Monday 21 October 2019

John Downing: Taoiseach can't avoid Brexit in his 'high-wire act' on election


File photo Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo:Damien Eagers
File photo Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo:Damien Eagers
John Downing

John Downing

Brexit will have a say in the timing of any general election and must influence Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's thinking on the issue.

It is not that there is any huge difference in the main political parties' approach to Brexit. Indeed, bar the odd detail and occasional outbursts of rhetoric, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have steered the exact same course on EU issues, going right back to Ireland joining the European bloc back in January 1973.

As if to emphasise this point, on Tuesday afternoon Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin emerged from a meeting in Brussels with EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. After rightly praising Mr Barnier's handling of things thus far, Mr Martin further mused about unity at home on the issue.

"He (Barnier) also appreciates the practical unanimity of the Irish political community on the core principles that need to be protected," Mr Martin added.

A big part of the Taoiseach's argument in favour of a two-year extension to the current Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil deal underpinning his minority coalition, is the critical need of stability at home in a time of Brexit uncertainty. In an interview with this newspaper today, Mr Varadkar stresses that Brexit will be omnipresent from this autumn into next spring, with a critical EU leaders' summit due on October 17 and 18, and the deadline for Britain actually leaving set for March 29, 2019.

Well, signals from mainland Europe suggest it could be far from settled by next spring. There were reports that Germany was ready to accord greater "flexibility" to Britain in the talks.

This again raises the risk that things like the Irish Border back-stop could remain unresolved. This, and other matters of key interest to Ireland, could be allowed to drift into the transition phase and remain unresolved until late 2021 and only dealt with in an agreement on future EU-UK relationships post-Brexit.

The fallout from such an outcome in the coming nine months offers a miserable prospect for the Taoiseach. Mr Martin's "practical unanimity of the Irish political community" on core Brexit principles would not extend to sparing the incumbent Irish Government as it delivered bad Brexit news to the nation.

Meanwhile, how will this current Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil tussle end? Well, it's a little early to be definitive.

But comments by Fianna Fáil's finance spokesman Michael McGrath yesterday - that a good deal on next month's Budget could lead smoothly to talks on a government term extension - offered more than a clue.

Mr McGrath and others in Fianna Fáil have already suggested a 12-month extension taking this hybrid minority coalition to autumn 2019. On the age-old principle that half a loaf is better than no bread, the Taoiseach may opt for such a compromise. That is unless he feels extremely lucky.

Irish Independent

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