Brexit has increased hopes for Irish unity but is not ideal for creating a stable 32-county state

Posted By: December 09, 2017

Arlene Foster described the difference between Monday’s draft and the final agreement as “substantial”, while Leo Varadkar said there had merely been “stylistic changes in language”.

John Manley.Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, December 9, 2017
The public’s suspicion is naturally aroused when all sides in a negotiation claim to be satisfied with the outcome, but then politics is said to be about the art of compromise.

It’s important to point out, however, that the deal announced early yesterday morning in Brussels is a principles-based, political agreement and not a legally-binding document. It provides the parameters for future negotiations rather than a rigid framework, which is why the language is often deliberately ambiguous.

The deal serves an important purpose though, in that it enables the UK’s withdrawal from the EU to advance from the state of limbo that has existed since June last year. Whether you agree with the referendum decision or not, uncertainty is in nobody’s best interests.

No doubt there’ll be more high drama and brinkmanship over the coming months but for now, the two sides remain on talking terms at least, and yesterday’s agreement surely lessens the possibility of Britain driving off a cliff with no deal.

How much the revised text differs from the one the DUP rejected in dramatic fashion on Monday remains a source of some debate but in contrast to the megaphone exchanges of recent weeks, the argument is being couched in more diplomatic language. Arlene Foster described the difference between Monday’s draft and the final agreement as “substantial”, while Leo Varadkar said there had merely been “stylistic changes in language”.

DUP sources say its misgivings were overcome “through additions rather than deletions”.

Mrs. Foster’s party[DUP] has clearly lobbied for written reassurances about Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, which until a Border poll proves otherwise, is a given, though their inclusion does help the party sell the agreement to its more Eurosceptic elements.

Much kudos meanwhile must go to the Dublin government, which held its bottom line about no hard border without having to make a major concession elsewhere. The backing of 26 other EU states made the job easier but its firmness – wrongly characterized by the DUP as aggression – ensured Dublin kept its home front well guarded.

But arguably the greatest triumph from yesterday’s, as yet unnamed, the agreement is the groundwork it lays for a soft Brexit. The UK government’s lack of a clear strategy for leaving the EU was laid bare this week, suggesting it is reluctant to confront the true consequences of severing ties with Brussels. While there are elements within the Tory party – and within the DUP – who would happily throw caution to the wind and exit the EU without any sort of deal, thankfully those with the upper hand at the moment are more pragmatic and may even regret the referendum outcome.

With the DUP’s insistence on no divergence for Northern Ireland from the UK as a whole, coupled with across the board desire for a frictionless border, Britain has been maneuvred into a position where the prospects of broader regulatory alignment with the EU in the future are increased. The name ‘Customs Union’ is unlikely to be employed but a localized trading bloc involving Ireland and Britain is one potential outcome. It can be argued that the UK negotiators weren’t entirely passive in this process and used Northern Ireland as cover for initiating a soft Brexit.

Disappointingly for some, the agreement may also have the effect of putting the brakes on the recent surge in nationalist optimism which regards the negative fallout from Brexit as an opportunity to push for Irish unity. Sinn Féin has been most vocal in this regard and its reticence in the aftermath of yesterday’s deal spoke volumes.

While there is merit in the argument that a hard Brexit would increase the likelihood of Irish unity, it hardly provides the ideal circumstances for creating a stable 32-county state.