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Wednesday 21 February 2018

Opinion: Do not be fazed by two-toned talk about that Brexit border-fix just yet

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney Picture: Reuters
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney Picture: Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

Many wily politicians of yesteryear made a career of giving it out large off the back of the lorry in Kilahulla Upper - and then doing the exact opposite back in Dublin.

There's still a lot of that "two-toned approach to politics", with some politicians achieving success by telling potential voters what they think they would like to hear. But the net is tightening for those charlatans.

Reality is if a politician tells a meeting in Kenmare or Kilmeaden about something contentious, that politician had better know that the news will be in Dublin before they have time to get home. With camera phones, texts and tweets, it's hard to be one thing locally and another thing nationally. And that reality has borne in on even the most mendacious among the majority of usually honourable politicians. It's hard to play both sides when the news is bad.

But there are exceptions and the "rubbery deal on Brexit and the non-border", which again comes under the microscope at an EU leaders' summit in Brussels, is one such exception. A bit like the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in the North, this one does allow people on many sides of the divide to insist it has taken us where we want to go.

Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney have good grounds to say that it will mean there can be no return of the Irish Border. Theresa May can insist that Brexit still means Brexit.

The Northern Unionists can argue that the North will be exiting the EU just like England, Scotland and Wales. The European Union can equally argue that it has protected the integrity of the EU's single market and customs union.

Now, the reality is that several of those statements are diametrically opposed to one another on a day-is-not- night and black-is-not white basis. But, for the moment, all concerned have decided to allow things muddle along to the next phase.

The draft Brexit border deal was done last Friday morning. But by Sunday morning, UK Brexit Minister David Davis was busy saying the deal was "not legally binding - but a declaration of intent."

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Well, that of course, a bit like our buddy on the lorry at Kilahulla Upper, was intended for home British Tory brexiteer consumption. But it was also a great example of another bad habit when dealing with EU affairs - giving legal answers to political questions.

The main point is that the deal unveiled is a "political fix". It was never intended as a legally water-tight document to be litigated at the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Political deals are far more akin to a deal done at a fair. Sure, you can probably weasel out and renege.

But there are consequences for that kind of dishonourable behaviour. You might not, these days, get an ash plant down on top of the head. But your chances of dealing again would be impacted.

So that EU-UK deal, accepted by Dublin and Belfast, guaranteeing no hard-border after Brexit stands for now.

But much now turns on what kind of EU-UK post Brexit trade arrangement emerges in the next phase of the negotiations. Even allowing for the snail's pace of the current talks picking up a lot, that still has us waiting on the Brexit "white smoke" in mid 2018.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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