Brexit round-up: Northern Ireland deal comes back into focus

In a deep political crisis, all possible solutions come under scrutiny until a way out emerges.  After months in which the British government has rejected the EU's demand for a Northern Ireland backstop, it's clear that negotiations are moving towards detailed consideration of Northern Ireland specific arrangements. Here are a few of the latest developments:

  • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reported to be considering a Northern Ireland  'special economic zone' as part of a deal – George Parker, Financial Times.
  • No. 10 is reportedly split between a Dominic Cummings-led No Deal faction, and those who want an agreement – Jenni Russell, The Times.
  • The Taoiseach has said that he will not agree to a return to direct rule in Northern Ireland in the event of a no deal Brexit – Shane Harrison, BBC. 
  • DUP leader Arlene Foster met the Taoiseach on Thursday to discuss Brexit and the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive – Gavin Reilly, Newstalk.
  • Foster has said that the DUP could accept Northern Ireland specific arrangements that are approved by the North's politicians, and do not affect the constitutional position – Pat Leahy, Irish Times.
  • The Times' Brussels correspondent, Bruno Waterfield reports that the UK government is starting to get into the detail of the EU's demands on VAT administration in Northern Ireland.
  • There are, however, doubts about how substantive the UK's shift is. Johnson's latest letter to European Council president Donald Tusk suggests he is still seeking to push the Northern Ireland issue from the Withdrawal Agreement to the future relationship – Peter Foster, Telegraph.
  • Jonathan Lis argues that Johnson does not have the time or political space to do a Northern Ireland backstop deal.

It's not surprising that Johnson is taking another look at a Northern Ireland deal. It is his best chance to take a hard Brexit deal into an early election. The imminence of that election, thanks to the loss of his majority, has weakened the DUP's hand.

The obstacles, however, are formidable, and it is not clear that Johnson has the will to take them on, or that he could unite the Eurosceptic right behind him if he did. This is partly because such a deal would be repugnant to conservative unionist instincts, but also because it would make the union a vector of European influence in Britain.

It is not at all clear that there is a conservative eurosceptic coalition that can survive the recognition that Britain's Northern Ireland connection is inevitably a connection, through Ireland, to Europe.



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