5,000-word speech— and we’re left none the wiser

Posted By: September 23, 2017

John Manley. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, September 23, 2017

In the 16 months since the EU referendum, we’ve had plenty of rhetoric from the British government but very little substance. Impending problems like the Irish border, citizens’ rights and the movement of people and goods have been addressed with aspirations and soundbites rather than detailed solutions. While it’s acceptable to keep your cards close to your chest in negotiations, at some stage you have to lay them on the table.

There was an expectation that yesterday’s ‘landmark’ speech in Florence would provide greater clarity about how this historic estrangement will pan out and what we can expect post-Brexit. Yet, after Theresa May had delivered more than 5,000 words and answered questions from the media, we were left none the wiser about what the future holds, beyond the UK confirming that it is seeking a two-year stay of execution before reality bites.

Mrs. May’s desire for a transition period in which the UK will remain in the customs union and single market will give some reassurance to businesses who fear Britain may be falling off a cliff in spring 2019 but what happens beyond that remains uncertain.

Stressing how she wanted the UK and EU to forge a “new economic partnership”, the prime minister cited two models for post-Brexit trade deals only to dismiss them as inappropriate. Her vision would require creativity and imagination, she said, yet by failing to outline any alternative, Mrs. May unwittingly acknowledged that neither has been employed to date with any success.

As far as Ireland and The Border goes, somewhat disconcertingly, there was nothing new whatsoever. There was a restatement of the commitment to “no physical infrastructure” along Ireland’s new EU-UK frontier and another acknowledgment of The North’s “unique issues” but with ‘B-day’ little over 18 months away, people are quite rightly demanding greater clarity.

Before and after the referendum, a majority in The North were wary of Brexit and nothing Theresa May said in Florence will change their minds. If anything, it will only reinforce people’s skepticism and underline the notion that Brexit can only be bad for Ireland.