Ben Lowry: Rees-Mogg is right to call out Dublin on its tough EU tactics

Some commentators have said that the DUP has over-played its hand in relation to Brexit.

Friday, 2nd March 2018, 11:04 pm
Updated Saturday, 3rd March 2018, 12:34 am
Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney have, in tandem with Brussels, taken an uncompromising line on the border

The European Commission’s draft legal text for the UK withdrawal agreement is seen as proof of the DUP’s relative powerlessness amid international forces and events, and thus the party’s bad judgement in taking such a firm line on Brexit.

The text showed that the European Union really is determined to back Ireland’s uncompromising border stance. It isn’t bluffing.

If there is no comprehensive Brexit deal, the EU says that the fallback position is that Northern Ireland will stay in the customs union and single market, which will irrevocably change our position within the United Kingdom, hence the uproar this week.

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This is no surprise. The December EU-UK deal said two contradictory things about the border.

On the one hand it reassured nationalists that there would be no hard land border, and on the other it assured unionists that there would be no border in the Irish Sea.

It was an all-things-to-all men position that kicked detail down the road, rather like the British negotiating stance overall to date.

The outline December agreement gave greater comfort to nationalists than to unionists. Paragraph 50 said that there would be no border in the Irish Sea, unless the assembly agreed one.

The preceding paragraph said there would be no hard land border, but did not have a similar caveat that Stormont could agree one.

In other words the ‘no land border guarantee’ looked absolute, the ‘no Irish Sea border’ guarantee conditional.

The assembly already seems to support an Irish Sea border (the Greens and Alliance want NI in the customs union and single market).

This could create a scenario in which unionists have to use the assembly petition of concern perpetually to block an Irish Sea border. Sinn Fein would accuse unionists of blocking MLAs, and create a crisis.

This week Brussels, in tandem with Dublin, seized on December’s ambiguity and tried to set in stone its interpretation of the deal.

The fierce reaction to that EU border legal text from not only unionism but also Keir Starmer of the Labour Party suggests that it is not just the DUP that might have over-played its hand. Maybe Dublin too.

It was on a dark, wet morning in Belfast in November that it became clear to me the Irish government was not planning to back down on the border. Simon Coveney told an SDLP breakfast event that border checks were inevitable if there was NI-Republic regulatory divergence.

I have quoted his comments on this page before but they are so stark as to be worth citing again.

“[Border checks] is the reality, whether those border checks happen on the border, or in business premises or in farmyards is a different issue,” he said. “But as far as I am concerned that is all border infrastructure preventing free movement, preventing trade, undermining the relationships that have been built up over the last 20 years, and it’s about building barriers rather than bridges on this island and we won’t stand for it.”

It was a brutal message, that could yet bring a final collapse in relations between London and Dublin, or, possibly, a complete rupture between London and unionists.

Nothing since that speech by Mr Coveney has indicated a retreat by Ireland on this position. Nor of the EU abandoning its support for it.

The inescapable logic of the Irish stance, as cited by Mr Coveney, is no regulatory divergence. This means that either the UK as a whole stays in the single market and customs union (or an arrangement as close to that as makes no difference) or Northern Ireland alone does so.

The latter arrangement would be an unprecedented separation within the United Kingdom, of one region from the rest of it.

Theresa May dismissed the EU text this week, but her speech yesterday was still somewhat vague on the way forward.

That is why it is refreshing to read Jacob Rees-Mogg on these pages today (see link below), calling out Dublin clearly on its tactics.

As it happens, I voted Remain in 2016, for various reasons including my fear that Brexit would do internal damage to the UK.

Latterly, I have thought the best compromise for Britain is that the UK as a whole stay in the single market, for all its constraints (but not stay in the customs union, which would impact on the capacity to strike trade deals).

Some Brexit compromise strikes me as desirable for three reasons: the narrow 2016 result, the fact that Scotland and Northern Ireland voted remain, and the fact that Theresa May’s failure to win a majority last year made it even harder to progress with the purest Brexit.

Yet there has been little debate within unionism on the merits of the UK as a whole adopting such a Norway-style, softer Brexit.

But even so, I think that Mr Rees-Mogg’s response is necessary, given the way that Brussels is behaving.

The European Commission has good reason to be punitive towards the UK if it wants to deter other countries from quitting the EU. But if it does take that route then Britain has to be tough in response.

It has to at least show a preparedness to crash out without a deal.

Ireland’s fate factored barely at all in the Brexit referendum, and it is naturally annoyed about that. Northern Ireland’s fate wasn’t discussed much either (not even in NI).

And nor was Gibraltar’s situation (it voted 96% to stay in the EU, such was its concern about how Spain would react to Brexit).

But Mr Rees-Mogg is implying that Dublin’s approach will be remembered in London if Irish anger at Brexit leads it to work fully in tandem with Brussels in EU-UK negotiations, unless it gets an intolerable commitment on the border.

From a unionist perspective, Dublin’s stance makes it all the more important that there is no announcement of a form of direct rule in which Ireland has a greater say over NI than it did in previous periods of Westminster rule.

London is unlikely to make such an announcement, given that it needs the DUP. But it might still hope that one day it can hold a joint press conference with Mr Coveney to announce direct rule, while emphasising the respect with which it will listen to and consult Dublin.

There is no need for such an apologetic approach to the return of London-only direct rule when Sinn Fein has brought down power-sharing and then issued demands that makes its return difficult.

Any such joint appearance with an Irish minister would be all the more unacceptable now, given the way that Dublin has put pressure on unionists to make concessions on matters such as the Irish language and legacy, and has made things so difficult for the UK in the EU negotiations.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor