Engagement on Relations between the State and Northern Ireland

Senator Mark Daly took the Chair.

On behalf of the committee, I thank Dr. Mary Murphy for coming from the department of government in University College Cork. She holds the Jean Monnet Chair in European Integration. She has expertise in a number of areas at which the committee is looking. She was unable to come last week when we discussed the future relations between the State and Northern Ireland and we are delighted that she is able to join us today. We will look at the future of the European Union in this session. We will be delighted to hear her thoughts on the issue. Before we hear from her, I must remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If, however, they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her, or it identifiable. I invite Dr. Murphy to give her evidence.

Dr. Mary Murphy

I thank the Acting Chairman and apologise for being unable to attend last week. I thank the committee for accommodating my contribution today. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to the work of the Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

In 2015 I was appointed by the Taoiseach to serve as a member of the Seanad reform working group which which was chaired by former Senator Maurice Manning. Its report was published in April 2015. It made a number of recommendations, including that the Seanad investigate and report on matters of public policy interest. The United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union is clearly one such matter. Brexit constitutes a serious challenge to the health of the Irish economy, stability on the island of Ireland and the future of the European Union. It is important and necessary that our political institutions engage in a robust consideration of how Ireland might best meet these immense challenges. I congratulate the Seanad on undertaking this exercise and hope I can make a constructive contribution to its work.

I will concentrate specifically on Northern Ireland and the challenges posed by Brexit. I stress that my emphasis is on process more than on outcomes. My emphasis is on the process of how we can frame a response from Northern Ireland, with Northern Ireland's agreement, which meets the best interests of Northern Ireland.

First, I will provide some important context. The Northern Ireland experience of peace building over a period of more than 20 years is considered, rightly or wrongly, to be a model of conflict resolution. The 1994 paramilitary ceasefires have largely held fast and power-sharing institutions have been operational. The conflict studies academic literature notes that these features of a conflict resolution process, an end to violence and the creation of shared institutions are but stages along the way to a final sustainable peace. The final stage of peace-building and consolidation involves a process called conflict transformation. This is the deepest level of the conflict resolution tradition. This stage of conflict resolution is synonymous with the process of reconciliation. It means not just a de-escalation of violence but also a change in attitudes and a transformation of relationships at the core of the conflict. It is an expansive process that involves changes in persons, structures and relationships. The latter two changes in structures and relationships are deemed to be of particular significance in securing a permanent peace.

Northern Ireland has been successful in making structural institutional changes designed to accommodate and mediate difference. A crucial point, however, in the context of the current discussion is that this has not produced high levels of faith, trust and confidence between political parties and communities.

Residual issues, including flags, parades, language and legacy issues which have never been fully addressed now haunt the broader body politic. They continue to prevent agreement on resurrecting the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. A lack of trust permeates the political system in Northern Ireland and it manifests itself in intense competition between the two communal blocks and especially between political parties. Politics remains polarised. Within the academic literature this can be labelled a form of negative peace. Relations between the communities have certainly softened but mutual trust remains problematic. Fundamental disputes related to political aspirations linger. There are no visions of a shared future. If we look at the different positions adopted by Northern Ireland's political parties during the EU referendum campaign and more recently the different reactions from the communities to the referendum result, Brexit vividly highlights the absence of a shared vision for the future. The fact that Brexit challenges the UK constitutional status quo and may possibly lead to the fracturing of the United Kingdom also risks intensely politicising the Brexit issue in Northern Ireland. In addition, of course, Brexit poses acute economic challenges for Northern Ireland. In summary, Brexit has the potential to threaten not just economic stability but political and social stability too at what is a precarious time in Northern Ireland's post-conflict journey.

The question which then arises is, given the sensitivities and the risks, how Northern Ireland's best interests can be agreed, communicated and, ultimately, protected. A close examination of Northern Ireland's experience of EU membership and of current positions reveals a number of important points and precedents. First, the European Union has a record of facilitating tailored financial and practical support for Northern Ireland in the context of its ongoing support for the peace process. Northern Ireland as a whole has been receptive to this support.

Second, the EU negotiating guidelines state the European Union is open to "flexible and imaginative solutions" in dealing with Brexit as it affects the island of Ireland. This implies that from the EU perspective, special arrangements for Northern Ireland may be possible but they are dependent on the United Kingdom providing flexible options.

