It’s now five and a half years since David Cameron announced his intention to hold an In/Out referendum. It was heralded by his confidantes as a masterstroke which would both end the Tory civil wars on Europe and leverage new terms of EU membership for the UK. I think we can all agree that it hasn’t quite worked out as planned.
Quite simply, it was always about buying more time. It was a short-term political tactic designed to placate the extremes and secure some headlines about supposed decisive leadership.
We do not need to wait for the history books to understand that Cameron’s manoeuvre represents one of the most disastrous failures of leadership in a modern democracy.
It is not just that the people were presented with a dishonest and incomplete question – it showed a cavalier disregard for one of the greatest achievements of modern democracies, the peace and reconciliation agenda in Northern Ireland.
In the High Court in Belfast last year the British Government stated explicitly that the Good Friday Agreement “assumes but does not require membership” of the European Union – yet no effort was or indeed has been made to this day, to show what is to happen once this membership ceases.
At a moment of undeniable crisis there is no useful purpose to be served in talking at length about the failures of the Brexit process, especially in the two years since the referendum.
Today’s Tory party is beyond satire and has long ceased to be amusing. It has put to rest any lingering sense of the seriousness of the self-regarding and childishly-erudite class of public figure which emerges from many of their most prominent schools.
However there is one thread which can be found in the Brexit fiasco from Cameron’s first move up to today – and that is the damage which can be caused by a focus on spinning the news rather than the much harder work of facing reality, building trust and producing credible solutions.
This is primarily a problem with the behaviour of the government in London, but our government also needs to develop the ability to reflect on its own tactics and all sides need to understand that if the process keeps going in the same way no workable outcome is possible.
Push aside the mountain of analysis and commentary and we face a simple reality – we have reached the moment of truth on Brexit and Northern Ireland. The choices facing us are starker than ever, the room for manoeuvre is becoming narrower by the day – there is no more time for delay.
Let’s quickly take stock of exactly where we are because many people are missing together entirely separate issues.
In relation to the overall relationship between the EU and UK there is agreement on all sides that no one is anywhere near being able to agree and enact a new relationship during the Article 50 process – and therefore a transitionary period is needed.
The UK will have full access to the EU up to the end of 2020 and will pay a net €39 billion for this. The Withdrawal Treaty has never been intended to be the place for deciding on a deal or no deal scenario. And the hard, inescapable reality is that everyone wants and needs a transitionary period.
If there can be agreement on at least a framework of a future relationship then the political declaration attached to the Treaty will include it. If there is no such agreement, then all there will be is a process and a hope that something can be worked out during the next two years.
This is something Michel Barnier says all the time and we listen to it far too rarely – the withdrawal process and the future arrangement are different issues and we need to stop thinking that unless everything is agreed by the end of this year there will be a crash-out Brexit on March 30th 2019.
This makes no sense for anyone and it is highly unlikely to happen. And this is where Ireland faces the worst situation of this entire process.
The record shows that the entire negotiating strategy of our government focused on two macro objectives. Have Ireland dealt with before the final discussions and push for a relationship between the UK and EU which would be so close that the measures agreed for Ireland would be irrelevant.
I don’t want to get into a detailed discussion of this, but I have no doubt that key elements of this strategy have clearly failed and were a mistake in the first place – something which was pointed out at the time.
In fact, I was attacked by the Taoiseach 12 months ago for suggesting that Ireland should propose a separate North/South arrangement.
We wasted valuable time on a doomed manoeuvre to use the backstop to cover the whole of the UK and the massive over-hype of one part of last December’s agreement has caused serious damage. When Michel Barnier pleads for the de-dramatising of the backstop we all know where most of the drama was generated.
Today Ireland is actually the only point of significance still to be decided in the Withdrawal Treaty and the attempts to have a close-to-membership arrangement between the UK and the EU has manifestly failed.
Prime Minister May’s Belfast speech last week confirmed yet again the backstop as understood in Dublin is incapable of securing a majority in the British government and parliament.
All sides say there must be no North/South border. The British government insists that there must be no East/West border, while the EU negotiators say there must be some checks if Britain has a different relationship with the EU to Northern Ireland’s.
Having said last December that no new East/West checks will be required as a result of the backstop, our government today has little to say on the matter. So we are left in a position where even the optimists are throwing their hands in the air and saying that a crash is on the way.
And it’s not just the economic damage which the failing Brexit negotiations threaten us with – there is the much more serious and already obvious damage which it is causing to Northern Ireland.
As Mary Murphy has written in her excellent new book on Northern Ireland and Europe, Europe has gone from being a common-ground where parties worked together to achieve things for their communities, to a dangerously divisive and potentially radicalising issue. And at a time when the future of Northern Ireland is being discussed more than at any time in 20 years it has never had less of a voice.
Today marks 560 days since the Assembly and Executive were collapsed over a renewable heating scheme. We all earnestly hope that this Thursday’s meeting of the inter-governmental will mark some major initiative to restore representative institutions in Northern Ireland, but until this happens whatever is the Brexit outcome will lack essential democratic legitimacy.
I don’t want to blame the violence of recent weeks on the Brexit debate, but there is no doubt that the political vacuum in Northern Ireland is creating a dangerous climate.
So how do we deal with the seemingly irreconcilable demands about no North/South or East West checks?
Clearly we have to look for an approach which overcomes the fears of a constitutional slight-of-hand created by the ridiculous and almost messianic over-spinning of the backstop last December.
The starting point should be two uncontestable facts.
First, both parts of this island will suffer greater damage from Brexit if there are North/South barriers.
Second, Northern Ireland needs a major initiative to break the cycle of underdevelopment in which it has been caught in.
Instead of seeing Brexit just as a threat to be minimised, which it undoubtedly is, we have to also find a mechanism for securing a new development agenda for Northern Ireland.
I believe that a special economic zone status offers the best opportunity.There are hundreds of such zones in the world, and it is a concept which was developed here in Shannon.
In some cases the populations covered are numbered in the millions and even though they by definition operate to different rules than other regions, there is no question of any diminution of national sovereignty.
In Northern Ireland’s case it would, in effect, benefit from the best of both worlds. It would have full access to both the UK and the EU markets and not be forced to choose between them. The wider Border region could also be included to provide a bigger economic base.
Given the strength of stated support for Northern Ireland and the historic legacies which it is still coping with, we can reasonably assume that both London and the EU would agree to special treatment for Northern Ireland which would, in certain circumstances give it a competitive advantage.
The idea also benefits from the fact that the leader of the DUP said in January that her party would be willing to consider it, particularly if it could be shown to address their constitutional concerns.
What we know for sure is that it appears foolish to expect that the legal formula proposed in the draft Withdrawal Treaty will be in the final version. Equally there is a vanishingly small chance of Northern Ireland being satisfactorily addressed in the final status arrangement to kick in post 2020.
So we need to try to do something to reframe the issue and create some common ground.
We need to rebuild relations between Dublin and the parties and groups which, I believe falsely, see any backstop as a threat to the agreed constitutional position of Northern Ireland.
We need to understand that time has run out and our room for manoeuvre is disappearing.
Let’s not expect that anyone will prefer a car crash Brexit next March to any form of Brexit at the end of 2020.
In the weeks ahead we have to go further than support Michel Barnier’s attempt to “de-dramatise” an arrangement which our own government helped dramatise. What we need is an initiative to replace the agenda of fears and uncertainty with one which offers a route to development for communities which feel their needs to have been neglected for far too long.