Tag Archives: Good Friday Agreement

Might the Irish/Irish border be the issue that derails #Brexit?  

19 Nov

This is a Brexit analysis piece I wrote for the weekly BEERG newsletter on Nov 9th, 2017

During the course of a debate on “Brexit and the Bar” held at the annual Bar conference in London earlier this week, senior British and Irish legal figures raised questions over the compatibility of Brexit with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (also called the Belfast Agreement), warning that the landmark peace agreement may even have to be renegotiated if Britain leaves the customs union as a result of Brexit.

Paul McGarry, SC, chairman of the Bar Council of Ireland, said that the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union and likely exit from the customs union was “incompatible” with the provisions of the deal on issues such as citizenship and the free movement of people, saying:

“A hard Brexit presupposes no membership of the customs union and no membership of the single market. If you start off from that premise, you are automatically looking at some form of border and that’s incompatible with a whole variety of things, [including] the concept of citizenship for everyone born on the island in the Good Friday agreement… It’s incompatible with the common travel area, which is not part of the Good Friday agreement but predates the EU.”

Liam McCollum, QC, chairman of the Bar of Northern Ireland, echoed this analysis saying that Brexit. “[It] is as an insoluble an issue as you could possibly imagine,” and would “undermine the Good Friday agreement”. 

Mr McGarry went further in his critique, reminding the audience that the Good Friday Agreement is not just a piece of domestic law that could be tweaked and amended, but rather an international agreement between the Irish and British governments reached after years of painstaking negotiations, saying

“The Good Friday agreement is an international treaty recognised in EU law and the problem is if you want to amend or change it you have to renegotiate it, and [that is] regarded as being very, very, very difficult to do,”

“Most people are adopting the view that the UK can make its final agreement with the EU compatible with what’s in the Good Friday Agreement, [but] certainly nothing that’s been said so far would seem to work,”

As if this underline this later point the British government’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland published an article on the Brexit Central website on Thursday with the headline: “Creative thinking can provide solutions to Northern Ireland’s Brexit challenges”. He finishes his article saying:

“…Within the Northern Ireland-Ireland Dialogue, we have agreed that the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement should be protected in full, including its constitutional arrangements.”

“We have proposed that the UK and the EU seek to agree text for the Withdrawal Agreement that recognises the ongoing status of the Common Travel Area and have already developed joint principles with the EU on this. We have also mapped out areas of cooperation that function on a North-South basis to ensure this continues once the UK has left the EU. None of this was ever going to be easy but I believe, with a positive attitude on all sides, it is achievable.” (My emphasis)

Note the passivity of Brokenshire’s phraseology: “should be protected”, “seek to agree text”, not to mention the Pollyanna-esque belief that a “positive attitude on all sides” can see this through – and remember that this is one of the three key issues in the first phase of talks. More importantly, remember that the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, will be reporting back to the EU heads of government in four or five weeks on whether sufficient progress has been made on this issue, along with the financial settlement and citizens’ rights, to warrant moving to phase two talks on post Brexit trade arrangements.

The EU’s Guiding Principles for the Dialogue on Ireland/Northern Ireland within the EU/UK Article 50 negotiations are quite specific when it comes to avoiding a hard border in Ireland and protecting on the Good Friday Agreement. They include this para:

Ensuring the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland is central to protecting the gains of the Peace Process underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. In view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required to avoid a hard border, including any physical border infrastructure. This must be achieved in a way which ensures that Ireland’s place within the Internal Market and Customs Union is unaffected.

This issue is clear. The EU says that it wants to avoid a return to a hard border across Ireland, including any infrastructure.   The UK insists that all the UK, including Northern Ireland, is leaving the Customs Union and that means, by definition, having a hard border. The response of the EU 27, including Ireland, is straight forward: the onus to propose solutions which overcome the challenges created on the island of Ireland by Brexit, including the decision to leave the customs union and the internal market, remains on the United Kingdom.

But, none are forthcoming, and the clock is ticking. If the UK fails to propose workable solutions, then there cannot be a workable Brexit. Might Northern Ireland and the Irish/Irish border yet be the issue that derails Brexit?

Our neophyte Taoiseach fades in the (BBC NI) Spotlight…

14 Nov

This column: Leo in the Spotlight appeared on Broadsheet.ie on October 24th 

SpotlightThough it has appeared to slip by without much political comment, the Taoiseach’s BBC TV interview last Tuesday (16th Oct) showed that he is not quite the master of the medium that his friends would have us believe.

