Thursday 22 March 2018

We must look beyond tribal rhetoric to see what is really happening around Brexit

The Irish Government led by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney may face a diplomatic cost for the Brexit Border stance
The Irish Government led by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney may face a diplomatic cost for the Brexit Border stance
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said that he didn't want to turn the post-Brexit border into a Green versus Orange issue.

Unfortunately, it has crashed right into that territory and in fact the mud-slinging isn't just going north to south and vice versa. It is also heading west to east, as more British Brexiteers and media commentators make accusations about the Irish Government's motives and approach.

Equally, on this side of the Irish Sea, we are seeing ever-more dismissive comments being made about the level of knowledge/ignorance influential British politicians have shown about Irish affairs. Sifting through the rhetoric and political posturing, not to mention social media tirades of abuse isn't easy. Yet, after the events of this week it seems ever-more important that everyone focuses on the detail.

Here is a perspective on 10 aspects of the Brexit talks that try to shed some light on what is actually going on.


1: The firmer position on the Border solution taken by the Irish Government in recent months is borne out of a deep sense that the British government was not fully engaged in this issue.

Initially after the referendum, the Irish Government was being told to 'trust' that these issues would be teased out and agreed later on, but the longer the pursuit of a hard Brexit went on, the more difficult it has been to trust that it would all be alright in the end. As British government ministers talked about a frictionless Border, yet pursued hard Brexit policies, the further away a frictionless border appeared.

The Irish government wasn't getting Downing Street's attention on this issue. It didn't want to lose its only leverage early on in the talks. When the trade talks begin, Ireland will expect to be firmly in the UK's camp. The British are paying attention now, but it has come at a diplomatic price.


2: Some Brexiteers and the DUP have argued that the border issue cannot be resolved until the trading arrangement is finalised first. This appears perfectly reasonable and probably very true.

For Dublin it's about more than trade.

So why did the UK sign up to a negotiations sequence which dealt with the Border up front? Because it didn't take the issue very seriously and assumed such relatively small, but sensitive matters, would be just rubber-stamped in Dublin and Brussels and handled in detail later.


3: The proposal agreed between Dublin, London and Brussels on Monday envisaged regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as a fallback position only.

It would come in the event that no agreement was reached in the trade talks. Then the British would table specific solutions and only if they were not agreeable, would regulatory alignment kick in.

Regulatory alignment was not a starting point. It was a mechanism to allow everybody to move on to Phase II of the talks. In that sense, it was extremely clever. However, it meant instead of the Irish Government having to trust it would be alright at the end of the talks, the DUP would now have to trust Downing Street that acceptable solutions would be found during the EU trade talks.

As we know, even the DUP is not comfortable with a situation where it is asked to trust the British government. Its trust is wafer-thin given suggestions that it may have pulled the plug on Monday's deal on the back of a tweet of a draft wording.


4: The fact that British Prime Minister Theresa May was willing to sign up to Monday's agreed wording, suggests the UK is now leaning towards a softer Brexit, by either remaining in the customs union or agreeing a new bespoke customs arrangement with the EU as a whole.

Or, Mrs May was so keen to get to the next phase she was happy to sign anything that would buy time to work it all out later.


5: The DUP is deeply unhappy about the prospect of a border in the Irish Sea. The fallback arrangement envisaged in Monday's text probably would have resulted in some version of that.

The DUP appears to have dropped the fallacy that through technology the Border could be frictionless, because a frictionless solution could also surely be found between Larne and Liverpool.

6: If Monday's text about regulatory alignment threatened the Union or the integrity of the relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, then how come the Scottish First Minister, the Welsh First Minister and Mayor of London, want something similar? If granted to them, just like a border in the Irish Sea, there would surely be a customs border across the English/Scottish border, as well as Wales/England.

This would be completely unworkable for those economies, so why would they want a similar deal? The reason is they see the benefits of selecting regulatory alignment for certain sectors but not for everything.

In London, it would be financial services, etc.

Surely, something similar could operate on the island of Ireland. This could all be worked out in the next phase of negotiations. Monday's wording was vague enough to facilitate that.

7: The pro-Brexit media in the UK have really got stuck into the Irish Government. Some of their comments have been distasteful but also perfect for grabbing attention. These media outlets are more comfortable attacking Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney in a week when the British government has agreed to accept €100bn of EU liabilities into the future (net cost likely to be between €50bn and €60bn). These same commentators were giving the impression during the referendum campaign that it wouldn't cost anything to leave.

It is a useful distraction.

8: The Irish Government is playing a very high stakes game with real potential downsides in terms of Anglo-Irish relations. Mrs May will be annoyed with DUP leader Arlene Foster for her late intervention but, in reality, she will be a lot more angry with the Irish Government for putting it up to her at this stage.

Perhaps none of that will matter if she is unlikely to be in the job beyond this summer. But there could yet be a price to pay for Ireland in the long run.


9: A fallback position of regulatory alignment on the island of Ireland in the event of no deal in the trade talks, does not fundamentally alter the political or constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

There are multiple points of difference between Britain and Northern Ireland already, from laws about abortion, to plans for a lower corporation tax rate, and from movement of animals, to the workings of devolution.

However, so much loose and illogical talk south of the Border about a united Ireland has fuelled a lack of trust which has not helped.


10: So many commentators south of the Border have misjudged unionism. When 57pc of people in the North voted to remain in the EU, some naively talked about a move towards a united Ireland. Some unionists, farmers and business people in particular, wanted to remain in the EU. But once the Brexit referendum was passed they will stick with the plan advocated by the British government.

Tribal rhetoric of old has exploded across the island. Monday's agreed text on the border would have marked a diplomatic victory for the Irish Government but only in so far as it has succeeded in getting Downing Street fully engaged on the Border issue.

The actual phrasing used was so caveated and vague, does anybody really understand what it might have meant in practice? It would have ensured Dublin's leverage continued into the next phase.

Unfortunately, forcing the Brexiteers in Downing Street to take the issue seriously has come at a diplomatic cost. The Irish Government had little choice. It is too early to say if it has been worth it.

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