Third, the political parties in Northern Ireland do share some common perspectives when it comes to achieving the softest possible Brexit. Parties of all hues, nationalist and unionist, do not want to see hard borders, want to protect the integrated electricity market, want to see the free movement of people and want to safeguard the agrifood business sector. There is some potential overlap in their positions. Where nationalists favour special status for Northern Ireland, unionists, including those who voted remain, wish to see continued co-operation with the Republic of Ireland, based on "common aims such as a seamless, frictionless border and maintenance of the common travel area". That is a quote from the DUP's election manifesto. Again, there is potential overlap.

Fourth, a major problem is that discussion of a special deal or special status or recognition of unique circumstances for Northern Ireland evokes very different reactions, depending on one's constitutional outlook. Nationalists are strongly in favour of bespoke arrangements, but there are difficulties for the United Kingdom and unionists in terms of contemplating or facilitating such a deal. This is a challenge and a dilemma.

Fifth, a key challenge is to depoliticise the Brexit discussion in Northern Ireland. If we look at the region's experience of the European Union during the era of devolved power, there are some signs that this may be possible. The approach of the Northern Ireland power-sharing Administration to EU issues for which it had some devolved responsibility was largely based on pragmatism. A functional and utilitarian approach characterised Northern Ireland's engagement with the European Union during a prolonged period. The means that to allow a shared perspective on Brexit to be teased out and developed are primarily through the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and other Belfast Agreement institutions. Reinstating the assembly and the Executive needs to be an immediate priority in the context of the ongoing Brexit process. The absence of an administration is paralysing.

What Northern Ireland needs is to take ownership of the Brexit issue and this requires courageous shared political leadership on how to meet the challenges associated with the UK exit from the European Union. A critical point is that the mood music is important. Creating the conditions to facilitate the establishment of trust between parties is paramount to ensuring the permanency of peace. Coaxing key political players back to the political table must not further agitate the negative peace backdrop. Where trust is absent there needs to be sensitivity and vigilance in the use of language and in the presentation of ideas. Undermining trust between the parties at this point risks damaging both how Northern Ireland fares vis-à-vis Brexit and a fragile peace process.

There are some proposals. They may not be palatable to all, but they do provide some basis for discussion. For example, some bespoke arrangements have been tentatively proposed by colleagues in Queen's University, Belfast, namely, the European Economic Area, EEA, model. The Scottish Parliament has explored distinct solutions for Scotland and the Welsh Government has produced a position paper. The Northern Ireland Administration needs to do likewise. The European Union's openness to flexible and imaginative solutions provides a place for exploring creative ways of meeting the interests of both nationalists and unionists. If the Northern Ireland authorities can produce an agreed position, whatever that might be, the strength and legitimacy of that position would make it difficult for others, including the UK Government and the European Union, to resist or oppose such proposals. Political leaders in the European Union and the United Kingdom would find it hard to overlook or ignore a Northern Ireland position which has been jointly crafted and agreed by all political persuasions. Admittedly this is a very challenging and ambitious proposal. However, if we look back at Northern Ireland's experience over 20 years or so in terms of the existence of the devolved capacity, those involved have, at times of crisis, reached out. They have engaged the support of the British and Irish Governments. They have looked to the European Union for support. If we look at how the Scottish example has been mediating this particular Brexit issue, it has engaged explicitly and frequently with a high-level external group of experts. The civic dialogue in the Republic of Ireland may be something that can be replicated in Northern Ireland. Perhaps one of the more ambitious proposals which I tentatively suggest is that some intermediate or neutral facilitator could be used to mediate and facilitate the different positions proposed by nationalists and unionists in terms of providing an agreed Northern Ireland position to which it would be difficult to object.

A period of negative peace is a very vulnerable point in any peace process. Brexit has the potential to upset the current delicate equilibrium in Northern Ireland by endangering political, social and economic stability there. However, if the Brexit challenge can be approached with some degree of internal unity against a backdrop which is sensitive to the complex dynamics at play for both communities, it may also present one of the biggest opportunities for real political progress and longer term stability. It may actually be an important step in building trust and cementing the process of conflict transformation. Peace is fragile. Institutions are fragile and building trust is challenging. Our approach to Brexit on this side of the Border should be acutely attuned to all of this. The process is as important as the outcome in achieving the best interests of all.

I thank Dr. Murphy for her valuable contribution. The idea of an independent facilitator is something at which we should look as a committee in making a recommendation. The entire peace process was built on the principle that nothing was agreed until everything was agreed. During the Brexit negotiations the parties must agree what they can and what they cannot agree must be left to one side because the European Union is not going to listen to different parties with different thoughts on what is to be done if they do not come up with a common position.

