UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Over here – on the mainland, if you like – Northern Ireland didn’t feature hugely in the referendum campaign in 2016. Could you give us a sense of what the campaign felt like in Northern Ireland? Was there a lot of heated discussion about what a Brexit vote would mean?
Stephen Farry (SF): Probably not as much discussion and heat during the referendum, as there has been subsequently. I think people in Northern Ireland did say that we were one part of a much bigger discussion, which was UK-wide. There always was a sense that Northern Ireland would vote to remain in the EU by a comfortable margin, so there wasn’t really a lack of certainty in terms of the outcome.
I suppose the issue was the extent to which Northern Irish issues were featuring in the campaign. That was probably one of the frustrating things, in that there wasn’t really much consideration given to what Brexit would mean for Northern Ireland. It’s probably fair to say that there was quite a lot of talk around the implications for the agreements and implications at the borders, but they were in a very generalised sense, as opposed to focusing precisely on what Brexit would mean.
That probably also reflected the fact that, at that stage, Brexit was still a fairly amorphous concept – you may well say it still is – and the precise workings of what Brexit would entail hadn’t fully crystallised just yet, including on things around the Single Market and customs union. If we look back, it wasn’t absolutely taken as read that Brexit meant full Brexit versus something slightly different. Perhaps quite a few people were trying to have it both ways, in terms of what they were arguing for.
UKICE: Were the positions that different parties took – the DUP being pro-Brexit, the Ulster Unionists being pro-Remain – obvious from the get-go?
SF: No. First of all, the DUP had an ultra-pro-sovereignty position, with a 19th century conception of sovereignty, and was trying to be uber-British, with utter disregard for the implications for Northern Ireland and for the [Good Friday] Agreement. That illustrates that there was a lack of real strategic sense of what a Leave vote would entail for Northern Ireland.
Another angle is that Sinn Féin didn’t really do much or say much or campaign much, and they seemed to see this as being a British issue with no real bearing on Republicanism in Northern Ireland. You see that in terms of the differential turnout in some constituencies. So, areas that would normally have turned out quite strongly elections, including elections to Westminster, didn’t quite turn out to the same extent for the Brexit referendum.
UKICE: Did the fact that there were Assembly Elections just the month before mean that you couldn’t campaign in the way you would have liked for the referendum in Northern Ireland, or would it not have made that much different to you?
SF: Well, it was crowded out to a large extent by the Assembly Elections. I think it is fair to say that a lot of the campaigning effort went to those elections rather than the Brexit referendum. In a sense, when you are campaigning in a constituency, you see the direct cause and effect of your campaigning a lot more in terms of outcome of a UK-wide referendum.
What we would have done is run leaflets through wherever we were doing deliveries and say, ‘Just vote in the referendum this way’, alongside the Assembly Campaign. The difficulty is that the formal freepost leaflets have to be focussed on a particular election. You can’t run multiple campaigns through a freepost election address. So, it was largely through our canvassing efforts that we would have been knocking on doors and saying, ‘Vote for Person X in this election – and by the way in the referendum, vote Remain’.
UKICE: How difficult was it for Alliance, as a cross community party, to see what emerged in the voting outcomes as quite a communal differential in the vote, with a very heavy Remain vote among the Catholic community, and a different outcome amongst Protestants? Did that cause you problems?
SF: No, not in the slightest, because we were very conscious that there was a pro-Remain consistency that was cutting across the traditional divide in Northern Ireland. If you look at my own area of North Down, for example, which would have been viewed as being heavily Unionist or strongly Protestant in religious terms, it narrowly voted to Remain.
So, while we knew that most of the Leave votes would have been within Unionism, Unionism was not acting in a monolithic way.
UKICE: How did people in Northern Ireland react to the intervention of John Major and Tony Blair? Did that make people in Northern Ireland think, ‘Oh finally we are cutting through into the UK debate’, or did they regard them as blasts from the past?
SF: Well it probably was fairly marginal in the context of Northern Ireland itself, in terms of the outcome. It probably was aimed more making this an issue for UK as a whole, so it probably didn’t really land terribly much. I think part of the difficulty is that in the UK as a whole, their credibility – especially Blair’s credibility – was damaged a lot.
In Northern Ireland, obviously the Afghanistan and Iraq stuff cuts through – but Tony Blair’s legacy is still, essentially, the Good Friday Agreement rather than Iraq, as it is primarily in the UK.
UKICE: Were you at all involved in any discussions with the Westminster Government, in advance of the referendum, about what the consequences might be for Northern Ireland?
SF: There was nothing of that nature, which I am aware of at all.
UKICE: One of the things that people in Scotland have told us is that, because it was obviously going to be a vote for Remain, they were a bit taken aback by the national result. Where were you when you found out the result, and what were your initial thoughts?
SF: Well my initial thoughts were shock, essentially. I spent the night at the North Down count centre, where it wasn’t a given that North Down was going to vote Remain. So, I had this strange sensation of we might then encourage other places like North Down to vote Remain, given that it was viewed by people as being a predominantly Unionist area. I then turned on the TV afterwards and thought, ‘Actually, no, the thing is collapsing everywhere else’.
