Jeffrey Donaldson: The Taoiseach will just have to wait for the Brexit plan
Leo Varadkar’s comments are not clever politics but deeply unhelpful to all
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Queen’s University Belfast: It is embarrassing when the leader of a government seems to be ignorant of the reality that there is already an economic border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA
The DUP’s decision to support the UK leaving the European Union was based on principle and practicality. On principle, the DUP had opposed joining in the first place. In terms of practicality, when the then prime minister David Cameron attempted to achieve tangible reform of the EU we supported this initiative. The deafness of the EU institutions to change in those negotiations meant that this process did not deliver the fundamental reform the EU required. Therefore, with no reasonable alternative available, the DUP chose to maintain its stance and advocate for a Leave vote across the United Kingdom.
The UK’s departure from the EU inevitably brings with it opportunities as well as challenges. In this year’s manifesto for the UK general election, we outlined our position on the outcome we preferred for Brexit. For our part we will work to get the best deal for Northern Ireland, recognising that we share a land frontier with the Republic and the particular circumstances of our unique history and geography. Working together sensibly we have the opportunity to secure a good outcome that delivers for everyone. We also made clear in our manifesto that we supported:
- A comprehensive free trade and customs agreement with the EU resulting in ease of trade with the Irish Republic and throughout the EU;
- Maintenance of the common travel area between the UK and Irish Republic;
- A frictionless border with the Irish Republic assisting those working or travelling in the other jurisdiction;
- Northern Ireland established as a hub for trade from the Irish Republic into the broader UK market;
- Strengthened relationships across the four component parts of the UK with no internal borders; and
- Progress on new free trade deals with the rest of the world.
These are the broad objectives that the DUP has set and we are working closely with the UK government to deliver them. However, in advance of reaching a comprehensive trade and customs agreement with the EU, the idea that we can now spell out in detail the practical workings of such an agreement in terms of the Border is clearly nonsensical. Both the DUP and the UK government acknowledge that delivering a relatively frictionless border will not be easy but we believe there are technological solutions that can help achieve this. We have made clear many times that we want a soft border but I am afraid the Taoiseach and those who prematurely suggest we should detail what this looks like in the absence of any legal or political context are going to have to wait a little longer.
Indeed, since Enda Kenny and Charlie Flanagan departed the scene, confusion seems to be the order of the day. The intemperate outburst by the Taoiseach at a press briefing expressing anger at the UK’s decision to leave the EU is just the latest in a series of inconsistent and incoherent messages from the Irish Government. We had Simon Coveney talking about special status for Northern Ireland and seeming to adopt the language of Sinn Féin. Then he was forced into an embarrassing “clarification” that in fact he didn’t mean support for the type of unattainable demand that Sinn Féin want. Indeed even the European Parliament has since voted down that particular idea.
Then we had the demand for the Irish Sea to become the Border after Brexit. Simon Coveney at least had the sense to quickly realise such a proposition was a non-starter and denied this was the intention, only for his boss to let loose and confirm the opposite. It is embarrassing when the leader of a government seems to be ignorant of the reality that there is already an economic border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Does the Taoiseach not realise that every time you cross the Border you need to change currency or that each jurisdiction is subject to entirely different taxation and financial regimes? The Irish Sea doesn’t change that reality and talk of shifting the Border is pure fantasy.
Great Britain is the largest marketplace for local goods and services produced in Northern Ireland. This accounts for 73 per cent of trade flows in and out of Belfast harbour. In terms of manufacturing, the 2015 Northern Ireland Manufacturing Sales and Exports Survey found that sales to GB were worth six times (£8.3 billion) more than those to the Republic of Ireland (£1.4 billion). A border on the Irish Sea may give the Republic of Ireland a special economic status within Northern Ireland but the heavy price would be new barriers to trade in the UK for firms and farmers here. Indeed the fact the Taoiseach has moved toward this approach will be as worrying for Irish beef producers as it is for Northern Ireland dairy processors. In 2016, almost 40 per cent of all Irish exports went to the UK, including 49 per cent of all beef.
It is therefore good the UK government swiftly and forcefully debunked any notion of internal borders within the UK. That’s in line with previous commitments given to us by the prime minister and it’s something that is non-negotiable.
Sensible work to achieve practical and mutually beneficial arrangements for the Border after Brexit have been stopped on Leo Varadkar’s orders. The Taoiseach may think this is clever politics and it may earn him a slap on the back from some but it is seen in London and Belfast as deeply unhelpful. We need the Taoiseach and his government to engage constructively with us to help deliver an outcome that benefits both Northern Ireland and the Republic. Is Leo Varadkar a pragmatist or an idealist? Is he a Collins or a de Valera? Time will tell.