In terms of conflict transformation and a negative peace, Brexit is going to change the status quo in Northern Ireland. If Brexit had not happened, we could have continued on in trying to move from a negative peace and with a conflict transformation zone.

The SDLP is now talking about a Border poll and we see Sinn Féin's policy on a Border poll, the objectives of the political parties here and Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution which relate to the unionist community on top of Brexit. The unionist community's constitutional status with Northern Ireland is then under question. That has an effect on the issue of conflict transformation. How does Dr. Murphy see that playing out? I know that they are talking about the process here, but that is not in isolation from the longer term issue or what will happen if the SDLP's policy on a Border poll takes place immediately after Brexit, which is in less than two years' time. What is that going to do? Does Dr. Murphy see a referendum being held and how far away is it? What should the academic and political establishment here be doing in that respect because they are parallel issues in some senses? Brexit is a stand-alone problem and needs a stand-alone solution, but it has changed the status quo. What should we be doing in that respect?

I will start with the last question raised by the Acting Chairman regarding a Border poll. Before I go into it, I thank Dr. Murphy for her presentation which was excellent and very accessible. To begin where the Acting Chairman left off on the issue of a Border poll, does Dr. Murphy agree with my view and that articulated by the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at a meeting of this committee recently that while every one of us aspires to a truly united Ireland of people, institutions, hearts and minds where people will be happy to co-exist and work together and that it is reasonable for us to maintain that dream, it would not be prudent to have a Border poll until there are the conditions for it. Among those conditions would be significant support within the non-nationalist community. It might not have to be a majority but there would need to be significant cross-community support for a united Ireland as otherwise we would see a difficult polarisation. Does Dr. Murphy agree with the view that any talk or implementation of a Border poll prematurely runs the risk of damaging conflict transformation, to use her terminology, or the end product of conflict ending? The great old cliché is that we all would love to think we would live to see a united Ireland and, as someone who comes from the Border region and a passionate believer in a united Ireland, I would also love to live to see it. I passionately believe in a united Ireland. As a small island community on the periphery of Europe, it would be wonderful if we could find common cause and work together, but at the same time, I do not think a united Ireland born out of conflict, one-upmanship and gamesmanship would truly be united. I am interested in hearing Dr. Murphy's thoughts.

I am very interested in Dr. Murphy's view that the ideal would be a solution posed from within Northern Ireland, if I understood her correctly - an agreed position among the parties on the post-Brexit situation and their relationship with the Republic. I gather anecdotally and I am hearing that there is a real prospect of the institutions being re-established after the UK election. That is the story on the grapevine, thanks be to God, and let us hope it is true, but we will not know until we see it play out. Let us assume that this is true. Does Dr. Murphy think the institutions will make trying to arrive at a consensus a priority? If they do not, they should. Dr. Murphy is correct. It is how it should be.

Dr. Murphy mentioned a mediator and the issue was picked up by the Acting Chairman. Has she thoughts on the matter? Does she see the Irish Government as having a proactive role in that regard? The risk is that through the very involvement of the Irish Government, we could immediately arrive at polarisation; therefore, it would be a very subtle exercise.

In terms of agriculture, food production and tourism, services that greatly affect the people in the area I represent and the whole country, the all-island solution, free trade on an all-Ireland basis and free movement - in other words, the continuation of the status quo - is so critical. I would be more concerned about the continuation of the status quo than any titles for it. If the title was going to become an issue for the DUP, I would be happy to compromise on it and go for terminology that would not be offensive to it if we could maintain the status quo on the island as a consequence because the lives, jobs and lifestyles of so many depend on the status quo. We are talking about farming both ways across the Border, milk being sourced in Northern Ireland and processed in the South, pigs being exported live to Northern Ireland to be processed, a similar situation for sheep, cattle marketing between the two jurisdictions, the interplay between farms on either side of the Border, education and co-operation, people attending institutions either side of the Border and tourism. There is such an array of interests, including hauliers crossing the Border with materials. There is so much at play that if we could arrive at maintaining the status quo, irrespective of the terminology used, it would be great. What are Dr. Murphy's thoughts on the matter?

