Thursday 27 June 2019

Don't panic yet, but our ability to influence Brexit outcome is done

How to solve a problem like Theresa? Well, no more lecturing Britain on where it’s going wrong, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar seemed to do. Photo credit: Philip Toscano/PA Wire
How to solve a problem like Theresa? Well, no more lecturing Britain on where it’s going wrong, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar seemed to do. Photo credit: Philip Toscano/PA Wire

Shane Coleman

Is that it? Fourteen months on from the Brexit referendum and that's all the UK government can come up with.

Looking at the various customs union options put forward yesterday, it's hard to disagree with Nicola Sturgeon's assessment that the plans were "daft" and the British government was looking to have its "cake and eat it".

Or with the European Parliament's Brexit co-ordinator who went further, basically describing the proposals as a "fantasy".

The response from the Government here was a lot more diplomatic - it had to be. But behind the welcome that there was now "more clarity", there must be huge concern within Government Buildings. For two reasons.

Firstly, if it wasn't clear before this, it certainly is now - despite being the EU country most affected by Brexit, we are largely impotent in terms of influencing the final terms of the divorce arrangement. It matters hugely to us, but we largely don't count.

Secondly, Downing Street obviously doesn't have a clue how to manage Brexit. That's so uncharacteristic of a government of Her Majesty.

You mightn't always like how Britain has governed over the centuries, but its competence, effectiveness and ability to act in its best interests was generally a given. Not so now.

Watching the various players in action (May, Fox, Johnson, Davis and even our best hope, Philip Hammond) brings to mind Michael Caine's famous line in the cult British movie 'The Italian Job' - "You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off".

The ever-shrewd civil servants in Whitehall got it straight away, but the explosive economic impact of Brexit is only beginning to dawn on senior political figures. For some, that hasn't even happened yet.

There remains some seriously talented people in British politics but, in Theresa May and 'darling of Glastonbury' Jeremy Corbyn, it's doubtful there has been a less effective prime minister and leader of the opposition in living memory.

A hapless Mrs May has been hopelessly undermined by the election result, while Mr Corbyn, a eurosceptic by instinct and ideology, is simply hopeless.

What chance either being PM in two years' time?

The British cabinet is deeply divided on how best to proceed (though probably united in belief May must be replaced). Depending on which day of the week it is, we're looking at a hard Brexit, a middling one or a 'soft' version.

Labour meanwhile, still buoyant after its election moral victory, seems to be doing the political equivalent of sticking its fingers in its ears and whistling Dixie. That a new political party is even being mooted (it'll hardly happen), demonstrates how far things have strayed into headless chicken territory.

So if you're Leo Varadkar. what do you do? How do you solve a problem like Theresa? Particularly when another key player, the normally pragmatic and business-like DUP, is determined to throw common sense out the window to (completely unnecessarily) underline its Britishness.

Probably the best thing the Taoiseach can do is remember the old UK World War II slogan 'Keep Calm and Don't Panic'.

Forget about being a central player - we're just not - try to influence and win friends from the margins. That means no more lecturing Britain on where it's going wrong as the Taoiseach rather unwisely seemed to do in his speech at Queens. Imagine how we'd react if a British prime minister told us what we should and shouldn't do.

It's one thing unimportant newspaper columnists pointing out the folly of British ways, our Taoiseach mustn't.

There's still a chance of the UK revisiting leaving the customs union, the single market, and even - though it's a stretch - the EU. But it certainly won't happen just because outsiders point out that it's the smart move.

Quite the contrary. We're talking about a proud nation here that once ruled an empire on which the sun never set. If it does revisit matters, it'll only happen if it so decides itself. That's fair enough.

In that context, the Taoiseach's instruction to the Revenue to stop investigating technological Brexit solutions such as electronic monitoring is difficult to understand.

All options should be explored because anything can still happen.

We can also act as a bridge between the UK and other countries that will be most affected by Brexit, such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany.

Our goal must also be to ensure, in so far as it's possible, that all the key issues don't come down to the wire. If that happens - a kind of 'nothing gets agreed, until everything gets agreed' - Ireland's interests will get pushed to one side. We'll lose.

That realistically is about as much as we can do. Our ability to influence events is limited.

Let's be under no illusions, from an Irish perspective, there's a huge element of 'cross our fingers and hope for the best'.

Things don't look great right now. But that can change. Don't underestimate the indefatigable nature of the British. As a nation, it traditionally has got more things right than wrong. Common sense usually (though not always) prevails.

The City of London, one of the key influencers of British governments over the years, will be crucial. It certainly doesn't want a hard Brexit. Nor does the rest of British business.

Arguably, neither do the MPs in the House of Commons, who ultimately will vote on any deal.

Politically things are also likely to change. Mrs May can hardly survive beyond the short term. Her successor should win the next election, which can't be too far away, and that will bring about Mr Corbyn's demise.

One shrewd government source this week privately noted that in politics things tend to happen in threes.

Britain had two political earthquakes in a year with Brexit and the general election result.

We shouldn't, the source said, rule out a third. A new prime minister? A split in the Tories? A new party? A Labour government?

Who knows? But if there is a third earthquake, all Brexit bets are off. We'd be very wise to hedge ours until then.

Shane Coleman presents 'Newstalk Breakfast', weekdays from 7am.

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