EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier at the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit in Dundalk
In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum result, there was shock and dismay across Irish nationalism, which feared the return of a hard border and a more nationalistic UK moving further from the rest of Europe.
That feeling lingers, although it appears to have been somewhat lessened by the Irish Government’s robust stance in the Brexit negotiations, and the willingness of the EU to endorse that stance, putting the issue of the Irish border at or near the top of the talks process.
In the referendum, unionism voted largely to leave the EU, but there was sizable pro-remain unionist vote. But, just as there is a unity across nationalism to Brexit, so there is emerging a unified unionist front in opposition to the ‘backstop’ option which Mr Barnier articulated again yesterday.
That option – which only comes into play if the UK and the EU cannot agree on other solutions to avoiding a hard border, such as the use of technology or the entire UK remaining in a customs union – would involve regulatory alignment across the island of Ireland and customs checks between Northern Ireland and GB.
Last week DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds characterised such a stance as “almost the annexation of Northern Ireland”.
Unionism increasingly united against EU stance
Yesterday the liberal UUP MLA Steve Aiken, who backed the remain side, used the same word as he denounced the EU’s stance.
Two months ago Lord Empey, one of David Trimble’s key negotiators during the talks which led to the Good Friday Agreement, wrote to Mr Barnier to express “deep concerns” about an EU approach which he said “undermines the Belfast Agreement and the constitutional integrity of Northern Ireland”.
In a pan-European negotiation about trade, security and constitutional principle, Northern Ireland is in some ways an insignificant area.
But with the Irish border an issue of emblematic significance to both sides, it has become critical to the talks.
Unionist unease will not stop Brussels endorsing the stance of one of its members, Ireland.
But the fierce unionist-nationalist split in Northern Ireland means that the EU stance is in effect almost indistinguishable with the stance of Irish nationalism – from the Irish Government to Sinn Féin and the SDLP.
That is undsurprising, given that Mr Barnier is representing Dublin, and the other EU members, in these talks.
But in adopting a stance which is that of one side of the political divide in Northern Ireland, it makes it more difficult for the EU to present its solution as a neutral attempt to save the Good Friday Agreement or even peace itself.
With many thanks to: E News for the origional story.