Monday 25 March 2019

Colette Browne: 'It is time even the most dense and intransigent Brexiteer gets the message of what no deal means'

Sammy Wilson. Photo: Getty
Sammy Wilson. Photo: Getty
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

There is an incoherence at the heart of the Irish negotiating position on Brexit that is becoming increasingly untenable with every passing day.

In the same breath, Irish Government TDs tell us the British absolutely need to sign up to a deal to avoid a hard Border but, even if they don't, there will be no physical infrastructure at that Border.

Both of these statements cannot be true. A hard Border, by definition, requires infrastructure to denote it as such. So, which is it?

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Is the Irish Government desperately attempting to get an agreement to avoid a hard Border, or does it matter if that agreement is reached at all by the March 29 deadline?

Constructive ambiguity, on the most sensitive issue impacted by these negotiations, may have made sense at the start of this process.

It allowed both sides to use soothing words and nebulous platitudes to avoid fomenting fear, anger and panic, in the hope a solution could be found before it was too late.

That hope has now curdled and died. It is time for the adults in the room to accept their negotiating partner, the British government, is a busted flush that cannot be relied on.

At this late stage, it's hard to imagine Theresa May being able to get consensus on a lunch order among her government, never mind mediating a solution to the greatest political and economic crisis to engulf the UK in generations.

Last week, she couldn't even win a parliamentary vote which essentially only called on MPs to wish her luck with her negotiating strategy.

Her position is pitiful, her 'game of chicken' tactics deplorable and her mutinous hard-right colleagues abominable.

Anyone in Leinster House who still believes the British are going to be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat is too naïve for a career in politics.

The best that can be hoped for now is for the British to request an extension of time to try to get their act together - but with EU elections set to take place in May, any postponement will not be lengthy.

While the ongoing pantomime in the House of Commons descends from farce into acrimony and recrimination, the inherent contradiction in the Irish position is not helping matters. It is making them worse.

The continual insistence by Irish ministers that they will not countenance a hard Border being erected, even if there is no deal, is just serving to embolden the Eurosceptic fanatics propping up Mrs May's government.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson has been beating this drum for a while, alleging the notion of a hard Border is a "con trick" being propagated by Irish and EU negotiators in an effort to force the UK into submission.

In a recent statement, he pointed to a number of conflicting statements coming from the Irish and EU camps - and was particularly derisive of comments Leo Varadkar made at Davos, when he warned soldiers could return to the Border.

"The Taoiseach claimed there will be no checkpoints along the Border but then within a few days he was sending troops to guard installations which don't even exist," he said.

Meanwhile, remarks made in January by European Commission chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas that it was "obvious" there would be a hard Border in Ireland in the event of no deal, were swiftly walked back within 24 hours, following protestations from the Irish Government.

These mixed messages prompted Mr Wilson to exhort Mrs May to "exploit the cracks which are emerging in the illogical position of the EU and the Irish".

Much as it pains me to admit it, Mr Wilson has a point. If the prospect of a hard Border on the island of Ireland is supposed to be the doomsday outcome that jolts responsible politicians into action, then why continually undermine the reality that a no-deal Brexit will require a hard Border?

When apocalyptic forecasts about the damage that would be done to Britain's economy from a no-deal scenario were made during the Brexit referendum, the claims were ridiculed by the Leave campaign as 'Project Fear'.

Economists who made those predictions didn't revise or dilute them in the face of this criticism. They remained resolute.

Now, as hundreds of companies move operations abroad, business investment in the UK stalls and car makers such as Honda announce the closure of manufacturing plants, it is clear who was correct and who was engaging in self-serving propaganda.

With a little over five weeks to go until the UK crashes out, it is time the reality of what no deal means for the Irish Border was also writ large - so even the most dense and intransigent Brexiteer is capable of getting the message.

People like Sammy Wilson may continue to scoff and label warnings of a return to customs checks and violence on the Border as Project Fear, but let him. At least the message coming from Dublin will have been clear and unequivocal. Mr Wilson will not be able to say he wasn't warned.

The reluctance of the Irish Government to accept that negotiations are failing, and that a hard Border looms, is understandable. Brexit wasn't the fault of the Irish Government and neither is the shambles the negotiations have descended into.

But, with time now running out, the Irish Government can no longer continue to stick its head in the sand and insist everything will be all right on the night. That position is not credible. In fact, it is the same sort of magical thinking that Brexiteers have become infamous for.

Some uncomfortable truths have to be faced in the coming weeks, one of which is that the Irish Border is not solely an Irish concern.

As the only land frontier between the EU and a soon-to-be third country, the EU will insist on checks to protect the integrity of the single market.

Speaking on 'Morning Ireland' yesterday, Simon Coveney attempted to skirt around this eventuality by stating the EU may not be prescriptive about where those checks would occur. But this is wishful thinking.

Without a deal in place, or an enforceable commitment that Northern Ireland will retain regulatory alignment with this jurisdiction in the event of no deal, then a hard Border is unavoidable.

The Government has five weeks to try to prevent this from occurring. Denying the reality of what is about to happen is not helping, but hindering, those efforts.

Irish Independent

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