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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Irish border fears dog Theresa May's Brexit deal

Conservative infighting puts peacetime gains in jeopardy

The Carlingford Ferry service between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been hit by Brexit uncertainty. Damien McElroy
The Carlingford Ferry service between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been hit by Brexit uncertainty. Damien McElroy

On the only year-round ferry service that travels between northern and southern Ireland, there is no thought given to the process of crossing an international border.

The invisible line has been the sticking point in Britain’s Brexit negotiations with the EU. While the two sides sealed a draft deal last week, the announcement brought Theresa May, the British prime minister, to the brink. Cabinet ministers quit and were replaced as Downing Street went on a war footing for a Conservative party leadership challenge.

On the ferry, the fight against corrosion was taking up crew member George Rooney’s time and energy. Deploying a chemical spray allowed him to attack rust spots and watch as the damage just melted away. There is no such solution to the all-consuming topic of Brexit. “Everybody is talking about it,” said Mr Rooney. “It’s like going back in time. Nobody wants chaos but what can you do? You just have to hope for the best.”

The staff were tasked with getting the ferry ready for a busy day on Saturday when 300 amateur cyclists were expected to make the 15-minute journey around a sandbank on Carlingford Lough that was once patrolled by British and Irish gunboats seeking to enforce territorial waters.

The vulnerability of the ferry operation to changes in economic conditions is obvious. An incoming boat on the half-hour round trip carried one vehicle and the return journey also ran with just a single passenger. It is only the second winter the service has run, another small milestone in the increasing integration of the border economy since the Good Friday Agreement ended terrorism in Ireland two decades ago.

“It’s great drama to watch but its all about the Tories and what their games are,” said John Mulligan, the editor of the Dundalk Argus newspaper, which serves the nearest town south of the border. “People here can’t influence the outcome but they know it matters to them.”

Around the shores, the impact of Brexit casts doubts over how much of everyday life can be preserved in the coming months. Kevin Kennealy, who works in the Northern Irish fishing port of Kilkeel, makes the five-hour journey there from his home in Galway twice a week. He has already felt the consequences of the Brexit vote. “No one can tell us what’s going to happen but we can see Brexit is already having an effect, the cost of living has gone up and uncertainty has risen. If we are shut out of the market for the product we land it’s not going to be easy to cope with.”

But on the quays the angry defiance that saw the British fishing industry back a leave vote in 2016 remains at fever pitch. To most, the dominance of European boats in UK waters is something that Brexit must reverse.

“When I, like a lot of the fishermen here, decided to vote leave it was because of the impact its policies had on our industry. We saw what the EU was turning into in the fishing industry and could only imagine what it would do to other walks of life,” said Alan McCulla, who runs a co-operative in the town.

Flags hanging from the boats, proclaim “No Fisheries Sell Out”. David Roper, who is from Scotland but also works locally, is convinced that Britain can take a firm stance. He believes Europeans would not cut off the UK-based industry in a no-deal scenario.

“They can’t,” he said. “Europe has very high demand for fish and British waters provides that catch. They need us.”

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Mrs May stabilised her leadership on Friday after rebel efforts to organise a vote of no-confidence among Conservative party members failed to secure the required numbers.

The prime minister replaced the two cabinet ministers who had resigned in the aftermath of a five-hour meeting that endorsed the agreement with Brussels.

Yet the hardline leavers remain unhappy with the accord and five senior Conservatives — Michael Gove, Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt and Chris Grayling — are meeting this weekend to plot changes to the deal.

Even so, they are lobbying from within. Mr Fox used a speech on Friday to warn the agreement was broadly as good as it gets. ”I hope across parliament we recognise that a deal is better than no deal, and businesses require certainty — it's in our national interest to provide certainty as soon as possible,” he said.

Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, joined other European leaders in telling the British that the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement could not be unpicked in a further round of talks. "If you start trying to amend it or unthink it, you might find that the whole thing unravels,” he said, adding that the disruption would sweep the Irish border if there was no deal. "We can avoid a hard border by signing up for the agreement that has been negotiated. I think in a no-deal scenario it would be very hard to avoid a hard border."

Northern Ireland’s staunchly British Democratic Unionist Party played a key role at Westminster last week, rejecting the deal and putting its support for Mrs May’s minority government on the line. But its stance has come under fire.

Political commentator Alex Kane told BBC radio that DUP fury was not shared by many among its own unionist community. At past moments of crisis, such as the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, there was a unionist monolith of outrage but that was not the case facing the threat of a reimposition of the border.

The influential Ulster Farmers Union took the rare step of challenging the DUPs position and backing Mrs May’s proposal. “We want to make sure we avoid a no-deal situation,” its leader Wesley Aston said. “We would support the deal going through and against that background we would ask the DUP to consider voting for this deal.”

The inclusion of a so-called backstop for Northern Ireland if London and Brussels cannot agree on a long-term trade deal is seen by the DUP as threat to the province's place inside the UK. "There are serious constitutional and economic implications of this deal for Northern Ireland," said Sir Jeffery Donaldson, a leading DUP MP.

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