Is a “smooth, orderly” Brexit likely?

18 January 2017 - by Connor Daly

Prime Minister Theresa May has outlined her much anticipated approach to the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, in the form of a 12-point plan.

The position is clear: the UK will seek full withdrawal, a course described by European leaders as a “hard Brexit”. Whatever the terminology, Mrs May insists she aspires to a “smooth, orderly” departure, but is this realistic, particularly for Northern Ireland?

Having previously stated her intention to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and enter Brexit negotiations by the end of March, the Prime Minister revealed that maintaining the Common Travel Area (CTA) with the Republic of Ireland will be a priority.

The UK does intend to give up its membership of the European single market; to remain inside it would equate to “not leaving the EU at all. Instead, from the outside the UK will seek a free trade agreement that will provide business “the greatest possible access” to the market.

Other priorities include having greater control over the number of people entering from the European Union and guaranteeing the rights of those EU nationals currently living in the UK.

On maintaining the CTA, the Prime Minister stated that the government desires a practical solution. The CTA has existed since the 1920s, long before the EU came into existence, and allows citizens of both jurisdictions to move freely without passport controls.

The Prime Minister stated her intention to leave the customs union, which is an agreement that allows goods to be circulated within the EU free of quotas or tariffs. Should this happen, it is envisaged some kind of control on the movement of goods across the Irish border may be required.

Mrs May said the UK seeks “a new and equal partnership – between an independent, self-governing, global Britain and our friends and allies in the EU… It is my job is to get the right deal for Britain.” This deal will be voted on in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Welcoming the PM’s plans, DUP MP Sammy Wilson said they will relieve the UK of the EU’s “shackles of unelected bureaucracy.” He said that the DUP is committed to helping the government: “whilst Sinn Féin and others complain that her [the PM’s] statement will mean a hard border, they now have no input as a result of bringing the Assembly down.

Responding on behalf of Sinn Féin, John O’Dowd MLA warned that exiting the single market and customs union would create a hard border on the island of Ireland that will have a detrimental impact on both economies.

Ulster Unionist Party MEP Jim Nicholson also highlighted the importance of border issues, urging a deal that will avoid high agricultural tariffs and “an internal border” between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The Alliance Party also criticised Mrs May’s approach, with Dr Stephen Farry MLA warning of “far-reaching political and constitutional implications.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MLA pointed out that whilst assurances had been given on free travel, no assurances and exceptions were made with respect to trade. He also criticised “the inept response” of the Northern Ireland Executive; seven months on, he said, “they have produced no plan and no policy on Brexit.