The key to unlocking Brexit is… in the Lisbon Treaty

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Dick Roche, Irish Minister for European Affairs (L), and Former Irish Prime Minister Garrett Fitzgerald celebrate the final result of the Lisbon Treaty Referendum in Dublin, Ireland, on 3 October 2009. [Aidan Crawley/EPA]

The Northern Irish DUP party, a junior coalition member to Theresa May’s government, is a stumbling block to unlocking the Brexit talks. Dick Roche gives a recipe for how the problem can be solved.

Dick Roche is a former Fianna Fáil politician. He was the minister of state for European affairs when Ireland conducted the two referendums on the Treaty of Lisbon of the European Union, in 2008 and 2009.

There is something quintessentially Irish about the shambolic events of Monday that brought the Brexit talks to a grinding halt.

The offer that was on the table for Northern Ireland on Monday was a classic example of the linguistic dexterity the EU employs when faced with a knotty problem. It offered the people of Northern Ireland and their neighbours in the Republic a means of lessening the potentially ruinous impact of Brexit on their economies.

Northern Ireland would have a unique trading relationship with the EU not enjoyed by the other parts of the United Kingdom.

Within minutes of the details being released, parties as disparate as the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, the Lord Mayor of London and even the good citizens of Grimsby were on the airwaves asking “please can we have some too”.

Conversely, the reaction from the former Northern First Minister Arlene Foster and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party [DUP] was an outright rejection of the offer and a threat to pull the plug on Mrs May and her government.

Colleagues from her party would not see the advantages it offered Northern Ireland, rather, they portrayed it as a plan to drag Northern Ireland into a United Ireland. That response would have been funny, a sort of Blackadder episode, had its implications not been so profoundly depressing

To be fair to Mrs Foster and her colleagues, what happened on Monday – if their version of events is correct- should not have happened. It seems bizarre that on an issue of such sensitivity there was no real effort to ‘tee up’ political leaders in Northern Ireland as to what was coming down the line.

It is extraordinary if, as the DUP leadership says, it was only given details of the offer just as Prime Minister May and President Juncker were about to start their Brussels meeting.

The fact that the Northern Ireland executive, which collapsed following the resignation of Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister the late Martin McGuinness, is not in place, was not helpful.  It meant that no executive structure was in place through which communications could be channelled.

That is all now in the past. Rather than go through the blame process, the focus should now be on identifying what can be done to get out of the impasse.

The approach adopted when the Irish voted ‘No’ to the Lisbon Treaty might offer a way forward.

In 2008, more than 53% of Irish voters rejected the Treaty, posing a major problem for the EU. Without Irish agreement, Lisbon was ‘dead’. Detailed polling after the referendum identified a series of ‘allergic issues’, which, in addition to the impenetrable nature of the Treaty itself, lead a majority of voters to ‘reject Lisbon’.

In a statement by the Taoiseach [Irish Prime Minister] delivered to the European Council in December 2008, the key ‘concerns of the Irish people’ were identified as the loss of ‘Ireland’s Commissioner’, concerns on taxation policy, on the Irish Constitutional position on “the right to life, education and the family” and Ireland’s military policy.

The issue of the “Irish Commissioner” was resolved by an agreement that “provided the Treaty of Lisbon enters into force, a decision would be taken – to the effect that the Commission shall continue to include one national of each member state.”

The problem with other issues was that none of them had anything to do with the Lisbon Treaty – they were concerns projected into the Lisbon debate. In the same way as concerns about Northern Ireland’s future within the United Kingdom have been projected into the Brexit debate.

The Irish voters’ concerns were addressed in a series of ‘legal guarantees’. These guarantees were included in a Protocol, in order to “give full Treaty status to the clarifications (agreed) to meet the concerns of the Irish people”.

The point will be made that the circumstances faced by the European Council in addressing the concerns of the Irish people in 2008 are different than the problems posed by the DUP veto: that is a fair point.

There is, however, a parallel in that at the core of the case made by the DUP leadership are concerns about being propelled in some way into a united Ireland or separated from the United Kingdom.

Those concerns have nothing to do with the arrangements on offer on last Monday to meet the unique problems that arise for the people of Ireland, North and South when Brexit happens, but they should not be simply brushed aside.

Rather what should be done now is to look for a way, as was done at the time of the Lisbon Treaty, to enshrine in the Brexit agreement a guarantee that any special arrangements to deal with the unique problems that arise on the island of Ireland are not a threat to the status of Northern Ireland.

As happened following the Lisbon 1 referendum, such a guarantee could be given a treaty status binding on Ireland and on the UK and ‘underwritten’ by the EU.

The Good Friday Agreement normalised relations between the diverse communities on the island of Ireland. The Agreement created the conditions that allowed peace to take root. It also brought about a unique trading relationship between industries operating in both parts of Ireland.

It is worth recalling that in 1998 the citizens of the Republic of Ireland supported the Good Friday Agreement when they voted by 94% in favour of Constitutional amendments necessitated to give effect to the agreement.

In a referendum held on the same day in Northern Ireland, a phenomenal 81% of voters turned out to vote in favour of the agreement by a 71% to 29% margin. The consensus that was demonstrated in the vote taken across the island of Ireland that day was unique in our long and often troubled history.

It would be a very poor day for all the people of Ireland if the political fumble of last Monday were allowed to undo in any way what has been so painstakingly constructed since the Agreement was put in place. Politicians of all stripes in London, Dublin and Belfast have a special responsibility to ensure that does not happen.