It was to be the breakthrough moment on Brexit that the British government and the European Commission had been working toward for over a year.
After months of apparently endless stalemate the weekend saw more positive reports emerging from the intense negotiations between EU and the British government officials. By Monday morning the impression being given– out of Government Buildings in Dublin and the Commission in Brussels – was that a deal was imminent. The new Tánaiste Simon Coveney was on RTE’s Morning Ireland saying that he expected an announcement on an agreement later in the day. The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called a special Cabinet meeting for 9am to sign off on the communique. At mid-morning Coveney was told by European Commission president Jean Claude Junker that the British had agreed the final draft.
At midday Mary Lou McDonald was among a group of Oireachtas opposition representatives who were briefed by the Taoiseach on the paragraphs relating to the island of Ireland and the border, which were to be in the communique. No one was given sight of the paragraphs. Meanwhile, the media in Dublin were told to expect a press conference with Taoiseach Varadkar at 2.30 pm.
And then it all went pear shaped courtesy of a very loud, very intransigent, very definite NO from the DUP. Theresa May received a call from Arlene Foster and dramatically the deal was off. May and Juncker met the media and said that there were details that still had to be agreed. But no one was fooled. Everyone knew the real story was very different.
That was confirmed when the DUP said, “We will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the United Kingdom. The economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom will not be compromised in any way.”
It was reinforced when the DUP’s Sammy Wilson described the Irish government as “a bunch of political chancers” who were “doing their best to undermine the unionist position.” The following day amidst speculation that Prime Minister May would be going back to Brussels by the end of the week Edwin Poots of the DUP fired a warning shot at Dublin. He said: “Little Leo needn’t think that an unacceptable deal on Monday will be acceptable on Friday. A bad deal is not better than no deal.”
So, where to from here?
Phase one of the negotiations on Brexit was about seeking substantial progress on three broad areas: the settlement bill that Britain would have to pay the EU; the future status of EU citizens, including the people of the North; and the status of Britain’s border in Ireland. Without the EU Council summit next week (December 14th) agreeing that progress on all three issues had occurred the British would not be allowed to move into Phase Two of the negotiations dealing with trade.
In recent weeks the British Prime Minister agreed to pay the EU between 40 and 55 billion euro. It has also been claimed that progress was made in the negotiations on the issue of rights for EU citizens. The big issue that had to be cracked was the border.
Two weeks ago Leo Varadkar warned that his government would block progress to Phase Two unless Britain gave a formal written guarantee that there will be no hard border. On Monday the Taoiseach obviously thought he had got that commitment. But not for the first time the DUP pulled the plug on an agreement. It is also worth noting that the British government has been briefing that there was no agreement. This is clearly at odds with the Irish government’s account.
The reality is that Brexit negotiations are absolutely critical for the future of the island of Ireland and it is vital that they succeed. Sinn Féin believes that what is required is a Designated Special Status for the north within the European Union. We are not precious about what it called. But the North must remain within the Customs Union and the Single Market. This is the only way of ensuring stability and certainty for Irish agriculture, Irish business, Irish people’s lives – our prospects and our prosperity.
These are not the only issues. Citizens’ rights, access the European Court of Justice and to the European Institutions also need to be agreed. As Sinn Féin understands they have not been agreed thus far. Ensuring that these requirements are met is common sense. It is also, crucially, what the people of the North voted for. Despite the claims of the DUP this will not change the constitutional position of the North. I say this as much as someone who is offended every day by the divisions on this island, including partition and the border.
In the following days intense negotiations took place between the EU and British negotiating teams. The Tories also met with the DUP.
On Friday morning an agreement was finally announced. The communiqué does not set the final deal on Brexit. The communiqué sets out broad principles. These have been assessed by the Irish government as sufficient progress to allow the Brexit process to move into the next phase of negotiations on trade.
While the communiqué recognises the unique and special circumstances surrounding the issue of the Irish peace process, the Good Friday Agreement and the border it does not address key areas of concern for many citizens, especially nationalists living in the north and citizens in the border region.
The insistence by the British that Britain and the North must leave the customs union and the single market presents a real and live danger which cannot be understated. This also contradicts the British Prime Ministers claim that there will not be a hard economic border.
The communiqué also throws no light on the future role of the European Court of Justice and in particular the right of EU citizens in that part of the island to be able to access the EU institutions. These are all genuine concerns particularly in light of the British Prime Ministers assertion in a letter she issued addressed to the people of the six counties that the North will no longer be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
The Irish government needs to be very conscious that the refusal to embrace rights is at the heart of the current difficulties in the political institutions and the collapse of the Executive.
While the communiqué represents some progress there are many unanswered questions around key issues and the Irish government must remain focussed and vigilant. Sinn Féin is also very mindful that this Brexit process is a work in progress. Our experience through years of agreements with Britain is that the devil is in the detail.