Monday, April 23, 2018

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A Unique Customs Union

A unique Customs Union between Northern Ireland and the European Union - that’s the solution to the Irish border question and Brexit which controversial commentator Dr John Coulter is proposing in his latest Fearless Flying Column today.

Ireland, north and south, along with the European Union needs its own unique Customs Union to avoid the economic nightmare of a hard border as the Brexit clock ticks towards March 2019.

The EU is clearly adamant about the need for Northern Ireland to remain in its Customs Union after Brexit, and the DUP’s dogmatic stance over an Irish Language Act which saw the latest Ulster peace talks flop, British Prime Minister Theresa May could be forgiven for thinking she has no way through the Customs Union impasse.

However, there is a compromise which is both achievable and workable - a special new Customs Union between Northern Ireland and the European Union post Brexit could well be the solution which the staunchly euro skeptic DUP could compromise on.

As the situation currently exists, the DUP will not agree to Northern Ireland remaining in the present Customs Union after March 2019, but if past experiences of DUP compromises during the Irish peace process are taken as a benchmark, a completely new – and unique – Customs Union could be on the cards.

The political wild card which must be factored in at this stage is the collapse of the negotiations between Sinn Fein and the DUP which could have seen the devolved power-sharing Executive at Stormont fully restored. It has been collapsed since January 2017.

With no agreement on restoring devolution, Direct Rule from Westminster seems the likely option.

The DUP has already negotiated a cash boost for Northern Ireland – estimated to be around one billion pounds – in exchange for the votes of its 10 MPs to keep Theresa May’s Government in power, especially given the fallout of the recent air strikes in Syria.

In spite of the DUP’s public euro skeptism, given the party’s substantial support among the pro-Union farming community, the question could be posed - how many DUP farming voters actually voted ‘remain’ in the membership referendum because of the EU subsidies to the agricultural sector?

While the DUP is staunchly opposed to Northern Ireland remaining in the Customs Union as it presently exists, the party could compromise on a new deal which would see the creation of a special one-off Customs Union between Northern Ireland and the EU.

What is at stake here in dictating which format any proposed new Customs Union could take will be the type of Direct Rule over Northern Ireland.

Traditionally and historically, Direct Rule from Westminster has involved the Government of the day appointing MPs from British mainland constituencies to run the various political departments in the Northern Ireland Office.

However, given the unique arrangement which the DUP now has with the Tories, could the DUP be in a position to negotiate which MPs are appointed to the NIO? Even better for the DUP, could the party actually demand that the NIO ministerial team be staffed by MPs elected from Northern Ireland?

The current tally of 18 MPs from Northern Ireland comprise 10 DUP, one Independent Unionist (Lady Sylvia Hermon, the widow of a former police chief constable) and seven abstentionist Sinn Fein MPs, who still refuse to take their Commons seats.

Given that Sinn Fein and the Dublin government oppose Direct Rule, for Theresa May to appoint a team of DUP MPs to run the NIO could be a step too far and destabilise the entire peace process established by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The compromise which the DUP could agree to is that it could negotiate with the Prime Minister which Conservative MPs are appointed to run the NIO. This would allow Mrs May to select Tories from the euro skeptic Right of the party who would be favourable towards the DUP – even through Northern Ireland overall voted ‘remain’ in the referendum.

The Dublin government, likewise, would naturally prefer the existing Customs Union to be in place after March 2019 to avoid the economic nightmare of the so-called ‘hard border’, which would make cross-border trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic very cumbersome.

While euro skeptics in the DUP point to the fact that Northern Ireland does more trade with mainland Britain than with the Republic, the DUP will have to adopt an economic all-island – as opposed to a political all-Ireland – compromise to secure the financial stability of both states on the geographical island of Ireland.

The key question – with some form of Direct Rule inevitable – is who would negotiate this unique Customs Union between the EU and Northern Ireland? Would this be done as part of the overall UK negotiating team, or could an NIO – staffed by either Tory or DUP MPs, or a combination of both – be given special negotiating rights to agree an EU/NI Customs Union compromise?

London and Dublin must also keep uppermost in their minds that the DUP2018 is not the same political beast as the DUP1988 led then by the late Rev Ian Paisley.

While Paisley senior – later Lord Bannside – is perhaps best known for his ‘Never, never, never’ speech against the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, he did compromise and negotiate the St Andrews Agreement of 2006 which heralded in the power-sharing Stormont Executive between the DUP and Sinn Fein. The bottom line is – in spite of the DUP’s perceived Hard Right image, it can be pragmatic enough to compromise when called upon.

On paper, a unique EU/NI Customs Union is the obvious solution to guarantee the required ‘soft border’ option between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It is the clear compromise which could politically palatable for EU negotiator Michel Barnier, the UK Brexit team – and especially the DUP.

But this all comes with a severe health warning. If Northern Ireland gets a unique Customs Union deal, the Scottish nationalists will equally demand one given that Scotland also voted ‘remain’. Could this see the formation of a Celtic Alliance between Ireland and Scotland?

Then what happens if Westminster compromises on Dublin and Sinn Fein’s demands that a peace deal be negotiated for Northern Ireland using the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference?

The Conference is currently only a recommendation-making body. What happens if it is upgraded to a decision-taking forum? That could leave a unique EU/NI Customs Union looking like an exact mirror image of the current structure.

Dr John Coulter has been a journalist working in Ireland for the past 40 years.

His ebook, An Sais Glas (The Green Sash) The Road to National Republicanism is published on Amazon Kindle.

Dr Coulter is on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter