It’s high time Michel Barnier’s actions matched his words on the Irish border

It’s high time Michel Barnier’s actions matched his words on the Irish border

Today, Arlene Foster and I with senior colleagues will meet Michel Barnier.

Our aims in the current negotiations are threefold:

  • to achieve a successful and sensible Brexit
  • to advance the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom
  • to protect the interests of Northern Ireland and its political process

It is clear to everyone that the draft EU legal text published last week is not an accurate reflection of the December agreement and represents a direct assault on our three objectives.

The tactics being adopted by the European Commission are in direct contradiction to their own commitments and words and are based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of how peace was achieved. M. Barnier and the Commission have hard questions to answer.

First, the Commission’s behaviour goes against the founding principles of the European institutions – the recognition of the constitutional and territorial integrity of member states. The EU response to the Catalan situation is the most recent example of the reassertion of that principle. Why do the proposals fail to respect the UK’s integrity? Is this a good precedent to set for its internal and external relationships?

Second, the Commission seems not to recognise the uniqueness of the situation we find ourselves in. The EC’s own negotiation principles recognise the situation as “exceptional” while M. Barnier has spoken of it being without precedent.

So why in the legal text is it so dismissive of Option A (a free trade agreement) and Option B (technical solutions)? Why does the Commission now wash its hands of sections from a joint text? This approach undermines any belief that the Commission is serious. Do they truly want Option A? Will they genuinely explore Option B?

Third, there is a total lack of imagination and innovation. When M. Barnier called for any agreement to be “bold and ambitious” and “open to finding solutions”, why then is the draft legal text so rigid and inflexible? The existing single market and customs union are neither bold nor ambitious. Insistence on them and nothing but them is a long way from demonstrating openness to finding solutions.

Fourth, when M. Barnier delivered his speech to the Dail, he praised the Irish efforts at finding solutions:

“Ireland has done remarkable preparatory work. We have to use our combined strength. Together, we are working towards solutions.”

He delivered this speech in May 2017, when Enda Kenny was still Taoiseach and working with the UK to advise and explore the sort of ideas envisaged in Option B. Leo Varadkar’s approach is the opposite. He ended this work when he came to office hoping that ruling out this option would force the UK and/or Northern Ireland into some kind of customs union or single market. Where does the Commission stand on the ending of work it praised? As Option B is included in the December agreement, is such behaviour not an act of bad faith?

Finally, there is the misrepresentation and partisan interpretation of the Belfast Agreement. To be kind to them, the EU’s goodwill to Northern Ireland and peace has led to a naivety in the advice they have sought and listened too. Peace was not achieved by imbalance. Does the Commission seriously believe peace is sustained by listening only to one political community in Northern Ireland? What will it do differently to end that imbalance?

Over the past 20 years we have become very familiar with the nationalist tactic of declaring anything it dislikes as being ‘contrary to the Good Friday Agreement’. This tactic always refers to the Agreement in generalities and rarely specifics, because often what they declare isn’t in the agreement.

The Commission describes the situation as “exceptional”, “unique” and “without precedent”. How credible is it to say a document that didn’t envisage these circumstances addresses it? Would it not be better to recognise there are new circumstances? Would it not be best to see how the existing institutions can adapt to the new situation as DUP leader Arlene Foster did in her Killarney address?

The Commission needs to be conscious that All-Ireland harmonisation has been a consistent concern of Northern Ireland’s Unionists and demand of Irish nationalists. It was a key contributor in the failure of the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974. It was the source of Unionist opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. Does the Commission not see the danger of it being used to achieve a partisan goal under its badge?

These are the questions the Commission must face up to on Northern Ireland. This is the time for M. Barnier to focus once again on what he said he wanted:

“…my objective is to reach a fair deal… It [the UK] should remain a close partner.”


“…I will work with you to avoid a hard border.”

As the Prime Minister, Theresa May, made clear in her speech last Friday, the UK is ready and waiting to fulfil all these. When will M. Barnier, the Commission and their draft legal text catch up?