The issue of how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and keep the 1998 peace deal on track has become the biggest challenge to the progress of Brexit talks. Stephen Farry explains how it can be overcome.
Dr Stephen Farry MLA is the deputy leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.
Ahead of Monday’s crucial deadline in the Brexit negotiations for assessing whether or not sufficient progress has been made on Phase I to move on to the next set of issues, the challenge of Northern Ireland and how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and protect the Good Friday Agreement has emerged as the most difficult.
Despite the peace process over the past quarter of a century, Northern Ireland remains a divided society, with differing aspirations in terms of its constitutional status. The Good Friday Agreement defined an important set of relationships in terms of the internal governance of Northern Ireland, north-south and east-west co-operation, and the Principle of Consent to determine the constitutional position.
Economically, Northern Ireland depends upon access to both the UK and the island of Ireland and onwards into the rest of the EU, with regard to both sales and supply-chains. There is also relatively strong dependence on access to labour over a range of skills levels across a wider range of employers and sectors.
Northern Ireland only works on the basis of sharing and interdependence. Yet Brexit entails new divisions and barriers.
The Irish issues on the surface seem intractable, especially considering the inherent contradictions in the UK government position.
First, it is determined to leave the single market and avoid a fresh customs union with the EU. Second, it is determined to ensure that the UK as a whole, including Northern Ireland, leaves both of these structures. And third, it is determined to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, including no physical infrastructure. The problem is that only two of these can be achieved at any one time.
If the UK is to leave the EU, it is clearly preferable that it should remain within the single market, while negotiating a customs union with the EU that replicates the current arrangement.
However, if this is not the case, there is an overwhelming argument for a set of unique arrangements to address the particular interests of the Northern Ireland economy. At its heart should be continued membership of the single market.
It is not sufficient to simply protect Northern Ireland from the impact of Brexit, but also to allow it to develop to its full potential and consider what steps are required to ensure that Northern Ireland is best placed for its future development.
The economic challenge goes beyond just avoiding a hard border either across the island of Ireland or down the Irish Sea.
Economically, Northern Ireland must preserve its existing and future links to both the market in Great Britain and in the Republic of Ireland, alongside the wider European Union and European Economic Area.
Each is of fundamental importance and it is counter-productive and self-defeating for a choice to be forced upon Northern Ireland. Being part of the EU single market and UK single markets are not mutually exclusive choices for this region, and indeed could facilitate new opportunities.
This approach would be entirely consistent with the current constitutional position of Northern Ireland as a devolved administration and the application of the Principle of Consent.
The UK government would need to request that Northern Ireland as a region becomes part of the European Economic Area. Additional devolved powers would need to be granted to Northern Ireland to allow it to take the necessary action to remain in compliance with EU law.
There is a complexity in that, in part due to the polarising effects of Brexit, Northern Ireland has no government and its Assembly is not meeting. While far from ideal, the UK Parliament could in theory intervene and provide this on behalf of Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland should not be seeking to be selective regarding the adherence to the four fundamental freedoms. Indeed, doing so is fundamentally in our interest, including the freedom of movement.
It is also important that Northern Ireland’s economic future is understood on a wider basis than the movement of good to include the faster-growing service sector. This is particularly important if the work over recent decades in terms of transforming its economy in the aftermath of conflict is to not only continue but to accelerate.
Any form of Brexit will bring some degree of friction relative to the status quo. However under these proposals that friction is reduced to rules of origin checks, and the nature and location of this would depend upon where the customs union’s boundary is drawn.
Over the coming days, it should be possible for the UK and EU negotiators to reach and articulate much deeper shared understandings of the nature of the Good Friday Agreement and at a high level the nature of the relationship that Northern Ireland would have with the structures and mechanisms of the European Union to avoid a hard border.