The Ulster Question: Taking ‘the Union’ out of the Brexit debate.

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

An Anti-Brexit sign is seen on a small side border crossing of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, near the Omeath Road South Armagh, Northern Ireland, 26 May 2018. [PaulMcErlane/EPA/EFE]

Brexit has become a ‘21st Century Ulster Question’, writes Dick Roche, who also suggests how it 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.

The issue of communal identity has plagued Irish history.

Community identity and the Ulster Question dominated political debate in Ireland through much of the last century

Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed it is extraordinary and not a little sad that these twin issues have thrown the process of agreeing an orderly Brexit into disarray.

After last week’s visit to Brussels by Arlene Foster, whose Democratic Unionist Party holds a vital key to the survival of Mrs May’s Government Michel Barnier spoke of “working hard to explain and de-dramatise the backstop.”

The reason that the “backstop” has become a such a dramatic issue is, in escence, that it has become – in some minds – a threat to the Union berween Northern Ireland and the UK,  a possible first step towards breaking Northern Ireland away from the United Kingdom and in the long term even a possible threat to the United Kingdom itself.

Brexit has become a ‘21st Century Ulster Question’.

Barnier was correct when he spoke of de-dramatising the issue but perhaps his focus was a little off.

Resolving the Northern Ireland /Ireland conundrum would be less challenging for skilled negotiators – if the core concern for those Unionists and Conservatives who feel that what is available in some way threatens the very being of the United Kingdom – can be resolved: and it can!

If concerns about the Union are addressed the geographical reality that Ireland is an island makes the crafting of a bespoke trade arrangement for Ireland a resolvable task – without a hard border.

The question is how can the Union be taken out of the debate?

In Ireland, North and South, we have an inexhaustible capacity to see issues in terms of their threatening some fundamental principle.

In the Republic we saw this when it came to ratifying both the Nice and the Lisbon treaties.

In both cases, opponents of ratification spoke of important principles being at stake. If either Treaty were ratified it was argued Ireland’s principle of military neutrality, Ireland’s tax sovereignty and the Irish Constitutional position on “the right to life, education and the family” would be swept away.

The biggest problem in dealing with the voter rejection of Lisbon and Nice was not addressing the concerns that arose from the actual provision of either treaty. The big problem was addressing concerns that were projected on to both treaties.

As the treaties did not deal with military neutrality, did not change the rules relating to tax sovereignty and were silent on the Irish Constitutional position on “the right to life, education and the family” amending specific details of either treaty to address these concerns was not the solution: there was nothing in either treaty to strike out or to amend.

In the case of the Nice Treaty a declaration was adopted by the EU Council in Seville that recognised the right of Ireland to decide in accordance with her constitution whether and how to participate in any activities under the European Security and Defence Policy.

In the case of the Lisbon Treaty Irish voters’ concerns about neutrality, tax sovereignty and the social provisions enshrined in the Irish Constitution were addressed in a series of ‘legal guarantees’. These guarantees were included in a Protocol appended to the Lisbon Treaty that gave “full Treaty status to the clarifications (agreed) to meet the concerns of the Irish people”.

There was a concern that did arise from the Lisbon Treaty provisions – the question of ‘Ireland losing her right to appoint a Commissioner’. The EU Council agreed that this provision would be ‘shelved’ if the Lisbon Treaty were ratified by Ireland.

The approach adopted in the case of the Nice and the Lisbon treaties has a direct bearing on the concerns about Northern Ireland and its place in the United Kingdom.

As in the Irish referenda concerns about Northern Ireland’s future within the United Kingdom have been projected into the Brexit debate. Those concerns have become a major stumbling block.

Nothing in the withdrawal process is intended as an attack on the Union that exists between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There is no wish in Dublin or in Brussels to dismantle the United Kingdom. However, simply stating this fact is not enough to address the concerns that exist: dismissing concerns does not answer them.

There is no reason why the approach adopted when Ireland said No to the Nice and the Lisbon should not be put into the mix to address the concerns of Unionists in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the UK.

Doing that could go a long way to, as Mr Barnier puts it, de-dramatising the negotiation process.

If the EU Council were to acknowledge, respect and address the political concerns, and were to include a clear guarantee in the withdrawal agreement that nothing in it is intended to undermine Northern Ireland’s place in the UK crafting an agreement that would avoid re-imposing a hard border might become a whole lot easier.

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