June 1, 2017 by Fiachra
The European Union, the Irish Government and the British government all agree that the Belfast Agreement which paved the way for peace in Northern Ireland must not be impacted by Brexit. Unfortunately, the conventional proposals to maintain stability and peace are unlikely to work – because they do not address the concerns of both Unionists and Nationalists. In general terms, at a minimum Unionists want to maintain their British identity by remaining in the United Kingdom. At a minimum Nationalists want the cultural and political right to an Irish identity, and an invisible and forgetable border with the Republic of Ireland. This was possible in the EU, but it is likely to be compromised by Brexit – unless a creative political solution can be found.
Neither the British, nor the Irish, nor the European Union negotiating teams have made genuinely creative proposals that would allow Northern Ireland to enjoy any status close to the one it currently enjoys. Brexit, they argue, removes any potential for Northern Ireland to remain in the Customs Union and the Single Market. The EU will argue that it cannot negotiate an agreement with a region of the United Kingdom for hard and fast legal regions. Certainly there is no exact precedent for such an arrangement, but other precedents exist. The EU is currently preparing to negotiate a trade agreement with Hong Kong, for example. Hong Kong is clearly part of China, though it is a member of the WTO in its own right and can negotiate on its own behalf in trade agreements.
The question of whether Northern Ireland could follow Hong Kong’s path is a political one. Certainly, giving Northern Ireland the same rights and responsibilities as Hong Kong under the present circumstances would be less than ideal. At a minimum, Northern Ireland’s political system would require significant reform to cope with the added political responsibilities. Furthermore, it is likely that Scotland would follow suit and demand similar rights and responsibilities.
However, let nobody argue that Northern Ireland cannot be part of the Single Market, the Customs Union and the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the same time. It is a question of whether or not Northern Ireland can be given the requisite autonomy to make such commitments and have this autonomy recognised under international law. Whether this autonomy is desirable is another matter.
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