Certain areas turned out to vote Remain in certain margins, but it just kept slipping further away. I think early the following morning, there was huge concern about the implications. A lot of people were deeply concerned about what events meant for Northern Ireland. The impact of the Leave vote was massive and immediate, and I think a lot of people, very quickly, appreciated that thus was going to be deeply challenging for Northern Ireland.
UKICE: Was that confined to people in Northern Ireland, or were you getting lots of calls from British, Irish, international media about what happens now?
SF: Yes. It was primarily Northern Ireland, but there was some international interest and UK-wide interest. I think, probably, it took a little bit of time just to fully develop. But, certainly, within Northern Ireland the implications were fairly immediate, or understanding of the implications were fairly immediate.
Brexit before the negotiations
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Obviously, you are bystanders as the Conservatives lose their Prime Minister and elect a new one. The first public development in Northern Ireland seemed to be the letter from the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in August 2016, reminding the Government in Westminster that Northern Ireland was an issue and setting out the priority of Northern Ireland in negotiations. Was the Alliance Party at all involved in the formulation of that?
Stephen Farry (SF): We were on the Executive through to the May 2016 Assembly Elections, and then we chose not to go back into the Executive after that point. So, the Executive at that time was, essentially, the Democratic Unionist-Sinn Féin Executive, which itself collapsed.
UKICE: And there was no attempt to broaden it beyond those parties?
UKICE: What did you make of the letter when you saw it? Did you think, ‘this is actually quite positive’?
SF: We thought it wasn’t bad and as it turned out it was the high watermark of Executive cooperation around an ask. I think our concern was that it was falling short in some areas that weren’t being fully addressed. It was piecemeal in terms of the asks. Now, some of the asks were certainly things we could support, but my initial reaction was that it could have gone further.
UKICE: What would you have added in?
SF: Well, probably a lot more around the Single Market as a whole really, and the four fundamental freedoms. I would have gone for that at a fairly early stage.
UKICE: But then, of course, the Executive collapsed in January 2017, over the Renewable Heat Incentives (RHI), and we went through this three-year hiatus with no Executive. Did you think that that made a really big difference to the way in which UK Government dealt with Northern Ireland’s concerns?
SF: It did. There are probably several factors there. First of all, the collapse itself was on the surface over RHI, but it was also about the wider relations between the DUP and Sinn Féin, and a failure to deliver equality, particularly towards this concept of parity of esteem in terms of respect for different cultures. That was then articulated through the demand for an Irish Language Act, although it wasn’t primarily about Irish language speakers, it was more about the equality issues and the rest.
That reflected the fact that the DUP was increasingly tone deaf as partners in Government, but also that Martin McGuinness was increasingly ill and subsequently passed away after the Assembly collapsed. So, as there wasn’t the ability of the leaderships and the two parties to manage a crisis, things escalated, while in previous situations people would have maybe put the brakes on just before they got to the cliff edge. This time, there was no one to apply the brakes.
But also, Brexit was already a factor in terms of the wider deterioration of Executive relations. People were fully aware of the implications that were building for Northern Ireland, and also of the fact that the DUP had pushed so strongly for this. That stage in the negotiations really hadn’t fully crystallised, and it wasn’t until March 2017 that Article 50 was triggered. We were still in those early days.
So, it did deprive the Executive of the ability to have a coherent input over the next three years, but that also has to then be taken alongside the fact that in the subsequent General Election of June 2017, we ended up with Theresa May gambling away her majority, and forming an arrangement with the DUP. First of all, that skewed the voices that were being listened to in the Government, and gave the DUP a disproportionate voice, distorting the overall view of the people of Northern Ireland.
But it also then undermined the ability to restore the institutions, because the UK’s ability to act impartially as an honest broker was compromised.
UKICE: Were you very surprised that the UK Government did that deal with the DUP, did you look at it and think, ‘In the light of the parliamentary arithmetic, they have basically got nowhere else to go’?
SF: Well, she probably had rather few options, but this is a reflection of our poor electoral system and how we do general elections – we have all of these distortions. They could have gambled and tried to be a minority government, which would have been the other option for them, and seen how far that went.
UKICE: Did the May Government do anything to reassure the other parties and communities in Northern Ireland when they did their pact with the DUP?
SF: Well, they said that there would be a firewall and that the agreement would only apply to business going through Westminster, and that the UK Government would otherwise be impartial and nothing would change in term of its wider perspective on managing Northern Ireland. But, frankly, no one really believed them, and no one thought that was going to be a sustainable position.
I think they just issued a press statement, from memory. There may well have been some discussions to reassure us, but it didn’t really convince us much. I think most people saw this as being a major conflict of interest.
UKICE: There was a motion about special status for Northern Ireland in the Assembly in October 2016, which went down by one vote. Can you just tell us what that special status would have meant, and whether, if that vote had gone the other direction, it would have made a difference to anything?
SF: Probably not in practice, in terms of the actual vote. Those votes are largely symbolic and non-binding. But this was the beginnings of parties talking through how they would try to create some form of special solution for Northern Ireland. As a party we were fairly clear straightaway, after the Referendum result, that there would need to be some sort of special measures for Northern Ireland to manage the tensions posed by Brexit.