Dr. Murphy's paper is very challenging to the degree that she cites the significant difficulty, but it is also very positive to the degree that she has proposed solutions. Apart from including them in our recommendations, which I would support - I agree with the Chairman that we should consider including matters such as this in our recommendations - what strategies would Dr. Murphy suggest should be adopted to make this a reality because there is so much at play for ordinary people? We are in the last few weeks. For about six weeks, every Thursday, from morning to mid-evening, we have been hearing a list of difficulties posed for people on either side of the Border. These are practical operational difficulties, apart from the potential conflict in having customs or visible checkpoints. We are hearing a litany of difficulties every day which I will not rehash but they are such that we need a solution.

I thank Dr. Murphy for her very broad and eye-opening analysis. As Senator Joe O'Reilly said, we have been here for a long time. I will not say all but practically all of the previous contributions were from an economic angle. It is great to get Dr. Murphy's insight into the social, cultural and personal aspects. She has definitely showed that she has an in-depth understanding of and feel for them.

I would like to tease out a couple of ideas. We mentioned a Border poll and an all-island approach. From the outset, some jumped on the bandwagon that this was an ideal opportunity to have a united Ireland. As Dr. Murphy rightly said and as has been said here, we need to bring everybody along. The original plan was that everybody would come along and that a united Ireland would be acceptable to everybody, if and when it ever came about. Most of the emphasis on Brexit has been on the economic side and it will probably be the most defining factor. After the vote, we have seen a rush for Irish passports from the most unlikely of sources.

Because of the right given in the Good Friday Agreement, people, who never thought they might do such a thing, see the benefit now post Brexit of having an Irish passport and thereby access to greater Europe because that Irish passport would, in essence, keep them as European citizens.

I believe Senator Craughwell said that at the end of the day, when push comes to shove, to the most unionist person in the North the crown that is most important is the half-crown. From an economic point of view, if there is a hard Brexit and the majority of people in the North see that economically they would be better off aligned to the South, could that be even more divisive up there, in the sense it will cream off the most liberal leaving the most conservative almost alienated? Therefore there would not be the dilution of any one belief or one movement; there would be very extreme sectors left that will not yield but probably would have been diluted or brought along over a longer period of progression towards the eventuality of a united Ireland. However, if it happens as a knee-jerk reaction for economic reasons, could it actually bring us back even further than we were? I am painting a worst-case scenario here.

I thank Dr. Murphy for her excellent presentation. Even though when one paints a picture it can be quite bleak, hers was a very positive and hopeful presentation. If we take on what she said and it all worked out, it could be almost historic. I am mindful that the breakdown in trust between the two parties is very difficult. It is hard to even think about how that trust will come back. It is almost like a marriage. When the trust breaks down in a marriage it is very difficult but not impossible to rebuild; it can be done.

It is vital to bring someone in. It plays a huge role in all of this. I hope this is an appropriate question to ask Dr. Murphy. Who does she believe should be brought in to build up that relationship again, working on a shared future and building on the Good Friday Agreement, which is a brilliant document? As Dr. Murphy said, unionists and nationalists are probably all fearful of the same thing. This has a huge impact on the North. It is important that the North of Ireland gets special status in this. People are sick listening to me saying this. I have family who are farmers up in the North. They live on a small island up there. They are terrified of what might happen now that this is starting to really come to the fore.

What are Dr. Murphy’s recommendations on building trust? Regarding the special status, what does she regard as the perfect scenario for this situation? If she had a magic wand what would she do?

Dr. Murphy's presentation was very interesting. If I am reading her correctly, without an Executive and agreement in the North, the people in the North do not count as regards Britain. Theresa May and her Government do not seem to have any great concern for them. Negotiations with the EU will be from London. None of us knows at this stage, but we are all hopeful of course that as Senator Black has said, they will be realistic and should be able to put an Executive together. The jury is out on that and probably will be out for another while. However, without that, things are bleak.

I know the customs union and the Border will be matters for negotiation. While we got on very well with Michel Barnier and we noted that the EU has Ireland's position very much in mind, I somehow feel that when it gets down to brass tacks in the negotiations, none of us can say with any certainty how this will unfold for us in practice. Of course, we hope there will be no return to the past as regards border controls and so on. While I acknowledge it is an impossible thing to ask of Dr. Murphy, how does she believe this will unfold when it gets down to the detail in negotiations?

Dr. Mary Murphy

I thank the Senators for their questions and their thoughts. It is interesting to get the feedback from them on some of the ideas I have outlined today.

