The rules of engagement

DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly outlines her belief that a no deal scenario is more likely now than ever, fuelled by external pressures around a backstop and discussions about ‘what if it all goes wrong?’.

Referencing what she believes to be an “over step” into the economic matters of the UK from others in recent times, the DUP MP says that the prospect of a no deal scenario has never been more likely and “should frighten us all”, but believes an agreement is possible.

Speaking to an audience at the MacGill Summer School in Donegal, which included Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade with special responsibility for Brexit, Simon Coveney, Little-Pengelly expressed her concern of the “erroneous” and “misuse” of the Belfast Agreement and St Andrews Agreement to support arguments on Brexit and to “at times make life difficult for the UK”.

“The Belfast Agreement is increasingly peppering the debate about what the British Government should and shouldn’t do; and what the British Government must and must not do,” says the barrister.

“The Belfast Agreement does not guarantee or agree any commitment in relation to hard infrastructure on the Northern Ireland-Ireland border. I don’t say that to be controversial, I say that as fact. It is a simple statement of fact.

“There are some who argue, that although not specifically mentioned, it is in the ‘spirit’ of the Agreement. And many of those who make this point reference the all-island economy or the all-Ireland economy. But again, factually, there is no mention in the Belfast Good Friday Agreement of all-island or all-Ireland economy, or economic co-operation.

“Economic co-operation is not one of the specified 12 areas of north-south co-operation. So therefore, if we are being honest to the letter and spirit of the St Andrews and Belfast agreements, the limited and specific nature of the areas of co-operation is of critical importance.

“If people are trying to deploy the Belfast and Good Friday Agreement in defence of their argument then it is important that we are accurate about that.”

Little-Pengelly was speaking in the context of having outlined her party’s redline against imposing a border down the Irish Sea, but also stressing the party’s desire not to see a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Although stating that co-operation has, in the past, been mutually beneficial for both north and south, Pengelly outlines that competition on a global stage has highlighted the existing “economic divergence” of the two jurisdictions, asserting that: “economic issues are matters for those particular respective countries.”

Outlining how she believes the issues of co-operation have become “conflated”, the MP for South Belfast states that the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has become “fractured” in recent times.

“Part of that fracturing is around a sense that people are overstepping. That there is interference. That people want to stop other people, their partners, their neighbours, from making decisions that they can rightfully make,” she says.

The former special advisor defends her position by pointing out her belief that explicit references to economic
co-operation and an all-island economy were purposely omitted from the agreements.

“Peace deals and international agreements are carefully negotiated documents,” she says. “If something notable is not agreed within the final text it is seldom due to an oversight on the part of the respective negotiating partners… The true spirit of the agreement and the true spirit of these agreements is the utmost respect for that which made it through that process.”

She adds: “It is disingenuous to read into an agreement that which is not there”.

Little-Pengelly voices her surprise at what she sees as the “apparent disregard in the carefully negotiated stranded approach” of the Belfast Agreement. Describing that stranded approach as an “enabler for the confidence of unionism to engage with the leadership and the politicians and the government of the Republic of Ireland”, she adds: “That approach, where we agreed what issues were right and proper for the Republic of Ireland to comment on, and those issues which were entirely matters internal to
the UK.

“Over the last number of months in particular, there does seem to have been an overstep of what is, and what is not, appropriate for that… Perhaps the leadership in Ireland does not understand the significance of that as an enabler. Or, they are perhaps deciding to disregard that.”

She adds: “When all of this is over we will still be neighbours. We will still have to, and we should want to, work together. It is important that our relationships are maintained throughout.”

Backstop

Focussing on the EU’s backstop proposal, Little-Pengelly states that DUP opposition to the proposal is not a “dogmatic approach”, that no difference or divergence across the UK should exist, but rather is around no “person, body or government” outside of the UK, having the right to “interfere so fundamentally with an issue such as the internal market of the UK”.

Describing it as a “fundamental constitutional issue” for unionists, she reiterates: “Under the Belfast Agreement and the stranded approach, under what was agreed, there is no right for anyone to intervene with that sovereign issue of the UK.”

In her own opinion, the MP does not believe a backstop will be agreed that will “see Northern Ireland being severed from the internal market of the UK”, meaning that it will not remain within the customs union or the single market unless the entire of the UK opts to do so. However, she also does not believe a hard border is therefore inevitable, instead pointing to a negotiated agreement as a solution.

This agreement, she points out, must focus on three key areas which have presented themselves as globally common features in necessitated borders. These are: tariffs and customs; standards and quality; and crime and smuggling.

“The only way that this can be dealt with is through a negotiated agreement between the EU and the UK and I believe in looking at those three issues that it is possible to get that agreement. We need to get on with it. We must prevent a scenario which will not suit either the Republic of Ireland or ourselves.”

Addressing each of the three areas individually, Little-Pengelly says: “Currently, we assess the risk on the current level of crime and excise duty across the border. We have differentials on the island of Ireland but what the ‘no border scenario’ that we have at the minute demonstrates is that just because we have differences doesn’t mean that we have to have a hard border.

“On tariffs and customs, most trade experts across the world… are very clear that tariffs in terms of trade deals are a thing of the past. That tariffs should not feature in terms of an agreement, if we can get an agreement.

In relation to customs issues, the MP believes processing or checking of goods at the border would neither work in Ireland or at Dover. Instead, she outlines the requirements of a trade deal to minimise any variances, but also advocates the use of pre-authorisations, online and electronic filing, the use of electronic and data tagging to physical shipments and trusted trading arrangements.

She adds: “Make no mistake, the EU does not require anywhere near 100 per cent checks. We know this because we currently operate an EU border and single market borders.”

Little-Pengelly adds: “The UK, on day one of Brexit, will be 100 per cent fully regulatory aligned with the European Union. If divergence happens, and that would be subject to whatever the trade deal will be, it will happen over a course of time by decisions made in the House of Commons. But this is not a cliff face.”

Concluding, Little-Pengelly says: “Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are economic competitors but at the same time, success for one can mean success for the other. It is in all of our interests, not just to move the problems, but to deal with them.

“For my part I want to see us having a good relationship but to do so we can’t allow the battle for soundbites to cloud over the painstaking agreements, the relationships and the rules of engagement we have already reached. The north-south, east-west relationship is much greater, in my view, than our membership of the EU.”

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