Tuesday 24 April 2018

You know we're in trouble when Ireland is better prepared than the British for UK's exit from EU

Boris Johnson is one of three ‘Brexiteers’ in the British cabinet. Photo: Peter Nicholls/Reuters
Boris Johnson is one of three ‘Brexiteers’ in the British cabinet. Photo: Peter Nicholls/Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

Critics will accuse us of coming at this argument from the wrong end. But, stay with us for a moment, and you will learn that there is a deal of truth in the following pointers just the same.

My thesis is that the Irish Government is way ahead of the British when it comes to Brexit.

The brutal reality is that British Prime Minister Theresa May and her colleagues have no real idea what they want from the upcoming EU-UK divorce proceedings.

Unsurprisingly, arising from that, they have no idea how they might go about getting the most favourable possible outcome to a process due to start early next year and end in April 2019.

Furthermore, the British cabinet is deeply riven on how to approach the issue - and has nowhere near the number of officials needed to deal with the almost limitless number of detailed challenges to be met.

Back in Dublin, our Government does at least know what it wants and there are no real divisions on approach.

The hard part is that what we want is a very tall order indeed.

More significantly, for now at least, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his colleagues can have no clear idea how they might go about getting it.

Ireland needs to avoid a return of the Border between north and south; we need to keep the common travel area between the islands of Ireland and Britain; and we need to maintain free trade between the two islands.

We need all of that in the teeth of Britain's insistence of breaching the established European Union principle of free movement of people.

You can rightly conclude that Ireland is only ahead on this one because Britain is in such a parlous state.

It is also a bitter reality that Ireland badly needs the London government to get its act together quickly, as this country risks suffering even more than Britain in this most perilous process.

This overall assessment has been common among politicians and officials around Leinster House and Government Buildings for several months now.

It was again confirmed by the contents of leaked documents reported in 'The Times' newspaper in London yesterday.

There are a number of key problems identified in this report.

Firstly, the prime minister herself is accused of keeping too tight a rein on things.

Secondly, there is profound division between the so-called "three Brexiteers" and others in Mrs May's cabinet.

The "Brexiteers" are Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Brexit Minister David Davis and International Trade Minister Liam Fox. Their appointment to key posts, to deliver what they had publicly wished for ahead of the June 23 referendum, was seen as a "master-stroke" by the prime minister who had been nominally in favour of Remain.

But it is proving a double-edged sword as their stance conflicts with the Chancellor, or finance minister, Philip Hammond, and the Industry Minister, Greg Clarke, among others.

A key issue is the need for more staff - including professional trade deal negotiators. That lack was identified within days of the referendum outcome last summer.

'The Times' of London memo estimates that between 10,000 and 30,000 extra staff are required.

But it notes that Mr Hammond, in charge of spending, is insistent that extra Brexit demands must be met from existing resources in each department.

As night follows day, the official British response to the reports was to query the status of the leaked document and then insist everything was proceeding as normal.

In Dublin, meanwhile, there was an informal air of "I told you so".

There is, however, at least one dangerous parallel between what is happening in Dublin and London.

It is that with the lack of a dedicated "Brexit Minister" Ireland's response, scattered across all departments, risks also being diffuse and ineffective.

Irish Independent

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