I will start with the Acting Chairman’s comments. My response will probably touch on some of the other questions the Senators asked. The issue of a Border poll is problematic. I appreciate that for the nationalist political parties in Northern Ireland, the political aspiration for a united Ireland is obviously a very real and meaningful aspiration. However, conflating the Brexit referendum result with desire for a united Ireland is misleading because the two cannot be conflated. To some extent it can be unhelpful to talk consistently about the possibility of having a Border poll. It is very unhelpful to the process because it politicises the Brexit issue. In order to achieve some kind of solution to the Brexit issue, depoliticising the issue is imperative.

On the question of the Border poll, the Belfast Agreement, the Good Friday Agreement, makes it clear that there are only grounds for a Border poll in the event of justifiable evidence of support in terms of consent. Therefore, putting Irish unity on the table at this point distracts from the major issue, which is how to manage the Brexit process. That is not to say that the issue of the Border poll should not be on the agenda in the future.

However, the timing is particularly important here. Talking about a Border poll and the possibility of a united Ireland is something we should do but perhaps it is something we should do in the future, because the big problem is that when one starts talking about these issues, to which of course the unionist community is highly sensitive, it impacts on the degree of trust that exists between the two communities. If we start to damage that trust by bringing these issues to the table, it minimises the confidence that each side has in the other and undermines the possibility of achieving any sort of Brexit proposal or Brexit resolution.

While I can completely understand that the issue of Irish unification is part and parcel of the much broader debate about Northern Ireland's future, putting it on the table is unhelpful at a time when we are trying to find a Brexit proposal acceptable to both communities in Northern Ireland. That is very important. It is important for us on this side of the Border in how we approach the issue and it is also important for the parties in Northern Ireland in how they position themselves to reach some sort of Brexit proposal.

In response to Senator O'Reilly's questions, I have probably touched on some of the answers.

In terms of a Border poll, it is imperative to have cross-community support. Let us consider the referendum that followed the Good Friday Agreement. We do not know the following with any degree of certainty but we can surmise from the results of the referendum that it enjoyed the support of both communities - a strong majority of the nationalist community and a small unionist majority. That support lent enormous legitimacy to the document and allowed for its introduction. I suggest that the same sort of conditions are important for a Border poll. I agree with the Senator that the support of both communities is imperative and it should not simply be a number crunching exercise, given that the Belfast Agreement makes it clear that it is a straightforward 50% plus one referendum result. For the purpose of this discussion and the legitimacy of the process longer term, achieving a scenario whereby support for a united Ireland meets a certain level of support would be particularly important.

In terms of the re-installation of the institutions, and again nothing can be said with complete certainty, there are some signs that these institutions will be resurrected following the UK general election. It is something to which the key protagonists have hinted at over the past few weeks. On the extent to which Brexit will be top of the agenda if the institutions are re-instated, that is dependent on how the general election campaign plays out. I was surprised to note that the Brexit issue was placed very high on the agenda. If Brexit is high on the agenda for voters then it must be high on the agenda when the institutions meet. Also, the institutions, the political parties and key political figures in Northern Ireland may have been distracted by other issues. We have reached the point where Article 50 has been triggered, which has focused minds. The realities about the potential dire impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland has been realised much more fully by the political parties and the institutions.

In terms of mediating a process whereby the two communities in Northern Ireland could find agreement on how they might approach Brexit, the appointment of a mediator, facilitator or whatever terminology one uses is something that I proposed in my contribution. The process would have to involve both the Irish and UK Governments. Let us consider previous experiences of crises in Northern Ireland, whether it is the negotiations that led to the Belfast Agreement, the Stormont House Agreement or the Hillsborough Agreement. It has often tended to be the case that they were facilitated by a neutral external individual. That type of framework has been used before. The British and Irish Governments are important stakeholders in the Brexit discussions. Therefore, they would have to be party to the process. In terms of bringing the communities in Northern Ireland together, and bringing nationalist and unionist representatives together in Northern Ireland, there may be merit in having a neutral facilitator of sorts to achieve it. As Senator O'Reilly said, there is broad agreement across the political party spectrum in Northern Ireland that the status quo is preferable. I think that view is shared by all political parties.

I can appreciate the political sensitivities regarding the terminology and labelling of a possible special arrangement for Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, certainly from a European Union perspective, has always been special in terms of qualifying for Structural Funds from the 1980s onwards. Northern Ireland was given special dispensation because it did not meet the conditionality requirement. Due to the conflict situation, it was deemed appropriate for Northern Ireland to have elevated assistance from the European Union.

