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Preconditions

Published: Aug 15 , 2019
Author: John McMillan

My children used to try it; "Dad, just say Yes". But I don’t know what the question is. Just say Yes first. I never fell for that trick. Now we see other grown-ups (?) using the same technique; the pre-condition.

Boris Johnson, currently the UK Prime Minister, has said to the EU that he won’t even talk to them until they drop the “Northern Irish backstop”. You don’t need to know what that is, all you need to know is that the EU will not, cannot, drop it and so the pre-condition stops the negotiation before it has begun.

I remember a similar pre-condition being demanded by John Major before he would talk to Sinn Fein/IRA. On that occasion, the pre-condition was that the IRA decommission all its weapons before talks could begin. They refused and so no progress was made for more than a decade; the violence and killing continued. Eventually, the pre-condition was softened, then dropped in its entirety thus allowing peace talks which eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement.

Boris Johnson does not have a decade to drop his pre-condition; the UK will be leaving the EU at the end of October without a deal, if nothing else changes. And another decade could pass before the EU and the UK eventually strike a trade deal given the bitterness that a “no-deal” will provoke.

It seems that politicians are not very good at negotiating with their pre-conditions and red lines that block or limit the negotiations.

There is a strange irony that the circumstances that produced peace in the island of Ireland; lack of a physical border because both North and South were in the single market and customs union; power-sharing in the Northern Ireland Assembly; and the sense that they were united within the EU are now all being torn down by Brexit, although the suspension of power-sharing isn’t connected to Brexit.

I don’t want you to confuse a pre-condition with a non-negotiable item.  It is perfectly acceptable to indicate to the counterparty the issues on which you are not willing or able to negotiate, but they should not prevent the negotiation from taking place, and there shouldn’t be so many as make negotiation impossible.

The logical solution to the Irish border question is to have the North remain in the single market and the customs union and to move the border to the Irish Sea.  I believe that this would provide an enormous stimulus to the North as businesses relocate there to take advantage of the benefits.  Sadly, the Ulster Unionists see any different treatment as loosening their ties to the UK and, as the Government is propped up by their votes in Parliament, they need to keep them onside.

There is a quote something along the lines of “It’s bad when a politician makes promises to get elected, but it’s even worse when they keep them.”

I never did discover what it was that my children wanted me to agree to, because I never accepted the pre-condition.


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About the author:

John McMillan
After graduation I worked as an industrial sales engineer. This job involved both management/union negotiating and negotiating large commercial contracts. Inspired by a study of union negotiating, and using my own personal experience, I created what was to be the UK’s first course teaching the skills of negotiation, as opposed to the theory.

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