In a speech set to be delivered to her party members at the annual Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) conference today, its leader Arlene Foster will tell the conference that she believes in an open border for goods and people on the island of Ireland. This announcement, along with Theresa May’s recent statement that all sides must “jump together” in the Brexit negotiations, is beginning to give rise to a theory that the British team will put forward a motion that Northern Ireland remain in the customs union.
Foster’s DUP’s is currently propping up Theresa May’s government and that situation has allowed the DUP to gain a considerable influence at Westminster. However, needs must, and with the recent leaked report by the European Union negotiation team revealing that unity over the direction the UK government wants to take is far from an agreed thing, it seems that the British are being forced to pull up their socks and get on with the resolution of the three major points – EU citizens’ rights, the Brexit bill and the Irish border issue.
And it is the Irish border issue that seems to be the most complicated, with both parties unsure as to what exactly the best solution is. But common sense seems to be moving to the fore, as the realisation that any kind of border, be it physical or electronic, will not only be restrictive, but also hugely expensive. That, alongside the massive implications for trade and commerce, is now having an impact on the minds of the British negotiation team.
But if it is the case that Foster is going to call for an open border, then surely the last political hurdle may have been jumped. The DUP campaigned for Brexit, and although they claim to be supportive of the motion, the behind the scenes theory is that they never truly were in favour of the concept, and, frankly, never expected it to be successful in the referendum last year.
Ms. Foster is expected to state that she wants a sensible Brexit and that the trading relationship with the UK is still the most important factor in the future of the region.
Moving to phase two
While her statement about the UK trading relationship sounds like business as usual, it’s the call for a sensible Brexit that will be the most interesting to hear. The big question is: what is her idea of a sensible Brexit? But with hints from Brussels already yesterday that a deal is about to be done, this could be the most important speech Foster will make. She may be on the verge of committing Northern Ireland to the customs union and thus, in one strike, solving the riddle of Brexit and ensuring that the Irish government will not use its veto to prevent the UK from moving to what they consider is a far more important phase two of trade negotiations.
There is no doubt that the majority of the people in Northern Ireland support the idea of staying in the customs union even if they do support Brexit. It seems that there is no other alternative for the island of Ireland and it is now time for sensible heads to prevail.
We shall see just what happens over the next few weeks and there is no doubt, given the history of the negotiations so far, that leaks will appear, so we should be well informed as to what the final outcome will be, but it is hoped that the result will be a border-free island of Ireland. Will the prospect of a general election in Ireland scupper the strong position that the Irish government has at the moment? Probably not, and that’s mainly due to the notion that all the big decisions have already been agreed, and it is just a case of rubber stamping them at this stage.
Either way, what Ms. Forster will say at the conference today will not only be interesting, it will also be hugely significant.
It is touch and go. If Fianna Fáil bring down Leo Varadkar’s government, then the time spent campaigning and set up possible deals between now and an election that would be well beyond the three weeks until the next round of Brexit negotions. It looks like Micheál Martin will bring FF back in line if Frances Fitzgerald resigns as deputy taoiseach. So, Varadkar can still ‘torpedo’ the UK and with them insisting trade is the main topic, despite Ireland and the status of EU/UK citizens not clear, the EU insisting on Irish clarity, it may be that Foster has something like a resolution to the dilemma on the table. If NI has a ‘Hong Kong’ status, then it is not only keeping part of the UK just in the EU, but also holding the door ajar for reunification if the relationship with the Republic proves to be the better. Foster must be reflecting on the lost majority last election and demographic changes that will very soon, probably in months, see more catholics than protestants in NI with the inevitable electoral outcome in a few years.
Further to that, by fudging any agreement, May and her government may lose their amicable relationship with Ireland. Ireland may be the country most impacted by Brexit but there is a lot of history that will sustain them against those losses by seeking ‘friends’ elsewhere. Not only that, but should the special relationship come to be, then it would be only a matter of time before Scotland cries ‘Foul!’ and demands similar, having suggested and had rejected something along similar lines. So Westminster will tread carefully over this line, if indeed they dare, with the prospect of driving the eventual break up of the UK even closer than it already was.