Any Brexit deal is unlikely to tick all the boxes

Any Brexit deal is unlikely to tick all the boxes

This week the British Home Office announced it is to issue one million texts to UK passport holders.

The idea is to remind anyone intending to travel to Europe after Brexit that they will need valid passports to ensure they will be allowed in. Not just that, the passports must have at least six months to go before their original expiry date.

This requirement shouldn’t trouble any residents of this island moving from north to south or from south to north. The long standing Common Travel Area arrangements should suffice.

But the North remains pivotal within the increasingly desperate attempts to come to an arrangement of some description that will shield British citizens from the worst disruptions of a no-deal Brexit.

The projections in the British Government’s Operation Yellowhammer dossier, which outlines what could happen, are so extreme as to be almost unbelievable, and therein lies its weakness.

Food and medicine restrictions, business collapse due to unpreparedness, travel chaos – it couldn’t really get that bad surely?

At this late stage and perhaps prompted by such fears, proper attention is now being given to the role which the North can play in ensuring a land border arrangement which is acceptable to the EU and to all communities of interest within the UK.

The North was at an enormous disadvantage over the course of the Brexit negotiations by not having a functioning Stormont assembly and a working Northern Ireland Executive.

Any Brexit deal is unlikely to tick all the boxes

The only clear indication of what the concerns of the Northern Ireland Executive would have been is set out in a letter of August 14 2016.

The letter was from the then First Minister, Arlene Foster, and the then Deputy First Minister, the late Martin McGuinness, to the UK Prime Minister Theresa May. In recent weeks this letter has become significant as a political touchstone.

Almost a year on from when it was last discussed in this column, its contents are worth revisiting.

The border was the first issue highlighted, noting the "difficult issues relating to the border throughout our history and the peace process".

The First and Deputy First Ministers said that the border should not become an impediment to the movement of people, goods and services, or - for that matter - to become a catalyst for illegal activity. That aspiration is not possible in a Brexit no-deal scenario.

The second area identified was to maintain ease of trade with EU member states and retain access to labour. That cannot be achieved unless the UK were to remain within the Single Market and Customs Union, which is not really on any British agenda other than that of the Liberal Democrats.

The third priority was energy supply, perhaps achievable with the maintenance of the Single Electricity Market on the island of Ireland.

The fourth area was funding.

Both McGuinness and Foster identified that EU funds coming into the North would dry up post-Brexit. Replacement of those funds would become a matter of brokerage between Belfast and Westminster.

Any Brexit deal is unlikely to tick all the boxes

Lastly, agri-food, including fisheries, was seen as being uniquely vulnerable both to the loss of EU funding and to potential tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade. Again in a no-deal scenario, this concern cannot be addressed.

The doomed Brexit withdrawal agreement that failed to get through the House of Commons would have satisfied many of the priorities of the then First and Deputy First Ministers.

A new form of withdrawal agreement - which could emerge in the next few days or weeks - might not tick as many boxes for anyone.

It may, however, meet some of the original Brexit priorities of the North's leadership.

For all concerned, that ought to be enough.

Brian Keegan is director of public policy at Chartered Accountants Ireland

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