We were talking, essentially, about Northern Ireland staying in the Single Market. Others were talking about special status and Sinn Féin, in particular, were pushing the special status issue. As a party, we didn’t much use the term special status, but we kept talking about the need for special arrangements for Northern Ireland – just something else just to finesse the language, in a way that would have maybe slightly more broad-based appeal. So, that vote was essentially the beginnings of the Assembly discussing and articulating a desire to see some form of different arrangements for Northern Ireland.
We put through a motion at roughly a similar time, calling for Northern Ireland to be part of the Single Market, which was passed by the Assembly, including by the Ulster Unionists, if memory serves me right, at the time. So those were just the beginnings.
UKICE: Back in October 2016, Theresa May’s Party Conference speech made it clear that the UK was aiming at a relatively distant relationship, scrapping free movement, taking the UK out of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and establishing the Department of International Trade to pursue an international trade policy.
Were you increasingly concerned that Brexit had gone from being this amorphous thing in the referendum campaign, to being something that really was going to cause a lot of problems, because these softer options, such as a Norway style deal, were being ruled out by the British Government?
SF: Yes, pretty much, in the sense that we were getting more and more concerned as time was moving along about the language becoming more provocative and hard-line, including from Theresa May. With the benefit of history, she will be viewed as a moderate in terms of the approach taken. But it just shows how far the centre of gravity was moving.
UKICE: When did you get the sense that they were starting to realise that this had really serious implications for the island of Ireland? Was there a ‘penny-drop’ moment when suddenly the UK Government was woken up to the implications?
SF: I would jump ahead to, probably, February 2019, at which stage it was probably far too late, because Theresa May’s authority had been probably compromised. Up until then, the Government was still flirting with a no deal outcome, as it had the whole way through the negotiation process. Before that, we had the joint report created in December 2017, and then various things in the House of Commons, different versions of backstops that were proposed.
But it was really on that visit in 2019 that we had an opportunity to say to her- and other members of civic society did the same- in very simple terms, ‘You either do a deal on Brexit including a special deal for Northern Ireland or you will lose the Union’.
UKICE: As late as February 2019?
SF: Well, we were saying similar things prior to that, but I think that was the point that the penny dropped, certainly in terms of our sense of their body language. Gavin (Barwell) may or may not concur with that point, in terms of the chronology, but certainly, that would be my sense of things.
The May negotiations and Northern Ireland
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): In the period in the run-up to the start of the negotiations, were you talking at all to the Irish Government about their approach? Because at the time, obviously, they were not supposed to be talking to the UK Government, but I wondered if they were doing anything diplomatically?
Stephen Farry (SF): The Irish Governments were fairly open to talking to the Northern Ireland parties throughout the process and, in some ways, to get our viewpoint heard and understood in the European Union, we would have had more joy going through the Irish Government route than via the UK Government.
I think the Irish fairly quickly understood the implications for Northern Ireland, and part of that was probably reflected in terms of how the negotiating mandate was put together in June 2017. The Europeans, with the influence of the Irish, came with a very clear sense of what they were trying to achieve in negotiations, whilst the UK really hadn’t thought through its negotiating strategy and positions to the same extent.
There was no difficulty in speaking to officials and right through to various Taoisigh about what had to happen for Northern Ireland. I think it is fair to say as well that a lot of the Unionist and UK anger has been personalised against Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, saying that they were outside the mainstream of Irish thought on this one, or that they were being more radical or taking a harder line.
But to my mind, the position of the Irish Government, including where Enda Kelly was initially, was entirely consistent. People only had that perception in any rational way because the nature of the debate had been moved on by the time Leo Varadkar was Taoiseach, but there was that consistency from the Irish Government to the current process.
They also put together the All-Ireland forum for dialogue, which brought together political parties- North and South- and civil society- North and South- to talk through the implications of Brexit. So, there was a forum put together to talk through the issues in a very open and transparent way. There was nothing remotely like that on offer from the UK side.
UKICE: When the negotiations started, the UK Government seemed to take the view that the European Commission had made a mistake when they conceded the sequencing, and that they thought Ireland was phase one issue, rather than something to be solved in the future relationship. Did you share the view that the sequencing was going to just cause grief because you could only solve the Irish question in the context of the future relationship, not as part of the Withdrawal Agreement.
SF: We were perfectly happy with the sequencing, because we saw the Irish border issue as being of fundamental importance, and as quickly as possible we wanted some fundamental principles in place. But this was never an ‘either or’ choice, in the sense that addressing the Irish issue as part of the withdrawal negotiations didn’t exclude in due course Northern Ireland being part of the future relationship discussions.
UKICE: In Michel Barnier’s diaries, he records quite regular meetings with representatives of the parties in Northern Ireland. What did you make of those contacts with the Commission? Were they useful?
SF: Yes. I suppose it is probably fair to say that, as we talked with them, it was fairly clear that there was going to be a need to manage a hard Brexit down the Irish Sea. So, that was fairly clear in people’s thinking in the Commission, at a fairly early stage.
