Northern Ireland issue is about more than just consent

by Bill Emmott | 07.10.2019

So rather than being a final, take it or leave it offer, the proposals tabled last week by the Johnson government were just a “broad landing zone”, according to Steve Barclay, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, in an interview with the Andrew Marr Show on the BBC on Sunday.

The status of Northern Ireland and the UK’s only land border with the European Union is at the heart of that “landing zone”. Barclay claimed that what matters to the UK is “the principle of consent”: if something can be done to ensure Northern Ireland’s “consent” to whatever arrangements are agreed between the UK and the EU, then all will be well.

This is disingenuous, to say the least, for three big reasons.

First, the only political group whose consent the UK government has sought for its proposals is the Democratic Unionist Party, which represents one part of one of Northern Ireland’s communities. It has not even consulted Sinn Fein, which is the main nationalist party; and all Northern Ireland’s main business groups have already given the proposals the thumbs down.

Second, because for consent to be provided on a sustainable basis, the Northern Ireland Assembly would have to be meeting and the power-sharing government would have to be reconvened. Neither the assembly nor that government has met for almost three years now. Unless Sinn Fein and other political parties can be brought on board, there is no prospect of power-sharing being resumed.

Third, because what is really the biggest issue for Northern Ireland is not consent as such but rather whether the arrangements made for its status within the UK and its relationship with the EU do, or do not, serve its political and economic stability.

Border infrastructure, whether on the wiggly 300-mile frontier or away from it does risk offering targets for the paramilitary groups that sadly still exist and are still powerful. Yet the bigger, more long-term, danger for the six counties would come from economic stagnation.

In the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement brought peace and an open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, trade between the two areas has increased substantially. Border communities are now barely distinguishable.

Yet the gains have been much smaller than might have been expected. Even though tens of thousands of Northern Irish workers travel south to work every day, there has been surprisingly weak convergence between the two economies.

A recent study of Northern Ireland’s economy by two economists at Trinity College Dublin, John Fitzgerald and Edgar Morgenroth, underlined the fact that not only is Northern Ireland highly dependent on fiscal subsidies from London but also its economic growth has been poor: in 2010-16, GDP per head in Ireland grew by 3.2% per year on average, in the UK as a whole it grew by 1.3% and in Northern Ireland it grew by just 0.6%.

Now think what the Johnson government’s two borders solution would do to that. It would reduce trade between Northern Ireland and the EU by erecting customs tariffs between the two jurisdictions, while adding to the costs of trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK by introducing regulatory differences between them.

It is the worst of all worlds. Already, Northern Ireland suffers from a brain drain of its brightest, especially Protestant, youth who leave to go to university elsewhere in the UK and do not come back. Opportunities are scarce and too much of Northern Ireland remains under the control of the mafia-like gangs that have emerged from paramilitary groups.

The political relationship between the two parts of Ireland is poor and is now becoming poisonous.

To see how little co-operation already exists between the two, just try catching a train between Dublin and Belfast, the two biggest cities on this island of over 6 million people. They run just once every two hours and take more than two hours to cover a distance of barely 100 miles.

If that is ever to change, Northern Ireland needs two things: a working government; and a secure position within the UK as well as easy trading relationships with the Republic.

The best way to achieve both of those is to stay in the EU.

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Edited by James Earley

4 Responses to “Northern Ireland issue is about more than just consent”

  • For border communities such as Newry, Johnson’s proposal would ruin the daily lives of thousands who cross freely over the border in both directions to work, shop and socialise. Shopkeepers and businesses deal in both sterling and Euros for ease of trade and ‘because they can’. It makes no sense to dismantle something that works. Only the DUP approves this crazy plan. The business community is against it as well as Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party. As we get the ‘will of the people’ thrust down our throats by the ultra Leavers, I would also reciprocally point out that NI voted to remain. The GFA will be destroyed by this plan because it was fundamentally based on an open border. It was a ‘given’ in the lead up to the negotiations. Johnson is risking the relative peace that has prevailed in the recent past.
    No responsible person would do anything to upset the fragile balance we now have. The worrying thing is that Johnson cannot be considered responsible.

  • As a founder member and former Chairman of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland I endorse every word in this article. The only way to avoid a disastrous outcome is for both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to remain within both the single market and customs union.

  • All this does show is that Brexit is an utterly bad idea, which in a world of cool thinking people, that everyone once thought the Brits were, would have been laughed away. Well, perhaps we should take heart that rabid populism on the continent at least is slowly passing away due to its too obvious absurdities and need for “charismatic leaders”, without which those parties quickly descend into chaos. In the USA Trump as well doesn’t appear to do too well, which easily could lead to the UK causing to do itself great harm whilst others are calming down from the fright about the badly controlled influx of millions of refugees and other hangers on again. Let’s hope the anti-Brexit powers are going to be successful and that the foreseeable bouts of violence can be managed in that case.

  • At this late stage the weakest link in the Leave campaign is the support of the DUP for a no deal Brexit. Their candidates will have to face for generations to come the public wrath of both nationalists, Unionists and in-betweeners in the context of small rural communities, where their families may have to face versions of boycotts and social alienation. Therefore the most effective marching ground this October is not London but Belfast with the participation of pro-EU supporters from the Republic of Ireland and Europe in a massive show of strength demonstrating the significance of the wayward damaging decision pursued by the DUP in supporting an ultra-Brexit.