

Leaving the EU is a good time to reshape the Northern Ireland economy

Following the decision of the UK electorate on 23 June 2016 to leave the EU, the Government of the United Kingdom has undertaken a great deal of work to prepare the country for triggering Article 50 on 29 March 2017.

Before the vote last year, Northern Ireland civil servants had pulled together a preliminary view on what might happen if Leave was to win the day. This seemed to be more concerned with the impact on the Republic of Ireland than on the opportunities presented to Northern Ireland if such an event should occur. Since then, other than a letter to the Prime Minister, as far as is publicly visible, the Northern Ireland Executive appears to have done little of anything in preparation.

It is time to stop talking about ‘re-balancing’ the Northern Ireland economy. The UK decision to leave the EU means there is no better time than the present to take action to gain best advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead; time to tip the scales in favour of private sector enterprise and exports. As a UK regional economy Northern Ireland faces issues around productivity, economic inactivity within its workforce, and an overbearing public sector.

In a new report, An Agenda for Northern Ireland after Brexit, local Northern Ireland business and the Global Britain think-tank have collaborated to offer a policy framework of what needs to be addressed constructively and positively by all levels of government in Northern Ireland. Most importantly, Northern Ireland needs focused leadership from the Executive.

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Make your mind up time

It is make your mind up time for the Irish Republic.

Nothing new, but there has been hugely irresponsible and faintly histrionic noises coming out of Dublin, and Irish republican/nationalism generally, along with other voices (usual suspects), to the effect that Brexit means a return to violence in Northern Ireland. The only obvious return to the past is the use by the Republic’s politicians of events related to Northern Ireland as a distraction away from issues for which they are responsible, a deflection from the economic and political realities on its own doorstep.

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