Irish Premier Leo Varadkar’s address to the European Parliament this week was timely, given that it was just last month that a breakthrough on ‘phase one’ of Brexit talks was achieved, and we can now move negotiations on to discussing our future relationship.
It was always the case that solutions to the border question could only be fully solved when we have an idea of the future trading relationship. But to some, Mr Varadkar’s comments on ensuring the Ireland text in the phase one agreement will be turned into legally binding language might suggest an admission that the phase one agreement itself was a fudge.
And that may well be the case. Clearly there are a number of differing interpretations as to what “regulatory alignment” actually means in reality.
He also insisted that he did not want to add anything ‘extra’ to the agreed text on Ireland. In that case Dublin needs to reject the idea that Northern Ireland could stay in the customs union with the rest of the UK outside.
As Mr Varadkar said, the aim should be for Northern Ireland to maintain 100% of its trade. So placing an international border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom – our most important market for sales – is a non starter.
We do not want a return to the borders of the past or the divisions of the past. Similarly, we cannot accept any attempt to use Brexit to try to separate Northern Ireland economically or constitutionally from the rest of the United Kingdom.
The best way to do that is to agree a deep and comprehensive new relationship between the European Union and the entire UK.
It is true that rhetoric in recent months from Brussels and Dublin has been unhelpful at times to say the least.
On the border issue, there has been an element of grandstanding from EU figures, dismissive of the fact that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK. But we now have an opportunity to look forward and rebuild relationships.
In ‘phase two’ we can agree a lasting post-Brexit future relationship between the UK and the Republic of Ireland along with the rest of the EU.
If that opportunity is squandered, we all lose out.
Jim Nicholson, Ulster Unionist MEP