The first time we had a proper sit down with (Barnier) was May 2018. He was telling us two things: ‘Look, the way this is working out the European Union will be bending its rules to accommodate Northern Ireland, and in that space there will be some potential benefits to Northern Ireland in terms of getting a lot out of the system, in terms of dual access to the Single Market for goods. But also, if the UK wants to do a hard Brexit, we have to manage it down the Irish Sea and we can build on existent precedents’. But that really was the direction of travel.
UKICE: Some of our interviewees have suggested that Michel Barnier was much less sensitive to the concerns of Unionists than he was to the concerns of Nationalists. Obviously, Ireland was a continuing Member State, and so you would expect the Commission negotiator to reflect their interest. But did you get the sense that he didn’t appreciate some of the Unionist’s sensitivities about East-West links, as opposed to the integrity of the North-South, all-Ireland economy?
SF: I think that this is a reflection of Unionism taking a very hard line and an antagonistic approach right throughout the process, and not really coming to terms with their own advocacy of Brexit and the consequences that flowed from that – the Brexit trilemma that couldn’t really be properly squared off.
They were always going to be in a difficult space. I think it is unfair to criticise Michel Barnier and the Commission for being tone deaf to Unionist concerns, because I don’t think Unionist concerns were being presented in a logical manner or offering, shall we say, a pragmatic alternative that the Commission could engage with, in a constructive way.
UKICE: The Commission produced a draft of the Northern Ireland Protocol in February 2018 that Theresa May said, ‘No UK Prime Minister could accept’, and that seemed to be a fairly unanimous view in Parliament. Northern Ireland representation was limited, primarily, to the Democratic Unionists in Parliament. What was your sense of that Commission proposal? Were you quite shocked when you saw it, or did you think it was the logical consequence of where we had got to?
SF: We were already in the space. We published our own paper in November 2017, ‘Build Bridges, Not Borders’, where we talked about Northern Ireland having some sort of special deal. We were always clear that the closer relationship you have with the European Union, the softer the impact was going to be in terms of the level of checks.
But, equally, I can understand the UK position and for Unionism the notion of treating Northern Ireland differently or creating checks in terms of the Irish Sea interface was always going to be very difficult, from a political identity point of view. Now, they could have framed that as being an economic intervention, and, particularly, referenced existing precedents that were there from long before.
There was always what we termed the ‘Brexit trilemma’, in that neither the British Government nor Unionists really appreciated that choices had to be made. They would rather have a soft Brexit, where the implications for borders were radically reduced if UK were staying inside the customs union and Single Market. Failing that, then they will have to police an interface either down the Irish Sea or across the land border in Ireland. There seemed to be wishful thinking that people could have a hard Brexit and the world would continue, and that we wouldn’t be an interface to police.
I think this has been the story of the Brexit process throughout for some people – the UK signing up to agreements without really appreciating the implications, or not publicly being willing to do so, and then trying to wriggle out from them or to move on from them. That is reflected massively in terms of the current discussions regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol, where David Frost was there with parties in negotiations in Autumn of 2019, and today is trying to say it was a bad deal, that the person who signed up to it was naïve and a fool..
This almost reinforces the rationale as to why people wanted to see the Irish situation hammered out, at the start, in terms of the Withdrawal Agreement. Because not to have done that would have just left this constant uncertainty, and I think the situation will be even worse than it is today if that had been the case.
UKICE: After Theresa May rejected that version from the Commission, we had movements on the UK side during negotiations, and movements by the EU on the all-UK temporary customs arrangement, and the Government at Chequers proposing that the UK would stay aligned with the common rule book on goods. Were you quite heartened when you saw those sorts of changes coming through and being proposed by the May Government?
SF: We were happy with that in very broad terms. I suppose the issue really, at that stage, was her ability to follow through and deliver on those concepts. Especially now, with hindsight, we can see that those would have been preferable to the Protocol, and could have minimised a lot of the current, practical problems that people are facing.
Frankly, I am surprised that the EU was going to buy into a UK-wide approach to some of these issues, given that it did involve them bending quite hard in terms of some of their rules round the Constitution and the Single Market. But, from our perspective, if it was deliverable, it would have made life a lot easier.
UKICE: I think Naomi Long, the Alliance Leader, said that ‘If Brexit is to proceed, we recognise that the May Withdrawal Agreement is as good as it gets’.
Were you surprised that the DUP was so violently opposed to it? To what extent do you think that the Northern Ireland reaction was affected by the unbalanced representation, if you like, of NI in the Westminster Parliament, and the absence of the NI Executive?
SF: First of all, at that stage, there wasn’t really any prospect of any singular, Northern Irish view on virtually anything. But we were deeply concerned at the Unionists’ approach, baffled by it – it just seemed utterly illogical. It just seemed that there were more and more opportunities arising for the DUP to dig themselves out of a hole, to a certain extent, and avoid some of the huge problems for Northern Ireland that would have arisen from Brexit. But they keep passing the buck.
It just seemed that they were still captured by this delusion that they were going to support the hardest Brexit possible, and that Northern Ireland wouldn’t be impacted from that. It just seemed to be completely insane, what they were doing.
