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.

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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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unintended consequences?

The Renewable Heat Association (RHANI) sought a legal injunction to stop the Department for the Economy publishing the names its members, about 500 in total.

Yesterday an interim injunction was overturned in respect of those companies who successfully applied to the RHI scheme. Individuals who applied would seem to be except from their names being published, for now.

There has been lots of comment on the judgement which has mostly focused on the publication of ‘names’, and how quickly those names might be published. However, in the BBC report of the judgement it was a small comment that caught eye of @thedissenter which seemed more important to the scheme of things.

The report on the case states:

The judge ruled that the application for RHI subsidy did not amount to a legally binding contract.

and;

He said the department had the right to vary the terms.

Why is that interesting? The argument that the RHI will cost £XXX million over 20 years rested on the premise that approval of the applications meant the creation of a legally binding, invariable contract. This judge would seem to disagree.

It might expected that legal actions on RHI are far from over. However, if the point the judge in this case goes unchallenged (improbable, but not to say he will be over-ruled on this point later) that moving forward:

  • the current 12 month fix by the Minister, Simon Hamilton, will hold, and that;
  • going forward the scheme can be altered to a controlled scheme within what funding is available from Westminster.

While seeking to protect the anonymity of its members the RHANI may well have sped up the process of revision to the grant payments of those who had RHI scheme approvals pre-2016, at considerable relief to the Northern Ireland budget.

Seems RHANI members may soon be facing the Law of Unintended Consequences.

And why are we having an election?