The real Brexit challenge

10 August 2017 - by Anna Mercer

The present Stormont impasse poses significant challenges as the Brexit process continues.

It is now over a year since the UK voted to leave the European Union – lest you need reminding, and still, little is known about what this will mean in practice. What of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic? Will border checks be required? How can the right to Irish citizenship enable continued membership of the EU for those in Northern Ireland who choose to identify as such?

Whilst these questions persist, and in the absence of certainty in any part of the UK about the reality of a post-Brexit world, Northern Ireland’s limited participation, vis-à-vis an Executive, means that representations on our interests are somewhat fragmented,  and it has fallen to individual parties to engage in their own strategies.

Now, although this “separate but equal” approach may be nothing new to us here, in the context of making the case to the remaining 27 member states, not to mention our chief negotiators in the UK Government, the quirks of a style of governance to which we have become accustomed will be much more challenging for others to interpret.

Pursuing its own very different strategy, Sinn Féin embarked on a tour of Europe, making the argument for Northern Ireland to be granted “special status” within any settlement, a concept not without EU precedent. This approach proposes particular measures acknowledging the strong ties with the rest of Ireland.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin’s erstwhile partner in government, the DUP, is now wedded to the Conservative Party through the ‘confidence and supplyagreement, a pact centred on offering support to Theresa May on all Brexit-related votes.

So, whilst both parties are exhibiting their personal commitments to working through and shaping a Brexit deal, the absence of an agreed position from the Executive (beyond the joint letter issued to the Prime Minister last August) means that this effort may not have the desired impact on those being lobbied. Many member states have shown a willingness to acknowledge the sensitivity of the constitutional issues in Northern Ireland; however, there exists a very real threat that efforts made by parties here will become confused in the noise and, ultimately, lost in translation.

It would appear, also, that the lack of an Executive is not only frustrating our own engagement. Yesterday, the Scottish and Welsh governments hit out at the fact that a joint ministerial council tasked with giving voice to the devolved regions has not met in over six months. The committee had met four times between November 2016 and February 2017, but in the absence of working institutions in Northern Ireland, a House of Commons report concluded that it was likely discussions on Brexit would be held directly between Whitehall and the Scottish and Welsh governments individually. Even more concerning, the Scottish Government have accused the UK Government of a “power grab” and that they could not support the EU withdrawal bill (Repeal Bill) as it stands as it centralises some devolved policy competencies at Westminster rather than Holyrood. This logic applies across the devolved regions, and so we may well be sleepwalking towards returning powers to Westminster.

Therefore, any representations that are made in the meantime by any of the local parties do not carry the weight of those made through the power-sharing arrangements. The lack of cross-party engagement on this matter is costing us valuable time in contributing to what will be the biggest political change of our lifetime.

It would be unfair, of course, to attribute all of this to the absence of an Executive, as prior to its fall in January, no committee had been established to consider and shape how Brexit would impact Northern Ireland. Indeed, there was little practical, bi-partisan engagement of any kind – such as a committee  aimed at forging a common position.

In any event, what is clear is that collective messaging, which addresses the unique nature of our relationships with both the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain, is in short supply. Much is now dependent on how others perceive us, rather than how we portray ourselves.