Brexit has essentially fractured Northern Ireland. Now, it hasn’t broken in two, just yet, but Northern Ireland is badly cracked by Brexit and Brexit may, in turn, be fatal to Northern Ireland.
The problem is that the Good Friday Agreement was there as a balance of relationships. You had the internal governance of Northern Ireland, and you had the North-South interface and you had the East-West interface. You had two governments acting as partners who had driven the peace process. That partnership was important for ongoing crisis management.
Though the European Union wasn’t particularly mentioned in the Good Friday Agreement text, the joint membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union allowed the border to essentially wither away on the island of Ireland. You had this grand bargain where Nationalism and Republicanism accepted for the first time, in 1998, the full legitimacy of Northern Ireland as part of the UK, albeit with the people’s consent for changing that situation if a majority decided otherwise. But, at the same time then, you had the North-South aspect, essentially, giving its proper place – and that was going to be facilitated.
In essence, the decision to push Brexit, particularly by Unionism but also the UK Government, was to force a black and white solution on a situation that depended upon complexity, some degree of constructive ambiguity, different shades of grey. Essentially, that decision on Brexit broke those delicate balances.
We hear a lot today about the East-West implications of the Protocol and how that breaches the Good Friday Agreement and, absolutely, it’s problematic. But the North-South aspect was also going to be problematic – perhaps even more so given that that was the land border issue we were talking about, and there are more daily movements North-South. Wherever you drew that line on a map, you were going to not only create economic friction, but you were going to create some degree of implication for someone’s sense of identity.
You have seen a deterioration of what had been close relationships between the UK and Irish Governments around managing Northern Ireland too. All of that was compromised by Brexit, and the Good Friday Agreement is compromised by Brexit.
It is hard to see how that is put together again. You can’t really repair a crack. You can paper over it, you can try to manage the situation. So, in that sense, the backstop first and the Protocol second were a softer Brexit. All of those options would be means to which we can manage all these tensions in a sub-optimal way. There is no guarantee that they will be effective but they are the best bet of doing that.
But to do otherwise, to play brinkmanship and turn any of these issues into a zero sum, constitutional win-lose conundrum, that doesn’t work in a complex, divided society, where we have a contested state as well as a divided society. It is just fundamental, I dare say, what people have done in that regard.
We are now in the 100th Anniversary Year of Northern Ireland where the anniversary is flat, in terms of Unionism. They went through perpetual crisis in terms of leadership with political parties. They are on the brink of potentially pulling out of the Executive and potentially trying to force an election. There is no guarantee that a future Executive can be reformed after the next election if the DUP are no longer the largest party.
All of those issues flow from Brexit and an inability to think strategically. The DUP have gambled and tried to be ultra-British, and they have, potentially, accelerated moves towards a united Ireland. But there are things that will slow that acceleration down. If you have some degree of stability around the Protocol, that slows down. If you have more and more chaos in Northern Ireland, we accelerate people’s switch of opinion..
So, in all respects, what Unionists have done has been really, really irresponsible. To give you an example in terms of our own party, and our wider voter base, we are a cross-community party. We are not formed to take a view on the constitutional question- we are people who are unionists, people who are nationalist, and people who are open-minded on this. Largely, the issue of the Constitution status, or a border poll, was not really on the table in any meaningful way prior to 2016. If a border poll had of been called, most Alliance voters would have defaulted to the status quo of the Union, just because it was stability versus something that was uncertain.
With Brexit, that has been upended. Our voters are not championing a united Ireland, but we are conscious that a debate has opened up in a much more active way than was the case previously. Voters are now much more fluid in terms of where they would go.
Now that is a very shallow set of opinions that can be pulled and pushed in different ways, by different forces, very easily. But it shows how previous anchors have been breached and pulled away by Brexit, and that for Unionism to have done what they have done has been utterly irresponsible and self-destructive.
UKICE: When I came to Northern Ireland a couple of years ago, some of the business groups were telling me that Unionist business owners were now thinking, ‘Maybe I would rather stay in the Single Market and benefit from free movement and lower corporation tax rates, so maybe I should rethink my attitude towards a united Ireland’, and that quite a lot of the business community was relatively pro the May deal.
Why do you think those sorts of pressures ended up being so weak? Did you expect that, in the end, the DUP would change their mind on the May Withdrawal Agreement, having made their point? It seemed that quite a lot of the business community in Northern Ireland was thinking, ‘Get this solved, rather than dragging it on’.
SF: What you saw, actually, was the DUP becoming quite aggressive to the business community, and being upset that they were speaking out – that it wasn’t their place to intervene in politics, especially constitutional politics and they should know their place, etcetera.
The first thing to say is that, for the business community to come out on a pragmatic perspective, on the backstop itself, was almost unprecedented in Northern Ireland. If you go back to 1998, I would ask you the question, did the business community endorse the Good Friday Agreement?
UKICE: I should think it stayed silent on the Good Friday Agreement.
SF: They did. So, something that is seen now as consensual, that everyone is quoting, is something which the business community in 1998 did not endorse as they viewed it as being party political. They talked about the general nature of peace and stability and wrote various letters asking for outcomes, but they did not explicitly endorse the Good Friday Agreement because they knew that there would be different viewpoints in that regard.
