Tuesday 21 May 2019

Taoiseach clings to his 'Brexit bright side', but we must now hope sense prevails

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured as he arrived before the start of the Cabinet meeting at Derrynane house, Co Kerry. Photo: Frank McGrath
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured as he arrived before the start of the Cabinet meeting at Derrynane house, Co Kerry. Photo: Frank McGrath
John Downing

John Downing

So, we continue - as we must - to prepare for the worst. Looking at the utter political chaos surrounding Brexit in the London parliament it is hard to see much cause to hope for anything like a best case outcome.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar continues to keep his "Brexit bright side" out as he continues his sometimes beguiling line of honesty in dishonesty about the perils ahead. Mr Varadkar concedes some potentially bad things beckon after Brexit and its transition, perhaps as early as January 2021.

But the Taoiseach insists a return of the north-south Border, as known to three generations of Irish people, will not be among these. He clings to assurances by the EU that no physical checks will be needed on the Border, even if the UK "crashes" out without a deal, which is increasingly possible.

The Taoiseach falls back on the separate assurances from London and Brussels. He is particularly reliant on the "backstop" deal which would keep the North inside the EU customs union and close to the single market.

Mr Varadkar blithely ignores the prospect of a crash-out meaning all previous bets are off, or World Trade Organisation rules, as reported in this newspaper yesterday, also requiring a "hard border" between the two Irish jurisdictions.

Meanwhile, looking at what in the jargon is called "east-west" trade, between the islands of Ireland and Britain, the preparations look more ominous.

Meeting in splendid Derrynane yesterday, the Government cleared the hiring of 700 additional customs officials for Irish ports and airports, and 300 staff to do plant and animal checks on produce travelling between Ireland and the UK after Brexit. Officials said big investment will be needed to upgrade existing port and airport facilities developed in a Border-free single market era, dating from the early 1990s. Potentially there will be big changes at Rosslare and Dublin Port.

There was a certain sinking feeling as the Taoiseach said the Government is stepping up preparations for "all Brexit eventualities".

The problem with the EU-UK backstop deal is that Theresa May has agreed it, repudiated it, and re-agreed it.

And votes in the House of Commons last Monday, albeit non-binding, again raised doubts about it.

Still, Mr Varadkar was on better ground as he pointed to repeated and continuing assurances from senior EU figures, like Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, that no physical infrastructure will be needed between Dundalk and Derry.

The Taoiseach also said he "profoundly" disagreed with comments made by former British foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who yesterday again said Northern Ireland issues have dominated the debate on Brexit.

"I am glad that prime minister May disagrees with him too," Mr Varadkar said.

Mrs May is visiting Northern Ireland today and tomorrow. She is due to visit border communities and make a speech in Belfast which will be followed with interest.

Mr Varadkar's comments also drew in other big issues for London.

These include the ability of UK planes to continue using EU airspace post Brexit. These issues also touch on the UK requiring an orderly exit deal to ensure a transition period phasing the country out of 45 years of EU membership.

The lack of such a transition would have a huge impact on business and jobs. UK employers and unions have already laid this on the line for Mrs May's government.

This is again a "bright side out" exercise by Mr Varadkar.

Up to now the leading British Brexiteers have taken scant if any account of this reality.

We are now reduced to hoping that sense will - belatedly - prevail.

Irish Independent

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