He was being interviewed as part of a BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight programme profiling our neophyte Taoiseach. It looked at his life and his rise to high office, with a focus on how he has approached the North and Brexit over the four months since becoming Taoiseach.

It was a fairly standard profile format. A 40-minute programme featuring a one on one sit-down interview, interspersed with archive clips and packages on specific issues.

Though it was no fawning hagiography, neither was it the most demanding or probing of interviews. The interview section took up less than 50% of the show, with questions on current political issues only taking up about 40 – 50% of that portion: about 8 – 10 minutes.

But for a good portion of those 10 minutes the Taoiseach struggled. But, worse than that he also demonstrated a blissful ignorance of a key element of relations both on and between these two islands.

His first stumble was on the issue of Brexit, specifically on the right of people in Northern Ireland having the right to exercise their EU citizenship.

The interviewer asked him if Ireland would be prepared to pick up the tab where someone from Northern Ireland holding Irish citizenship – and by extension EU citizenship – had an operation in another EU state. As the UK would by then be outside the EU, would the bill for the procedure be paid by the Irish government, he enquired?

A technical, not to mention hypothetical, question which seemed more designed to highlight the interviewer’s research skills, than to elicit information that might help the punter gain a better understanding of the issue.

It was the kind of question for which The West Wing (TV series) mantra: “never accept the premise of the question” could have been coined.

But the Taoiseach – a former health and social protection minister – did accept it followed by the uncomfortable sight of seeing him struggle to grasp the underlining concept and, then, eventually work his way through to an answer.

Similarly, when asked about his views on Sinn Féin, the Taoiseach essentially spoke of it as just another political party. Not exactly the line he has been pushing in his recent Dáil spats with Gerry and Mary Lou. If Micheál Martin were asked that question the word ‘cult’ would feature prominently in his reply.

Though it was cringe-making, even for a non-fan like me, if the Leo interview had ended there, then it would have been a passable performance. But it didn’t.

Asked, at the very end of the programme, if Brexit had made a United Ireland more or less likely, the Taoiseach not only went off piste, he went clear off the mountain range.

He started out fine. He opened his response with the obligatory reaffirmation of the Irish government’s commitment to the Good Friday Agreement but then, before our eyes, the Taoiseach morphed into Leo Varadkar, precocious wunderkind and attempted a single-handed redefinition of consent effectively junking a central tenet of the Good Friday Agreement, saying:

“…I wouldn’t like us to get to the point whereby we are changing the constitutional position here in Northern Ireland on a 50% plus one basis”.

“One of the best things about the Good Friday Agreement is that it did get very strong cross-Border support, that’s why there was a 70 per cent vote for it. I don’t think that there would be a 70 per cent vote for a united Ireland in the morning, for example, or anything remotely to that. And I really think we should focus on making the agreement that we have work.”

Worse still, he did it all unaided. There were no interruptions or interjections from the interviewer. No one else brought up 50% plus one, the Taoiseach did it all by himself, out of his own mouth.

Was this Leo making a major policy change on the principle of consent on the hoof or was this him failing to grasp a core policy position that has been around since the mid-1990s?

Regrettably I fear it was both.

This was the Taoiseach making up a policy on an issue he seemed fundamentally unable to grasp.

I say this as his address to the Derry Chamber of Commerce, a few days before the programme was aired, echoed the same approach, though without the reference to a 70% threshold.

What this Taoiseach fails to grasp, in contrast to his predecessors, including his most immediate one, is that consent is at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. It applies equally and in parallel to both communities, as Seamus Mallon said at the 1998 British Labour party conference:

“Equality, parity of esteem and parallel consent are written into the Agreement – they are core of the new dispensation which we can and will implement.”

Simply put, you cannot say to one community in the North that the bar for their aspirations is to be set higher than for the other, whether that is 2, 5, 10 or 20% higher. That is the approach that prevailed in the North for decades.

The Taoiseach also fails to understand that the Good Friday Agreement, whose text appears on the website of his department, is not just a political document setting out some vague hopes and dreams, it is a sovereign agreement between two governments. It is a legal agreement that sets out the legal precepts underpinning the peace process and not something he can amend on a whim.