So, for them to come out to essentially endorse the backstop was utterly unprecedented. It showed the actual desperation that they had in trying to get something over the line. But they were met by complete and utter disdain by the DUP for doing so. There were suggestions made that people should know their place and, in particular, if people were back in office and controlling the purse strings, there would be consequences for people who were, shall we say, ‘rocking the boat’.
You saw the same thing in Downing Street as well, where business communities were overly aggressive and opposing how the Government were doing, that they were going to be marginalised from decisions. If you wanted to have your voice heard on the inside, there were certain tramlines in which you had to stay, in terms of your commentary around Brexit issues.
That happened in Northern Ireland on an even bigger scale with Unionism. The business community’s impact on voting patterns was there, but it would have been fairly marginal. There would have been soft unionists who maybe voted for Alliance in the 2019 elections that were influenced by that. But, nonetheless, the vast majority of Unionism was still voting for the DUP, and to an extent the Ulster Unionists- who by that stage were no longer a Remain party but were pushing the opposite- were pushing a fairly delusional approach to what was doable what was not at the time.
The business community would have had a desire to have stability. They weren’t particularly saying that the Protocol is great, they just saw the Protocol as a solution. In the same way that they are not really calling for the Protocol to be scrapped today, but they want the problems around it fixed. They know that they need some mechanism to work for Northern Ireland.
The Johnson deal and the 2019 election
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): And what was your reaction when Theresa May failed to get her deal through, resigns as Prime Minister, and Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister? Were you surprised at the deal that he finally did to get the Withdrawal Agreement through?
Stephen Farry (SF): Well, it was fairly clear at that stage that the Agreement wasn’t going to get through Parliament and Parliament was falling apart. They couldn’t unite around any alternative way of managing Brexit, and that was frustrating. From our point of view, we weren’t entirely saying, ‘Look, Brexit’s happening let us do a special deal’. Our preference was always, throughout that time, that we would have a further Referendum on any arrangements, including a Remain option as part of that.
I suppose our frustration at Parliament is that we always saw this as being a hierarchy of options. So that would have been our Plan A and then our Plan B would be a soft Brexit UK-wide. It is only with Plan C that we wanted a special deal for Northern Ireland, in the event that a hard Brexit was happening.
The debates in Parliament were more polarised, and people were taking things up to the wire and just couldn’t unite around anything. With hindsight, you could say it was an untenable position.
UKICE: The big change Boris Johnson did secure compared to the Commission’s earlier proposal was the consent mechanism, to answer the charge that the original version of the Protocol was antidemocratic. How did you view?
SF: Well, we didn’t actually want a consent mechanism. We saw a consent mechanism as being hugely problematic for the Northern Ireland political system, in that we were being asked to hold what was going to be a fairly polarised vote every four years, which while strictly speaking was not an issue about the Constitutional question, would be framed by many people as being a de facto border poll by some others. We just saw that as being very destructive to what was going to be a fragile restored Assembly, with very different approaches on Brexit.
Our preference would have been simply just to have the decision taken with our input. This is the arrangement from Northern Ireland, which could be superseded by a better one if it came along. In terms of how the mechanism was framed, cross-community votes are simple majority votes in Northern Ireland. The key question is: what is your starting point? What is a simple majority to continue the Protocol? Could it also have been framed as ‘the Protocol continues unless a cross-community vote decides otherwise’?
Whatever your default position is weighs heavily in terms of how things then follow through in voting. So, you could, actually, have a cross-community vote in the Assembly rather than a simple majority, if it was based upon the starting point of being the automatic continuation of the Protocol. Whereas the UK Government wanted to have a position where the default was the Protocol collapses unless the Assembly votes to continue with it.
It is simply a question of framing. It is the same basic point, that this is just really for the optics, and in practical terms you will need something like a Protocol or a backstop to manage Northern Ireland in the event of a hard Brexit.
UKICE: Did you have any conversations with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or with Boris Johnson about your concerns about the mechanism when they were doing these negotiations?
SF: We had loads of discussions with the Secretary of State, but it wasn’t particularly productive. Most of this was a case of ‘this isn’t the Prime Minister, or we would have said our piece’.
UKICE: Interesting. Then shortly after the Prime Minister unveiled his version of the Withdrawal Agreement, and finally got a degree of Parliamentary consent, the Westminster parties conceded an election. Were you surprised by that? Alliance has a relationship with the Liberal Democrats as their sister party: were you surprised that the Liberal Democrats went into that election on a platform of revoke rather than just a second referendum?
SF: We didn’t go quite as far as revoke. We were for a second referendum in the sense that we always viewed this as being a situation where the damage was done by a referendum in the first place, and the damage could only be reversed by a referendum. We were hopeful that we would be successful in a referendum, if the circumstances allow and want it to be called. Our first preference was to try to stop Brexit via referendum, then soft Brexit, and then the special deal.
The hope was that there would have been a coalition on the centre-left which would have facilitated some of these choices being made, but for various reasons that didn’t turn out, and we got an easy Tory majority instead.
UKICE: Was there a lot of support in Northern Ireland for the idea of a second referendum?