Sometimes the EU's role has been overstated in terms of the peace process. The European Union has played a subtle role by providing financial support through the PEACE programmes. It has played an interesting role in terms of Northern Ireland's EU task force that was created by the former European Commission President, Mr. Barroso. He brought together officials in the Northern Ireland Administration and officials in the European institutions as a means of assisting the Northern Ireland Administration to mature and engage more effectively with the European Union. Northern Ireland has always had a special status of sorts but the terminology is for others to decide. It is not completely out of kilter that Northern Ireland might again be treated as a special case in this instance.

In terms of strategies for this institution and other institutions in the Irish State, discussion by this special committee is exceptionally important. There is also scope for Members to reach out to their colleagues in Britain and Northern Ireland through institutions like the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. There is a need for broader discussion involving all of those actors and there is a need for reassurance. That is why I talked about language being important in the presentation of ideas.

Senator Paul Daly rightly made the point that much emphasis has been placed on the economic context in which Brexit is unfolding. I agree with him. When one considers Northern Ireland's experience of the European Union, one sees that economic pragmatism has very much been a feature of how Northern Ireland approached the European Union, an approach that is likely to persist. The difference is that Brexit is much broader than just economics. Brexit touches on rights, sovereignty, identity and even the very unity of the United Kingdom. These are hugely sensitive issues. The extent to which liberal unionists might be persuaded to support a Border poll or a united Ireland is not necessarily something that we can entirely rely on at this point in time because the issues are of such immense sensitivity. They are also intangible issues.

The Senator asked about extremes in Northern Ireland and whether unionists, in particular, see merit in a more pragmatic approach to Brexit. There is a role for political leadership and a role for unionist political parties, in particular, to bring their voters with them. They have done so in the past and precedence has been set. Political parties on the unionist side of the house have been successful, even though it took time, in helping their voters to move away from some of the more unpalatable aspects of their past.

Senator Black mentioned trust and how it can be elevated. She used the interesting analogy of marriage. I will respond by using another analogy and say that marriages can be saved by marriage counselling. There is some context again within which an external input could be useful in helping parties achieve a position whereby trust can be rebuilt. In previous crises, trust was broken and it will likely be broken again in the future. We should not focus on the negatives of that situation. Trust can be regenerated and there are possibilities for such regeneration.

The Senator talked about the role of the Irish and British Governments. They are stakeholders and, therefore, have an important role to play. The extent to which their role is central is questionable, certainly in the lead up to talks about the re-installation of the institutions. All political parties expressed some problems with the fact that the talks were being chaired by the British Government.

I was asked what special status means. That is the million dollar question. To me, special status suggests that Northern Ireland may be treated differently from the rest of the UK. How it is framed is completely open to negotiation. I suggest that special status would mean the softest possible Brexit and that the Border between the North and South is not reinstated. Where that Border would then go is a different and much more sensitive matter.

I agree with the Senator's point that there is very little interest in the Northern Ireland issue on the part of the United Kingdom Government. Perhaps that description is a little unfair. The British Government may not have given due consideration to the Northern Ireland issue as part of its approach to the Brexit strategy. There is no certainty regarding how all of this will play out.

One of the main criticisms of the process has been the lack of clarity and certainty and the serious ambiguity about what precisely Brexit means. This has been extremely problematic and continues to be problematic, even after the triggering of Article 50. The next nine to 12 months will be particularly important in giving us a sense of what precisely Brexit means from a UK perspective. The European Union has been a little more forthright than the United Kingdom in putting its particular preferences on the table. Certainty is extremely problematic, particularly for Northern Ireland and against a background in which trust between political parties in Northern Ireland and in the British Government is questionable.

If the parties in the North do not get it together, they will certainly not count in London. Britain will be a full member of the European Union for the next three years. A view that a transition period will be required appears to be gathering strength. Irrespective of the outcome of the negotiations, the UK will be a full member of the European Union and will have a full complement of Members of the European Parliament. Perhaps the transition period that many now believe will be necessary will last for another few years. The period of uncertainty will continue for a long time, which is a serious difficulty.

Dr. Mary Murphy

Yes. There are estimates that the whole process of UK withdrawal from the EU could potentially take up to ten years if one includes the transition process. Again, there is no clarity about that issue.

We may hope for the best and play along.

I thank Dr. Murphy for her contribution and responses to questions. The committee will take on board her proposals. I thank Senators for their contributions and questions. If Dr. Murphy wishes to add anything at any stage, she should feel free to circulate her ideas to the committee for consideration and inclusion in our final recommendations.

Sitting suspended at 1.03 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.