Wednesday 21 November 2018

Stay tuned for yet more Brexit mayhem

The only certainty in an ever-shifting political landscape in 2017 was the speed of change ... oh, and Brexit, writes Nicola Anderson

Leo Varadkar meets Theresa May at 10 Downing Street in June. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA
Leo Varadkar meets Theresa May at 10 Downing Street in June. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

It is an eye-rolling cliché to say a week is a long time in politics - but 2017 provided firm proof that clichés only become clichés because they are true.

The only thing the ever-shifting landscape did was to make us all the more fixated on rolling news feeds as we tried in vain to match the pace of political change. Particularly when it came to Brexit.

The negotiations over the Border have so far seen as many key changes as a 1980s pop hit - and there are bound to be more to come.

From then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny's meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May on January 30, the Government has remained resolutely stubborn in its stance that no hard Border must be reintroduced on this small island.

Mrs May was notably anxious and twitchy, exhausted from her travels to America, during her brief visit to Government Buildings back then.

But it had at least some value in hammering home the point, because, days later, British Brexit Secretary David Davis told the House of Commons that the UK's relationship with Ireland was one of the most important aspects of Brexit preparations.

Some British commentators began to lazily suggest that Ireland might join them on their journey to the no man's land that lies beyond the EU in order to get themselves out of a hole.

At the second plenary meeting of the All-Ireland Civic Dialogue on Brexit, in Dublin Castle, the Taoiseach firmly rejected the suggestion, saying: "To succeed as an open economy and a welcoming society, we must remain at the heart of Europe."

While already counting down the days to his own leadership, battling all the way to the end, he struck what was a remarkably bold tone when, speaking in Brussels on February 23, he said he wanted the language of the final Brexit agreement to allow for Irish reunification in line with the Good Friday Agreement, and for the North to rejoin the EU with ease. This was readily agreed at a special EU Brexit conference in April.

In May, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier addressed the Oireachtas, saying he wanted to reassure us all that Ireland's interest was the EU's interest when it came to the negotiations.

Meanwhile, domestically, events were beginning to move quite quickly. Kenny had faced down the threat of a motion of no confidence, but the pressure to stand down was now reaching a deafening pitch. He remained reluctant, saying he wanted to wait until the Brexit negotiations were complete. But the leadership race was already fast and furious, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney emerging as early favourites.

The old guard was breaking up, with the stepping-down of finance minister Michael Noonan, while Enda finally announced that he would leave at midnight on May 17.

The leadership contest was all but over before it began, Varadkar taking an early lead over the opposition, with Coveney reminding the nation that this was 'not a personality contest'.

A series of public debates ensued - but on June 2, Varadkar was announced as the victor, beating Coveney 60pc to 40pc.

His appointment made world headlines, and he was compared to Canada's Justin Trudeau and France's Emmanuel Macron. 'Time' magazine put him on the cover, heralding him as "quite a few firsts rolled into one".

"At 38, he is his country's youngest ever Taoiseach, or Prime Minister. He's also the first from an ethnic minority background, and the first to have come out as gay. His appointment … is symbolic of the shift in social values in the once staunchly Catholic country," said 'Time'.

In his inaugural speech to the Dáil, Leo quoted from Seamus Heaney's poem, 'From the Republic of Conscience': "At their inauguration, public leaders must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep to atone for their presumption to hold office."

Enormous

"I am aware of the enormous task ahead of me, and my responsibilities to this country and to all its citizens," said the new Taoiseach.

"And I approach it not with a feeling of presumption, but with a sense of profound humility, and respect and appreciation for all that has gone before."

Bizarrely, novelty socks featured heavily at the start of his leadership, and he sported ones emblazoned with maple leaves to meet Trudeau in July.

He also began to send out a weekly video message over social media, in a nod to a new 'modern' form of leadership.

But the housing crisis was ever-deepening and no amount of spin could disguise the fact that it was now out of control. By November, more than 8,800 people were homeless in the country.

That same month, the Government, which had begun to look so stable, was suddenly rocked by a squall that blew up apparently out of nowhere - but which, in reality, had been rumbling under the surface for months.

There were calls for Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald to resign over claims that she had prior knowledge of a legal strategy to discredit Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe. She denied wrongdoing, and Varadkar refused to call for her resignation - but amid the looming certainty of a snap Christmas election, she relented and stood aside on November 28. Coveney neatly took her place as Tánaiste.

In the middle of it all, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams announced he would stand down as leader of the party in 2018 after three-and-a-half decades at the helm.

Meanwhile, the party in the North has seen a long impasse, with neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP managing to overcome a deadlock which saw Stormont left idle and impotent.

The DUP, however, has been both a kingmaker and a trouble-maker when it came to underpinning the Westminster government.

Which brings us back to Brexit - since there seemed scarcely room for anything else, at times.

In August, the Taoiseach made a speech in Belfast in which he declared that what was required was bridges, not borders, in a nod to the language of former President Mary McAleese.

That same month, the UK published its Brexit plan regarding the North, stating that it did not wish to go back to Border posts. However, the undercurrent in the UK seemed to be stating otherwise - our "young and inexperienced leader" needed help to be "put on the right track", the increasingly anti-Irish Brexiteer propaganda declared.

Shambling

Worry here was growing. The relationship between the UK and Ireland was worse than it had been since before the Good Friday Agreement.

In November, the shambling presence of Boris Johnson, the UK Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, paid a visit to Dublin to discuss the spiralling situation, with Coveney. There was no attempt to put a good face on the situation - with Simon Coveney admitting to Boris's clear horror: "There is an impasse here."

Back-up for Ireland arrived on December 1 in the form of Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, declaring that he came "to reassure the Taoiseach and the Irish people that the EU is fully behind you" and that there should be no hard Border after Brexit.

A deal was done a week later, in which the UK government and the Irish Government agreed to rule out a hard Border.

Within days, however, Davis was pussyfooting about the language, saying the agreement wasn't legally binding. But the EU, again, stood firm.

Stay tuned for further Brexit mayhem in 2018.

Irish Independent

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