SF: Oh yes, absolutely. I thought that was the main plank of my election in North Down. You saw Unionism had its worst general election result in many decades, if ever, in Northern Ireland. That was a reflection of Brexit, and also reflection of the fact that they were dragging their feet over reputation of institutions, the Health Service being in crisis and nurses being on strike, things like that.
UKICE: You were a beneficiary of the December 2019 election, in the sense of being elected to Westminster, and Alliance being represented in the Westminster Parliament.
One of the things that I think was quite striking at that stage was when the Government had its majority to push through its Withdrawal Agreement, finally, in January 2020. There seemed to be a degree of unity among all the Northern Irish parties. Could you talk us through the discussions you had with your counterparts then? There were quite a lot of cross-party amendments, I think, coming from Northern Irish MPs to the Withdrawal Agreement bill.
SF: Yes. Well, the first thing to say is that very quickly after the General Election, Brexit was disappearing quite rapidly from the dialogue. Outside of Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland, where I think there is much more freedom to talk about Brexit-, in England it seemed to be a bit of a no-go area for a lot of people. But there was a brief moment of cooperation between the Northern Ireland parties and the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
That was just reflecting some pragmatic common ground around ensuring Northern Ireland’s voice was put in place and setting down some parameters around how the Protocol could operate. Those were the glory days when the DUP hadn’t entirely gone across to seeing the Protocol exclusively as a political constitutional crisis. That was us trying to find some degree of pragmatism and soften some of the rougher edges of this.
The Trade and Co-Operation Agreement (TCA)
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): We then had the start of negotiations on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement led by David Frost, who had helped to negotiate the Protocol. Did you get the sense that the UK Government understood fully the implications and the commitments that they had made in the Protocol?
Stephen Farry (SF): That is very hard to say. It is hard to say whether they did at the time, but were disingeneous in making those commitments and always had a plan of trying to wriggle out of them, versus not understanding at all and being generally surprised as to how things have turned out.
I think it is a mixed bag, but I lean towards the former, I am afraid.
UKICE: Having negotiated the Protocol, the way to make it easy to operate would be to negotiate quite a close relationship with the EU in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Did you ever think that might be the UK Government’s approach, that having got the UK out they then might then take a softer approach than their initial pitch?
SF: Yes. I mean, we were disappointed by the Trade and Cooperation Agreement in some respects. Now obviously we needed a deal – and Great Britain, in particular, needed a deal in the absence of having any Protocol at all. But there were a lot of gaps. I suppose the biggest one is some sort of deal around SPS movements, which they could have had as part of the TCA. But they chose not to because they wanted to do these independent free trade deals instead.
We ended up with a TCA that was very heavy on the zero tariff, zero quota arrangement, but a non-tariff barrier has very significant difficulties. Those weren’t really articulated as part of the debate at the time, by the media and by politicians either. But they have proven to be the most thorny. Even now we still haven’t seen the full impact of them, because the UK is not imposing full checks yet.
UKICE: Did you have any chance to engage with the negotiating team, or did the Northern Ireland Executive get consulted on the appraisal?
SF: Not us directly.
UKICE: Northern Ireland reappeared, you might say, as an issue when Brandon Lewis made his comments on the Internal Market Bill.
You were sitting in Parliament then. What did you make of that? Did you see that just as a negotiating tactic or did you think, ‘This is going to cause trouble’?
SF: Well we know it was presaging trouble, and it was probably one of the initial indications that the UK Government was trying to wriggle out of the commitments that they were making, and that they couldn’t be trusted. I suppose this leads on to another point, which is that to get the mitigations necessary around the Protocol requires trust to be built up between the parties. The UK did say, ‘Look, we appreciate this is unusual. We want to bend the rules as far as we can for Northern Ireland, so you can trust us, and you have to trust that we will do the right thing and we will protect the integrity of the Single Market. We won’t allow it to be breached’.
So, the UK was advocating a risk-based approach to things rather than a rule-based approach. If you end up with the Government which then unilaterally threatens to breach international law and not abide by existing agreements, your ability to actually then build a relationship, and for trust to develop, is seriously hindered.
That to me was one of the most immediate implications of that approach, alongside, obviously, the wider international repercussions for the UK as a leader in terms of international rule of law, although all that was pretty demeaning.
UKICE: Obviously the UK ended up by withdrawing that threat-
SF: Yes, it was wrapped up in the final agreements that happened with the Trade and Cooperation Agreement later on that year, and the mitigations around the Protocol that were agreed in December of 2020.
UKICE: So, then looking at the Government’s handling of the process, they have got the final deal, Northern Ireland is, at least for goods, is covered off by the Protocol, and we have had some meetings of the Joint Committee on Northern Ireland, as well as a series of engagements and extensions, unilateral or otherwise.
On the other hand, there were threats of legal action from the EU’s side, such as the threat to trigger Article 16 over vaccine supply. I wonder what you made of both sides’ handling of the relations, looking back from September 2021?
SF: It has been a rough year so far. It is probably going to get worse before it gets better. First of all, the replacement of Michael Gove with David Frost on the Joint Committee was never a good sign, and we have ended up with an even more confrontational approach. I doubt it has been particularly productive in that respect.
