Boris Brexit speech is conciliatory in tone but doesn’t clarify much

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

The speech by Boris Johnson yesterday on the European Union does not clarify much about the way forward for the UK.

The foreign secretary’s address is one of a number of speeches being made by government ministers. Mr Johnson has at times been shamelessly positioning himself for a vacancy in Downing Street and so the prime minister has reportedly tried to ensure that he did not steal the limelight again with this speech.

It was important to hear a senior member of the government say that it is unhelpful to talk about Remoaners or to tell supporters of the EU to “get over it”. But he was also right to say that it would be unthinkable to retreat from Brexit. Beyond that general principle, however, the best outcome, from Northern Ireland standpoint, is far from straightforward.

The recent suggestion that the UK stay in the customs union is the most unpalatable of all, from a UK perspective because it would prevent Britain from striking its own trade deals and from an NI perspective because doing so alone would lead to a border in the Irish Sea.

The single market would be the more obvious possible compromise for the UK as a whole, given that the cabinet is split and that the vote for Brexit was modest 52% in favour.

It would make the border slightly less problematic.

But the EU made the single market unpalatable because it requires free movement of people (not merely of labour).

Following that path would mean alignment with EU standards in products, which is a reason the government has ruled out the single market. Mr Johnson was only open to a partial alignment yesterday, as is reportedly the main cabinet view.

It seems that, for all the split in the cabinet, Mrs May is more concerned not to anger Brexiteers in her party than EU supporters and the former’s view will mostly prevail. But from an NI pro Union perspective, some UK-wide compromise away from the purest form of Brexit might not be a bad thing, yet it has not much been the subject of local debate.