Sunday 15 September 2019

John Downing: 'Dubbing Varadkar as 'an EU stooge' can corrode good UK-Irish relations'

British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
John Downing

John Downing

Here is a sad but revealing statistic. Between the foundation of the Irish State in 1922 and Ireland and the UK both joining the EU in 1973, no British prime minister ever thought it worthwhile to come on an official visit to Ireland for talks with the Taoiseach.

Just months after each island began its European odyssey, the then UK prime minister, Ted Heath, met with Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave at Baldonnel. It was a point made by former Taoiseach and EU ambassador to Washington John Bruton at a Brexit seminar last April in Dublin.

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From the Fianna Fáil end of things, try this from another former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, back in 2003, as he and then UK prime minister Tony Blair were being given a joint peace award. "I was brought up in a house that was not particularly fond of British prime ministers. We probably went to bed at night not just cursing the dark but other things as well," Mr Ahern said.

However, he went on to say that over the marathon Good Friday Agreement talks in 1997-98, Mr Blair's offices and homes at Downing Street in London, and at Chequers became an extension of his own office and home.

More than 40 years of EU meetings, in Brussels and other EU venues, at every level of administration and government, from relatively minor officials right up to heads of government, have built a vastly different UK-Irish relationship. It was one of relative equality and a shared interest of trying to achieve the same EU policy goals; it had moved away from the fraught question of partition and unfinished business.

In Longford and Dublin 10 days ago, former British prime minister John Major paid warm tribute to the late Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, recalling a relationship built at EU meetings, first when each was finance minister, and later when they led their respective governments. The often embattled Mr Major was grateful for generous support from Mr Reynolds.

Things reached a high point in 2011 with a brilliantly choreographed symbolic visit by Britain's Queen Elizabeth which was a big popular success. President Michael D Higgins's return visit to Britain in 2014 left us feeling that UK-Irish relations were never so good, that they were round about where they should be between two close neighbours sharing common interests.

All the signs were that both sides of the equation were ready to move on from a shared dark history to focus more on the future, with a great deal to share between two close-by islands. It was very good for the people on both islands who have far more in common than the points of potential conflict, many of which were already receding into the past.

Then we all woke up to pretty grim news on the morning of June 24, 2016. UK voters opted by 52pc to 48pc to leave the EU. That line-up was much the same in Wales, but in Scotland it was 62-38 in favour of Remain, and similarly a 56:44 majority in the North wanted to stay in the EU.

It was bad news for many people on both islands.

It was devastating for Ireland, threatening huge volumes of trade, and raising serious questions about the future of the North, and questioning the future of the still fragile peace.

In sum, Brexit changed everything in terms of UK-Irish relations.

In the wake of that June 2016 referendum, result, things moved painfully slowly and there was a great deal of confusion and anxiety in Ireland. It took until March 29, 2017 for the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May (below), to trigger the so-called Article 50 process for the UK to formally divorce from the EU.

This began a two-year process of negotiations which is due to conclude on March 29 next year. We are now at a point where we have a draft EU-UK divorce deal for which Mrs May looks unlikely to be able to get the necessary approval of her parliament.

With 20 government resignations, she is now on her third Brexit minister, and in a Conservative party confidence vote 12 days ago, over a third of her MPs voted against her. We all know we are now on a dangerous corner.

However, just as critically, the Irish border backstop is being strongly portrayed in many sections of the English media, and by Brexiteers as a "blockage" which is frustrating Britain getting a fair deal.

This stoking up of anti-Irish sentiment has also seen Taoiseach Leo Varadkar being caricatured as a "stooge for Brussels".

That view is not in any way prevalent in the other 27 member states. Nor is it widely held by pro-EU people, and less radically pro-Brexit people, in Britain. But it does have a force and the potential to undo much of the good which has been achieved over the past 20 years.

There are those in Ireland who argue that Dublin should have avoided lining up so closely with Brussels and the other EU member states. They argue that Ireland could have been more empathetic towards our closest neighbour.

In practice, it is hard to see how this could have worked. This was always an EU-UK issue - it was never a London-Dublin problem to be dealt with on a bilateral level.

The UK has also been divided and diffuse in its approach to these Brexit talks.

It took more than a year for any of the principals in London to talk at any length about the Irish border, and their recent discovery of the issue is both suspect and all too convenient.

Ireland has a problem here. On top of the other challenges it must be addressed.

Irish Independent

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