May’s speech likely to suggest Brexit is getting harder

Impact on North seems to be minor factor in Britain’s approach to leaving the EU

Leaks from Mrs May’s speech, allied to her intention to strike trade deals with other countries, suggest UK unlikely to stay in customs union. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Nowhere will Theresa May’s long-awaited speech on Brexit, due to be delivered on Tuesday at Lancaster House in London, be more closely watched than in Dublin.

Ireland is in the front line of dealing with Brexit – economically, politically and even physically – as the only state to share a land border with the UK.

Trade between the UK and Ireland amounts to a billion euros a week, give or take; the two governments share responsibility for the protection of the peace process, the implementation of the Belfast Agreement and the preservation of the fractious – and endangered – Stormont institutions; and a change in the UK's relationship with the EU may mean a change in the way the 500km Border between the two parts of Ireland works,

In short, nothing is more important than Brexit for the Irish Government.


In recent weeks, senior figures in Dublin have been accommodating themselves to the realisation that the tide between London and Brussels is moving towards a hard Brexit.

Yesterday’s leaks to the British press of the thrust of Mrs May’s speech, if not its exact text, has heightened this sense.

‘Bespoke’ deal

To the delight of Britain’s Eurosceptic press, the leaks from May’s speech indicate that she will lead Britain out of the single market and probably the customs union, though she will seek a “bespoke” deal that preserves some elements of both in Britain’s future relationship with the EU.

"She's gone for the full works," a Tory source told the Sunday Telegraph.

What is completely absent from the great majority of coverage of Mrs May's speech in the British press yesterday was any suggestion that serious consideration is being given at Number 10 to how the manner and substance of Brexit will affect Northern Ireland.

The current crisis at Stormont, likely to result in the dissolution of the Assembly at 5pm on Monday and the calling of elections, is pretty far down the UK government’s agenda. Perhaps that’s understandable – Brexit dwarfs everything else on Mrs May’s to-do list. But even when it comes to Brexit, the North and the implications for the Border don’t seem to figure much as part of that process either.

Government sources confirmed yesterday that they did not have any indications from Downing St about the positions that Mrs May will outline on Tuesday. But junior finance minister Eoghan Murphy did a reasonable job of summing up the views of the pessimists in Government (of course, they call themselves realists) when he told an audience of Irish investors in the Hong Kong yesterday that nobody is really preparing for a soft Brexit any more.

Restrict immigration

The news that Mrs May intends to quit the single market will not surprise many observers. The Brexit referendum was mostly about the desire to restrict immigration – or rather, immigration from EU countries, even though it comprises less than half of total immigration to the UK. And the EU has made clear from the word go that single market membership requires free movement of people.

But many in the Irish Government hoped the UK would stay in the customs union, which allows for free movement of goods (though not people, services and capital). The leaks from Mrs May’s speech, allied to her well-advertised intentions to strike trade deals with other countries (she can’t do this if Britain remains in the customs union) suggest that this is less likely.

Increasingly, it is becoming clear that the common travel area between Ireland the UK cannot be maintained without a special arrangement for Ireland that will bend the positions of both the British and the EU to accommodate the situation here.

There have been some positive noises from the EU and from other member states, and also from the British, but as yet no hard evidence that they are prepared to chisel out an Irish protocol, or exception, or understanding.

Right from the word go, it was clear that Brexit was going to be very difficult for this country. The closer it gets, the more difficult it looks.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times