by Frank Schnittger
Thu Sep 19th, 2019 at 10:43:19 AM EST
You know you are in serious trouble when Stormont is being touted as the solution to your problem...
Stormont lock is fig leaf for likely DUP climbdown
An air of absurdity and exhaustion hangs over the idea that Stormont is the solution to Brexit. The northern institutions have collapsed, the British government is collapsing and London's sincerity in seeking a deal remains in question. These are shaky grounds on which to place the contention and complexity of Stormont input into the backstop, or some backstop-like arrangement. A new layer of accountability can be imagined and Northern Ireland is hardly a stranger to arcane government systems. But where would the energy come from to make this work, when only the DUP wants it and most nationalists would see Stormont administering Brexit as adding insult to injury?
It is not as if the DUP's need is fundamental - it merely wants a fig leaf to cover its retreat. When then British prime minister Theresa May unveiled the so-called Stormont lock in January this year, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds dismissed it as "cosmetic and meaningless".
May's proposals were stronger than anything now likely to be agreed.
Nobody has proposed that Stormont has a say, let alone a veto, over the operation of the single market. It would only be consulted on the application of new single-market regulations within Northern Ireland, which would be a territory outside the EU.
There would be implications for the Border if Northern Ireland withheld "consent" for new EU regulations, as British government sources describe it. In practice, this is most likely to be resolved by new checks across the Irish Sea to keep the Border open. Would unionists consent to that?
Some backstop supporters in Northern Ireland have gone further, implying a Stormont lock would mean the DUP regulating French farmers, although such claims must be due more to confusion and pot-stirring than cunning attempts to reframe the argument.
EU officials have taken a slightly different approach to the Irish Government over the past week, as revealed in statements and through media briefings. They have begun highlighting the withdrawal agreement's oversight mechanisms, to counter British government and DUP claims the backstop is undemocratic.
Those mechanisms would require a diagram to explain but as a rough guide there is a line of accountability leading back to Stormont via EU-UK committees and North-South bodies of the Belfast Agreement.
At first sight, EU officials appear to be arguing this makes further Stormont input unnecessary. On closer inspection, they are conceding the backstop needs democratic oversight and is not compromised in principle by Stormont input. As with Coveney's statement, this marks out a landing zone.
Basically it is now all coming down to what happens if the EU proposes a new regulation not matched by the UK and which requires customs controls at or near the UK/EU border to enforce. If Stormont is given a veto on its application in N. Ireland, it is effectively deciding that customs controls will have to be set up at the EU/UK land border. Unionists would love that as it would drive the nationalist community mad.
Somehow that situation has to be reversed: Any divergence by the UK from EU regulations would create an automatic requirement for a border "down the Irish Sea" and Stormont would be granted a "consultative role" in how it would be implemented.
A final decision might rest with the North-South and East West bodies of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. These largely moribund bodies, systematically disrespected by the UK government, would suddenly become pivotal in the resolution of the backstop conundrum preventing the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Of course Sinn Fein would first have to be persuaded to agree to re-constituting the all but dead Stormont Assembly and Executive. Some outstanding contentious issues - such as an Irish Language Act - would have to resolved first. But there is no way Sinn Fein will agree to this if the Executive ends up administering Brexit in N. Ireland and even has the potential power to re-impose a border with the South.
But the DUP's plight is now so desperate, any fig leaf of "democratic control" will do. Expect the usual obfuscation and fog of complexity to hide what is really going on: N. Ireland will become an external territory of the EU subject to the rules of the Custom's Union and Single Market, while having a consultative role in how those rules will be implemented in N. Ireland. It can not be otherwise.
It is interesting to note that what we are talking about seems to be an immediate solution, not some far-off insurance policy which may never be triggered. Some enabling legislation will be required in Westminster (and perhaps in Dublin) to give effect to these new provisions. The regulation of trade was never a power devolved to N. Ireland. No doubt the SNP may seek something similar for Scotland.
It is also by no means a foregone conclusion that such a modified Withdrawal Agreement will be passed by the House of Commons, where recent shenanigans have hardened the opposition to anything Boris Johnson might propose. Labour will want to put any agreement to a second public vote, and some ERG members will still prefer a no deal Brexit. Boris might offer the olive branch of a return of the Tory party whip to the rebels if they vote for the agreement, but perhaps that rift has gone too far to be healed at this stage. Either way, his is now a minority government.
An A.50 extension would probably be required just to pass all the required legislation, and would Boris ask for it if an EU/UK Withdrawal agreement had been struck by his government? He would undoubtedly present it as just a technical delay caused by the House being too slow to get its act together - ignoring protests that proroguing parliament for 5 weeks and waiting until the last minute to present his proposals to the EU didn't exactly help.
Some will present this deal as Boris "selling the DUP down the river", but a little noticed consequence of the prorogation of Parliament is that it also marks the formal end of the "Confidence and Supply" agreement between the Conservatives and the DUP. That too will be helpful in securing the agreement of Sinn Fein to revive the Stormont Executive and Assembly. The DUP have nowhere else to go, now that they have lost the balance of power at Westminster.
But I wouldn't be counting any chickens just yet. "There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip..."