The UK election changes the likely impact of Brexit on Ireland. It makes a softer Brexit more likely, which is welcomed. But it also makes a ‘no deal’ outcome more likely, which would be a disaster. And it makes special status for Northern Ireland harder to achieve, which is bad news on both sides of the border.
It was meant to be the Brexit election. Prime Minister Theresa May had a slim majority and didn’t need to hold another election until 2020, a year after Brexit negotiations were to be concluded. Why call one? Her belief was the Brexit talks would be destabilised by other parties, which wanted a soft Brexit, or none at all. She wanted a stronger hand.
Presumably she also wanted support for a hard Brexit. The question on the Brexit referendum voting cards was: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
It said nothing of leaving the customs union or single market, and few expected the Tories to drive as forcefully for such a hard Brexit. A clear electoral victory would have been seen as an endorsement of the hard Brexiteers.
Now, the cynics might point to the 20-point lead the Conservatives enjoyed over Labour in April polls.
They might suggest that calling the election had little to do with Brexit, and much to do with opportunism. It was probably a bit of both, but the move backfired. In the end, the difference between the Tories and Labour was not 20 points, but three.
A majority in Westminster requires 326 seats. The Tories have dropped from 331 to 318. The coalition with the DUP, and its 10 seats, brings the combined majority to a shaky three. This does not take into account that Sinn Fein is continuing its long-standing tradition of refusing to take its Westminster seats.
The move to a hard Brexit was driven largely by a strong and vocal group within the Tory party. But many Tory MPs do not support a hard Brexit. They believe, rightly, that a hard Brexit would do far more damage in the UK than good.
This election result will give this group more cover to voice those beliefs strongly. On top of that, the vast majority of opposition MPs do not support a hard Brexit. May might decide to plough on with a hard Brexit, but she will find it tougher to garner support.
Another force at play in potentially softening Brexit is the EU. The other EU member states did not want the UK to leave. When emotions have settled, common sense may prevail – that it is in all our interests to keep the UK and the EU as close as possible. The UK election has weakened its negotiating position, which may in turn allow more room for the EU to seek ways to accommodate a closer relationship with the UK.
However, while the election makes a hard Brexit less likely, it also makes no deal more likely too. The UK courts have ruled parliament will be given a choice on the final Brexit deal – take it, or exit the EU with no deal. There is to be no third choice to reject the deal and stay in the EU.
No deal would be a disaster for Ireland, and very damaging to the UK. However, the Tory/DUP majority of just three seats is going to make any deal difficult to sell. If the proposed Brexit deal is too soft, Tory hardliners may vote against it. This would be in line with their stated position that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. And if the proposed Brexit deal is too hard, and the opposition voted against it en masse, then it would take just two Tory MPs to scupper it.
What could no deal look like? The UK would no longer be part of the EU’s Open Skies agreement, so UK planes couldn’t land in EU airports. The UK would no longer be part of the European Food Safety Authority, calling into question the import and export of agri-food. Customs posts would be required, including along the Northern Ireland border. There would be uncertainty on workers’ rights, contract enforcement, movement of people and capital. World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules would kick in, meaning tariffs on UK goods and services into the EU, including nasty ones on beef and other food products. The UK could choose to keep tariffs at zero but, under WTO rules, it would have to apply that to all countries. So Irish farmers would find themselves competing with Argentinian and Brazilian beef, produced at 60pc the cost of Irish beef.
Another effect of the UK election is to put Northern Ireland further at risk, threatening jobs, incomes and prosperity on both sides of the border. It is reported that the DUP wants no ongoing sectoral linkages between Northern Ireland and the EU. This demand has the hallmarks of economic vandalism. But so does the DUP’s campaign for a Leave vote last year. The view of DUP supporters is that Brexit was never about economics for them, but identity. They hold the Union dear, as is their right. And Brexit, it could be argued, furthers that end.
This puts the nationalist community in a very difficult position. With the SDLP not holding a single seat, the nationalist community will now have no representation in the UK parliament whatsoever.
Coupled with the new and significant leverage the DUP will have, it doesn’t bode well. The economic interests of the nationalist community will be damaged, potentially quite badly, if special status is not afforded to Northern Ireland in Brexit talks. And DUP pursuit of the unionist political identity is likely to come at the cost of the nationalist identity.
The importance of Ireland’s role in the Brexit talks has just increased. The stakes have risen for the island of Ireland. The potential for lasting damage has increased. But so too has the room to create a softer Brexit – one that honours the decision of the people of the UK to leave the EU, while maintaining as many linkages as possible – politically, economically, culturally.
Ireland is uniquely placed – we will negotiate unambiguously on the side of the EU 27, but we bring to the table a better understanding of the team on the other side of the table than anyone else.