Northern Ireland was barely mentioned in Theresa May’s Florence speech. For many commentators, it was an opportunity for the UK government to provide more detail about its plans for the Irish border. Media and academic reactions to the Florence speech were negative. However, as regards Northern Ireland, there were subtle differences in the language used writes Etain Tannam (Trinity College Dublin).
Disappointment was expressed by many after Theresa May’s speech in Florence, that Northern Ireland was barely mentioned and that there was no detail about how to preserve a soft border. Doubtless, the UK government’s management of the border issue, like its management of Brexit generally, has been chaotic and uncommunicative. Since Brexit, there is evidence of new tensions in British-Irish intergovernmental relations. So, the much-hyped Florence speech had a lot of ground to make up if it was to reassure worried citizens and politicians in the UK and Ireland. Seen in that light, it was a damp squib. However, there is one large difference and also some subtle differences between the Florence speech and previous UK government statements on Brexit and Northern Ireland. Although a small consolation, the speech appears to be related to improved relations between British and Irish governments, compared to in previous months.
Image by Sdrawkcab, (Wikipedia), Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.
The most obvious difference between the Florence speech and previous keynote statements from the UK government is that despite the internal divide in the Tory party, Theresa May committed to a transition period of ’roughly’ two years, during which the status quo would continue, so the Irish border would be unaffected. If a week is a long time in politics, a two-year period is definitely a significant period. It gives more time to negotiate and it also provides a possibility that various factors may have changed by the time the transition has ended. Not surprisingly, the British–Irish Chamber of Commerce responded with an unequivocally positive response.
Secondly, Theresa May used identical language in her speech in Florence to the language used by the Irish government in its May 2017 position paper on Brexit: in referring to Northern Ireland, the phrase ‘unique issues to consider’ is used. The term ‘issues unique to Ireland’ is also used in the Irish government in May 2017.In previous statements, the UK government referred to ‘unique relationship’ with slightly different connotations.
Thirdly, the terms ’frictionless’, or ‘soft’, are not used at all in the Florence speech. Instead, there is a commitment to prevent any physical infrastructure along the border and there is no reference to technical solutions, mentioned in the UK government’s position paper on Northern Ireland and opposed by both the EU and the Irish government.
It is noteworthy that the section on Northern Ireland is brief and that there was no mention of Northern Ireland in the run-up to the speech. However, rather than brevity causing concern, after the speech in Florence, it was reported that Irish officials had not expected any mention of Northern Ireland and although eventually, (following various EU statements), the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said that not enough progress had been made on Northern Ireland to move to the next phase of negotiations, there were no hard-hitting criticisms from him, or from Simon Coveney, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs. In contrast the Irish government’s reaction in August to the UK government’s position paper on Northern Ireland was unusually blunt.
It is also noteworthy that the two prime ministers spoke by phone the night before the Florence speech and met three days later in London. The Taoiseach’s statement after the London meeting was also relatively positive compared to previous statements and welcomed the UK government’s explicit opposition to physical infrastructure along the border.
Overall, the Irish government’s response to Theresa May’s speech in Florence was more positive than Irish governmental responses over the previous six months. The simmering tensions in British-Irish relations appear to have eased, at least temporarily. Consultation between both prime ministers could imply that there has been more coordination and/or communication between the Irish government and the UK government than in recent months and/or that the tougher language used by the Irish government was a deliberately short-term strategy to achieve certain aims and that now there is sense those aims are achievable and a different bargaining strategy is being adopted.
The importance of the British-Irish relationship to the peace process and to restoring the Executive in Northern Ireland necessitate that strong intergovernmental cooperation continues. The Florence speech offers some hope that this will be the case. It may be clutching at straws, but in this Brexit era, it is tempting to find hope wherever one can.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Brexit blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
Etain Tannam is Assistant Professor in International Peace Studies, Trinity College Dublin and Associate P.I. Trinity’s Long Room Hub for Arts and Humanities, Trinity College Dublin.
The weight of the past is bearing down on the UK with rdgard to Ireland. The Irish border question is seen as one of control and Westminster is jealous of any third party intervention or involvement in Ireland which has always been seen as vital to the continuation of the United Kingdom as a sovereign state. This is likely to be a continuous thorn in future EU-UK relations as well as a stumbling block in the present negotiations. A soft border allowing continued EU control in Ireland over a part of the United Kingdom would be a bitter pill to swallow – almost as unacceptable as the jurisdiction of the European courts over EU citizens living in the UK. These are two major concessions of sovereignty which look likely to make a hard brexit inevitable. The judicial question may be amenable to a compromise but it would be impossible for a country that voted to leave the EU in order to “take back control” of its own borders would all a part of its border to remain “open” post brexit.
“A soft border allowing continued EU control in Ireland over a part of the United Kingdom would be a bitter pill to swallow”
On the other hand, what choice does the UK government have? If they don’t come up with a solution then they are wasting their time with all these negotiations – they may as well just declare a hard Brexit now. If they don’t want to do that then it is inescapable that NI will have to remain within the single market and customs union. How they persuade the DUP to accept that is the real problem, especially given the numbers in Westminster, and the still-armed unionist terror gangs which are close to the DUP.
There is talk of a sectoral approach maybe with agriculture and energy and other areas being part of single market on island. There are ways of having a de facto SEM without calling it that, especially if significant EU funding is part of the deal to make it more palatable. Brendan O’Leary has written about island remaining in SEM, even if rest of UK leaves, in LSE Brexit blog and provided reasons why DUP might accept it.