Ben Lowry: Unionists should be open to a softer Brexit, albeit not Dublin's NI-specific version

The DUP conference today takes place with the party in by far its strongest ever position.

Saturday, 25th November 2017, 10:50 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 11:58 am
Far apart: UK Prime Minister Theresa May, left, meets with European Council President Donald Tusk, right, on the sidelines of an Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels, on Friday. Mr Tusk and other EU leaders seem to be backing the hardline Dublin position on the Irish border. (Christian Hartmann, Pool Photo via AP)

Not only is it the largest party at Stormont, it is more dominant within unionism (ie share of the unionist vote) than it has ever been.

And the DUP holds the balance of power at Westminster, in one of the most important Parliaments since World War II – in fact one of the most important in British history, because the shape of Brexit depends on it.

Indeed, whether or not Brexit finally happens depends on it.

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So a unionist party is at the heart of power at this critical time in history. But this is also a time of great uncertainty for the Union.

Separatism has receded in Scotland but far from finished.

The nationalist vote in Northern Ireland edges ever upwards.

Brexit has bolstered both those groups.

Consider the Simon Coveney speech that I reported on Wednesday morning. Speaking to an SDLP breakfast event, the Irish foreign minister was as explicit as anyone in that government has been on the border. He said checks were inevitable if there was a different regulatory regime between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

“That is the reality, whether those border checks happen on the border, or in business premises or in farmyards is a different issue, 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.”

In essence, Mr Coveney is saying Dublin “won’t stand” for Northern Ireland leaving the single market or customs union because that would entail checks, and it does not matter to him where the checks are –even if they are by CCTV or in a non inflammatory location such as a Ballymena farmyard.

Given that the government has made clear the UK is leaving both the single market and customs union, Mr Coveney is in effect saying a different outcome must apply to Northern Ireland, which would mean a border in the Irish Sea.

London needs to tell Dublin: “Well, we won’t stand for that.”

That is what Theresa May’s government seems to have said. London is believed to be annoyed by Dublin’s threats, not intimidated.

But when a Downing Street spokesman said yesterday that NI staying in the customs union was a matter for the negotiations, it introduced an alarming element of doubt that still lingers even though Number 10 later made clear that the UK as a whole will leave both single market and customs union.

If it wasn’t for the electoral fluke that has given the DUP such influence at this time, there would be a temptation for London to buckle on the demands of Dublin.

Mr Coveney was yesterday claiming EU solidarity for Ireland’s position on NI.

The European Council president Donald Tusk implied as much when said: “We need to see progress from UK within 10 days on all issues, including on Ireland.”

On these pages this week Owen Polley spelt out starkly the grave perils of Northern Ireland remaining in the single market or customs union if the rest of the UK does not.

While I agree with that entirely, I also think there is a powerful argument for the UK as a whole staying in the single market – but it would have to be the UK as a unit.

It would only be feasible if the free movement of people was no longer seen as an integral part of the single market.

While voters were not asked the sort of Brexit they wanted, there is a political consensus that getting a grip on immigration was a key outcome sought by Brexit voters.

Unfortunately, our referendum was held a little too early for the solution that I am suggesting.

Free movement of people under the single market and passport-free travel under the Schengen agreement is increasingly unpopular across Europe due to the migrant influx.

While ending free movement is not on the cards now, it might be up for negotiation in the future – particularly given that the tenure of a leader who strongly insists upon it, Angela Merkel, is uncertain.

But any such shift on free movement will probably come too late for Britain.

Brexit could yet be a catalyst for a formal two-tier Europe:

A smaller European Union that is synonymous with the eurozone and which moves closer to federalism, including an army and some degree of fiscal and political union.

Also a revived European Economic Community of countries (including Britain and Greece) that are outside the customs union, and so can strike their own trade deals, but inside a single market (albeit minus free movement of people).

This would a variation on be the much mocked ‘Norway model’ but on a larger scale.

No Tory ministers have felt able to advocate such an outcome because they fear being accused of trying to thwart Brexit.

Not many unionists have advocated such a course either.

We have gone from a situation in which some unionist politicians (mostly Ulster Unionists) argued for Remain, some unionist leaders stayed quiet in the referendum, some campaigned in a lukewarm way for Brexit and a small number argued vigorously for it.

But now most unionist politicians speak in favour of that latter, most emphatic form of Brexit.

They are of course right that there can be no border in the Irish Sea, as Dublin is (in effect) seeking, but there is still a debate over the UK-wide final outcome.

Staying in a single market minus free movement would be a major reclaim of British sovereignty.

The UK would still be subject to some European Court of Justice jurisdiction, but not with regard to the most intrusive EU treaties.

We would be formally outside of, and safe from, any EU moves towards greater federalism.

It is a much more eurosceptic outcome than the renegotiated stay-in-the-EU goal that David Cameron and many current ministers including Mrs May sought.

It is also a conservative of free market and UK nationalism: Margaret Thatcher paved the way for the UK entering the single market in 1986 but by the time of her 1988 Bruges speech was concerned at an overall march towards federalism.

Staying in a reformed single market would solve many, but not all, of the border complications – the regulatory divergence would be diminished but there still be a need for customs checks.

But it seems unlikely to happen because EU chiefs are uncompromising on free movement and British leaders are too worried about seeming soft on Brexit.

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