UKICE: Did you interpret that as just a change because it was the logic of David Frost’s job, or did you think it was that Boris Johnson was dissatisfied with Michael Gove’s over-conciliatory approach to the EU?
SF: I am not sure how much Boris Johnson thinks through anything. But I think this was a reflection of a more belligerent approach with Europe. Now, people would argue that this is all about distraction politics and that Brexit is a disaster. We don’t want to mention Brexit, as such, but if we end up having a continual row with the European Union, then that sort of helps in Ireland for the tabloids and stuff. We can keep blaming them.
I mean, there are obvious solutions out there, but for various reasons people just aren’t prepared to grasp them. But obviously the European Union did not help themselves by their close shave with triggering Article 16 in January of this year.
I think it is useful to say that, actually, what happened in January was almost like a perfect storm in terms of problems. You had an opinion poll in Northern Ireland from a company called LucidTalk – though you always need a certain health warning with opinion polls, not to denigrate the methodology – which showed that people saw the UK as being at a very difficult place, and that was creating a sense of panic in terms of Unionism, which led to Government hardening their own approach on the Protocol.
We saw the Government moving away from being ambiguous around whether some sort of practical mitigations around the Protocol would be enough, to taking a much more a dogmatic approach, that this is a constitutional, political crisis.
That was happening more or less at the same time as the tone-deaf approach from the European Commission around Article 16 and vaccines. That played massively into the hands of the UK Government, and they keep bringing up, time after time after time- it played into their narrative of the evil Europeans. But it wasn’t just the Article 16 stuff, it was what was happening in terms of opinion within Northern Ireland that was spooking the DUP.
That meant that we ended up on a much more hard-line, confrontational approach. And then in February, early March, they changed negotiator to David Frost, who then took a much more confrontational approach. Europe isn’t good at selling themselves or what they do in the UK media, so it is difficult to get a counterbalance to a lot of the noise that comes from the UK Government around their approach to these discussions.
The Government can come out and say, ‘Well, obviously, having checks inside the UK is obviously absurd. How on earth could anything like that be tolerated? How on earth did we end up in this situation?’, without the counterbalance of someone going, ‘Well, this is consequence of Brexit and your decisions and to leave the Customs Union and the Single Market’.
It is a partial narrative which has developed. Where we are today is very, very uncertain. I suppose the European Union has been increasingly pragmatic about accepting unilateral extensions of the grace periods, but that can’t go on indefinitely. They have been pragmatic around legal challenges being made, but again, that can’t go on indefinitely.
There is building speculation that the UK is going to trigger Article 16, because that is seen as the magic, silver bullet that people have been quoting, without really anyone understanding Article 16. It just really creates a new phase of negotiations.
It is something for the optics rather than something substantive. What then happens if the UK does something unilateral? Will there be rebalancing or retaliation within the TCA terms? What is the reaction of the Biden Administration going to be in that regard? If the UK comes up with something that is very constructive and the European Union are pragmatic, is that enough for Unionists who have made this a political constitutional crisis? Do the Unionists go through with their threat to withdraw from the Executive and try to force an election? Those are all huge issues.
UKICE: Looking back over the last few years, from your various perspectives, as an Assembly member and an MP, what do you think the big takeaways are for the way in which the UK Government looks at and treats Northern Ireland, and understands the issues in Northern Ireland?
SF: This is a case of the UK Government just charging ahead with a decision to hold a referendum and then have Brexit, and decide the nature of Brexit, with virtually no real understanding of the implications for Northern Ireland. Whenever they do try to have an understanding, they only listen to voices in a partial manner, and not listening to a much more rounded audience or a rounded group of stakeholders.
UKICE: We have just had a reshuffle where the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has stayed, despite potential rumours to the contrary. Does it make a difference who the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is?
SF: It can on the margins, but obviously the Brexit policy is controlled by Number 10, David Frost in particular, at present. A Julian Smith-type figure might be able to push back a little bit more effectively or be more willing to push back than Brandon Lewis has been. Perhaps that explains why Julian Smith isn’t currently Secretary of State.
UKICE: Looking forwards, you have got Assembly Elections next year. Is Brexit, the Protocol, going to be the big, dominant issue there?
SF: Unionism will try to make it a dominant issue, but there are other issues out there, particularly for other voters. I suppose the big question is what happens afterwards- will there be a majority to overturn the Protocol? That’s unlikely, but the more immediate question is going to be whether the DUP are the second largest party, will they be willing to become Deputy First Minister, even though First Minister and Deputy First Minister are exactly co-equal.
Optics may get in the way of that, and in that situation then you are looking at a fresh negotiation around the institutions. Potentially, the most serious implication is that it becomes impossible to continue power sharing in Northern Ireland . If that scenario happens, that can be traced back to Brexit decisions.
UKICE: Do you think the absence of the Executive in Northern Ireland, or the representation of Northern Ireland in Westminster from 2017, changed the course of Brexit?
SF: Yes. I think that if during the 2017-2019 period there had been a different balance of opinion from Northern Ireland, that would have made a difference to the nature of Brexit. We would have had a much softer outcome.