Monday 14 October 2019

Colm McCarthy: 'Ireland can help to nudge UK in right direction if voters revisit Brexit ballot'

A second referendum is the best we can hope for - so let's do our bit to discreetly shape its outcome, writes Colm McCarthy

Theresa May will eventually face judgement day in the Commons next month, and Ireland should be making furtive plans for a second referendum in case her deal is voted down
Theresa May will eventually face judgement day in the Commons next month, and Ireland should be making furtive plans for a second referendum in case her deal is voted down

Last Thursday the Taoiseach declined to spell out specific government plans for a no-deal departure by the UK from the European Union on March 29 next year, explaining his reticence on the basis that the revelation of detailed plans could hasten an outcome which the Government seeks to avoid.

This is a reasonable position and the no-deal document released by the Government is correspondingly thin. This does not mean that the full set of contingency plans has been revealed - to do so would heighten tensions about border security and embolden the Brexiteer opponents of Theresa May's draft withdrawal agreement, many of whom insist that a no-deal outcome is nothing to fear, in Ireland or more generally.

An Irish Government revelation of damage-limiting plans would fuel these delusions while also fitting up the Irish for whatever blame attaches to the eventual emergence of a hard border. The Taoiseach is tiptoeing through landmines here.

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There are four possible short-term outcomes to the Brexit process. These are:

1. It gets cancelled. This could happen through a unilateral revocation by the UK, recently ruled permissible by the European Court.

2. The March 29 exit date gets deferred by the European Council, at the request of the UK, most probably to accommodate a second referendum - there is insufficient time to hold one otherwise.

3. The draft withdrawal agreement is agreed by both the UK and the European parliaments.

4. None of the above, which means a no-deal crash-out.

Unilateral revocation by the UK has almost no political traction and is the least likely outcome. It is constitutionally feasible since the referendum was advisory only and the UK parliament is sovereign. But it would require both the government and the House of Commons to ignore the referendum outcome.

Deferral to accommodate a second referendum has increasing support and might be agreed to by the European Council, although there is no guarantee that a second referendum would produce a different result.

Deferral to allow a general election is also possible and has the implicit support of the Labour party leadership. Brexiteer Tories oppose a second referendum, on principle and because they fear they might lose, and the Labour leadership has thus far vacillated on the issue.

Neither revocation in defiance of the June 2016 vote nor deferral for a general election is top of the list of likely outcomes. Deferral for a second referendum is more of a possibility.

Mrs May will put her draft withdrawal deal, as agreed with the EU-27, to the House of Commons on January 15, according to the latest media reports, and the Irish Government appears to regard this as the best available outcome.

It delivers the backstop on the Northern Ireland border and a transition period but could mean serious difficulties for east-west trade in the longer term. Ireland's trade with Britain is far more important than trade across the NI border and only the latter would be frictionless in all scenarios under the withdrawal deal as negotiated.

Which leaves the no-deal crash-out, the default if no withdrawal agreement is reached and there is neither revocation nor deferral. It is a live possibility, since it happens automatically in the absence of positive action by the UK to choose a different route.

All economic studies show that this is the worst outcome for the UK but also for Ireland, which would suffer greater economic dislocation than any other EU member.

There appear to be just three plausible outcomes: Mrs May's deal, for which the Irish Government would reluctantly settle; a deferral for a second referendum; or no deal. While the Irish government has been coy about its no-deal plans, the EU Commission has been rather more forthcoming.

It has committed, in a document released last Wednesday, to a series of unilateral measures which the EU-27 will take, designed to mitigate the negative impact of a no-deal outcome on the EU's members.

It is not a 'negotiated no deal', an oxymoron beloved of Brexiteers, it is a damage-limitation manoeuvre which will be activated, unilaterally and entirely on the initiative of the EU, if there is no withdrawal agreement and no deferral of the otherwise automatic implementation of the UK's departure from the EU just over three months from now.

On March 30, in a crash-out scenario, the UK becomes a 'third country', with no more continuing entitlements to preferential economic relationships with the EU than Brazil or Russia.

The measures proposed by the Commission will seek to avoid disruption for citizens and businesses in the EU-27 in areas including financial services, air and surface transport, customs and climate policy. They will not extend any benefits of membership nor will they mimic any of the terms of the transition period. They are temporary and entirely unilateral - they can be withdrawn at any time and some require reciprocity. In aviation, for example, the Commission proposes that flights can continue between the UK and EU countries for a year while the UK negotiates bilateral arrangements with each of the 27 member countries, as Brazil and Russia must do.

But UK airlines would lose all rights to operate, for passengers or cargo, between member states.

In Brexitland, this must be celebrated as another negotiating triumph and The Sun duly headlined 'Boost for Brexiteers as EU blinks and launches plans to make no deal work'. There is simply no known cure.

If there is no deal, the EU, and all the Brexiteers' presumed new trading partners around the world, including Donald Trump's USA, will screw the United Kingdom without mercy as it seeks to build a new trade policy from scratch. The UK accounts for less than 3pc of world GDP.

If the Government is correct in being a touch secretive about its plans for no deal, there is a further scenario in which it should be making furtive plans. Brexit might not happen at all if Mrs May's deal fails to find a majority in the House of Commons in January. The very best outcome for Ireland would be a second referendum and a Brexit reversal, not the second-best deal which has emerged.

During the 2016 referendum, Leo Varadkar's predecessor, Enda Kenny, tried to mobilise the Irish vote in Britain for the Remain cause through some speeches and public appearances in Britain. He even showed up in the red and green at Ruislip when the west London team had the misfortune to encounter Mayo in the Connacht championship, and he gave some measured speeches elsewhere.

For his pains, he took some flak for presuming to interfere, as did Barack Obama. No Irish politician can be seen publicly to intervene if there is a second vote in the UK. Indeed, any such public intervention could be counter-productive given the centrality of English nationalism in the Brexit saga.

Varadkar has already managed to get himself denounced on the front page of The Sun. But there is nothing to stop Irish political parties and Irish people generally from ensuring that everyone they know in Britain is on the register next time round.

The Leavers won just 51.9% of the votes in June 2016. If there is another referendum, every (discreet) effort should be made from this country to mobilise British economic self-interest.

Sunday Independent

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