Sunday 22 September 2019

Eamon Delaney: 'Government must turn up the volume and remind Johnson of responsibilities to peace'

‘Calm and consistent’: Tánaiste Simon Coveney and European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee. Photo: Damien Eagers
‘Calm and consistent’: Tánaiste Simon Coveney and European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee. Photo: Damien Eagers

Eamon Delaney

So the penny has finally dropped - we are facing a no-deal Brexit. European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee has conceded as much, and presumably Ireland's quiet planning will now intensify.

How could it be otherwise. The UK has been plunged into constitutional crisis as a result of the Brexit stand-off and now Prime Minister Boris Johnson has proposed bypassing parliament altogether.

This is almost entirely predictable given that the House of Commons has rejected, three times, the EU's proposed withdrawal deal. A no-deal exit is as likely now as it always was.

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You have to hand it to Johnson - he either has balls of steel or he is recklessly gambling with his country and his Government.

And yet we seem to be still just standing on the sidelines even if, as Ms McEntee says, we are preparing for the inevitable.

Politically, we must remain consistent and calm, said Ms McEntee. But is remaining "calm" much good any more?

Especially when it is we who are directly in the firing line, with a proposed EU border going right across our country and carnage facing our farmers and traders. Not to mention deadly dissidents and rioters waiting in the wings.

We are still waiting for the Taoiseach to actually properly meet Johnson. It was supposed to happen before the G7 summit in France. They had a long phone call on August 19 which in terms of the Brexit countdown, is a life time ago.

You will remember Leo Varadkar had already waited a week for a courtesy call from Johnson on the latter's election.

This, from our neighbour and biggest trading partner, with whom we share multiple and extensive ties. But, most crucially, with whom we share responsibility for maintaining peace in Northern Ireland.

Before the G7 summit, Johnson promised Angela Merkel he would use the following 30 days to energetically find a backstop replacement. But he appears to have done nothing on this and is intent on a no-deal Brexit, even by sweeping parliament aside.

And we have remained "calm". But we should be loudly demanding engagement, and offering urgent ideas.

We even seem to be backsliding in some of our language. In Paris, Tánaiste Simon Coveney met French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to stiffen EU support for our position.

But Mr Coveney opened by saying: "We are conscious of the fact that Irish-specific issues are preventing a deal between the EU and the UK, and Ireland doesn't want to be the problem here."

This is terrible, half-apologetic language and makes you wonder why the Department of Foreign Affairs mandarins didn't keep a closer eye on him. Mr Coveney has been impressive on Brexit, but he can drop the ball sometimes. Like with his famous TV concession on water charges which led to their abolition.

Quite rightly, Mr Philippe interrupted him and said: "Look, you don't need to worry about this. This is not just an Irish problem. It's an EU problem and we are in it together."

Ireland, of course, has never been the problem. The problem has been the British government's abandonment of concern for Northern Ireland from the very start of the Brexit process. It is not some "specific issues", as Mr Coveney puts it, but the fundamental integrity of our island and peace within it.

It is very important to keep saying this. Much has been made of the British government threatening the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).

But, in fact, the British actions threaten the whole Irish/British relationship on Northern Ireland and the clear understanding that it is a bitterly contested zone in which we have an institutional say. This was legally enshrined in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which only lapsed when it was carried over into the GFA of 1998.

Of course, we should never have let the AIA lapse - we assumed that Stormont would flower and grow, but that's another conversation.

Before these two agreements we had the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, also giving the Irish Government an institutional say in governing the North.

This may not be acceptable to Michael Gove and the DUP, and possibly Boris Johnson himself. But it is the international position painfully worked out by successive governments and their officials. And it was held to strongly, despite the attacks of paramilitaries and angry mobs.

In fact, the British were supposed to be adding to this. The Downing Street Declaration was supposed to signal a long-term working for a greater Irish dimension. The British were not supposed to be doing the very opposite - dragging Northern Ireland further away from the Republic through Brexit and through a rejection of even a temporary backstop.

The British have clear responsibilities here. This is about more than a few border controls.

It is about the fundamental integrity of our island and its agreed direction.

We cannot just quietly get the warehouses ready and wait for a no-deal crash. We have to loudly tell the world about what is happening with this repartitioning of Ireland. The EU and the US Congress are on our side, so let us not be quiet. Boris isn't.

Irish Independent

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