If his intention is to convince Unionism that he is their friend, then he will fail as they will see his comments as either patronising or undeliverable – or, both.

If his aim is to score political points off Gerry Adams’ fatuous calls for a border poll, then he will also fail. Not because there will be a Border Poll – there won’t – but because he is answering to Adams’ dog whistle.

The answer is not to raise the figure up from 50%+1 for one community, but to remind all those who demand a Border poll that with 50%+1 comes a great responsibility, a responsibility to make that situation work for more than just those who favour it.

Bizarrely, this is the point where Varadkar and Adams’ joint playing with numbers on consent risks unpicking the concept that made the agreement possible.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps what we saw on BBC Spotlight last week was not a Taoiseach making up policy on the hoof, but one who is so convinced by his own hype and spin that he went on to a TV programme ill-prepared and decided to just “wing it”.

Either way, the outcome is that he exposed his own lack of knowledge for no gain. He talked big, achieved nothing and managing to piss off all sides while doing it – just another average day for this government.

Why the Good Friday Agreement is a good metaphor for @FiannaFailparty

26 Apr
Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis this weekend

Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis this weekend

My column on this weekend’s Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis from today’s Herald

If you are planning to head to Ballsbridge for a quiet pint or a cup of coffee this Friday or Saturday – think again. From about 5pm this Friday until well past mid-night on Saturday the area around the RDS will be saturated with about five thousand exuberant and excitable Fianna Fáil-ers gathered for the party’s Árd Fheis – including yours truly.

If you decide to follow the Árd Fheis proceedings online or on air you can expect to hear the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), whose fifteenth anniversary passed two weeks ago with little acknowledgement from the Government, mentioned several times.

Many in Fianna Fáil fear that its greatest recent political achievement is being slowly air brushed out of official history.

The impression is being given that the GFA was merely the logical and inevitable consequence of the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement, about which we have heard a lot following the deaths of both Garret Fitzgerald and Margaret Thatcher.

As one of many people who spent countless hours travelling up and down to Belfast on pre M1 roads that stopped for lollipop ladies in Balbriggan and Julianstown, I can assure you there was nothing inevitable about it.

But the Good Friday Agreement is also something of a metaphor for Fianna Fáil itself.

We now see that that getting agreement was the easier piece of work when compared with the effort and energy required to get it implemented and working – well, almost working.

The same is true of Fianna Fáil. The work required to get the party to this point has been huge, but it as nothing to the work ahead.

While last year’s Árd Fheis focused mainly on important internal reforms, such as One Member One Vote, the truly difficult work starts now.

This Árd Fheis is more about facing outwards and talking to an electorate who now shows signs of being ready to listen to what the party has to say. But the party’s improving opinion poll figures should not delude pundits, or even party members, to thinking its resurgence is assured.

To be brutally frank, what has Fianna Fail said or done in recent months to justify such increases? While it has produced some very fine policy proposals such as the Family Home Bill and Regulation of Debt Management Advisors Bill, they hardly account for bounce.

Nor does the performance of the party’s spokespeople.

Without doubt the party has scored significant hits on the government in recent months, particularly via its Health Spokesman Billy Kelliher, its Finance Spokesman Michael McGrath and its Justice Spokesman Niall Collins and, of course, the party leader Michéal Martin, but it is finding it difficult to mark all bases with such few Oireachtas personnel.

While he has several new people inside the Oireachtas who he can use effectively: such as Senators Averil Power and Marc McSharry, perhaps the leader also needs to look outside the ranks of the parliamentary party for other new faces and voices to put on Radio and TV in senior roles – Dublin Bay South’s Cllr Jim O’Callaghan for instance.

The hard truth is that the increases are as much down to Fine Gael and Labour’s travails as they are to any softening of attitude to Fianna Fáil. Besides, as the poll analysts would tell you, it is dangerous to read too much into opinion polls where over 30% of the respondents are answering: don’t know.

This is not to underestimate the size of what the party has achieved. At this time last year it was a tough job convincing others that while the party may be down, it was not finished. The big achievement has not been the increases in the polls, but rather the halt in the party’s decline.

At last year’s Árd Fheis the party helped reverse that decline by re-introducing itself to its own members, this weekend it starts the even great task of re-introducing itself to its former supporters. Let’s hope it has more success in doing that than the GFA has had in getting its institutions working.