Thursday 22 August 2019

Eamon Delaney: 'We need to keep our Brexit options - and lines of communication - open'

Otherwise engaged: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson delayed contacting Leo Varadkar. Photo: Reuters
Otherwise engaged: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson delayed contacting Leo Varadkar. Photo: Reuters

Eamon Delaney

There is nothing worse in a difficult relationship than sitting at home waiting for the phone call. You are powerless, entirely dependent on the decision of your partner and unable to properly focus on other things. And then, when they do ring, your paralysing focus moves to what they do next. And whether they will honour any proposal loosely made.

But this is how Leo Varadkar was for nearly a week, waiting for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to call so that the frosty relationship could thaw and we could all move on to what actually happens with Brexit.

We, backed by the EU, continue to insist on no hard Border on the island of Ireland and that a backstop for Northern Ireland can overcome that. The UK continues to insist on no backstop and that there can be a seamless Border between the two parts of Ireland, even though it will now be the new EU border. If there is no agreement between us, the UK and the EU, then there will be a no-deal Brexit with devastating consequences for everybody.

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But we have had this sterile debate for two years now and the clock is ticking. There are only 13 weeks to a UK exit. Time is of the essence, and every day counts. The Central Bank has warned of tens of thousands of job losses. Sterling is feeling the heat. We need to know what is going to happen on October 31.

This makes it all the more strange that the Taoiseach waited for almost a week for Boris to make that phone call. It was like a couple having a hissy fit on the Titanic as it sailed for the icebergs. Pride and protocol seem to trump common sense - or averting disaster.

Couldn't Varadkar have called Johnson's office himself, and kept calling until Boris answered? Johnson could hardly keep ignoring the Taoiseach's phone calls. Or could Leo have asked the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, to call repeatedly his opposite number, demanding that their prime minister make contact - pronto?

Or Varadkar could have got one of his senior ministers to go on the airwaves and say: "This is simply not good enough. The British propose to drive an EU border across the island of Ireland, they propose to take Northern Ireland out of the single market - and they really don't think the two premiers should talk about it, right away, and at length?"

Varadkar could have broadcast this on the foreign airwaves, given how the Europeans and even the Americans are supporting us. But our Government is quietly gambling on the British eventually 'seeing sense' and appears to be in no hurry to work out what actually happens after October 31. This was the very point made by Fianna Fáil's Timmy Dooley, for which he was unfairly vilified.

But this is Varadkar's style. He has a stubborn, Buddha-like quality which has served him well but which also makes people, especially his supporters, nervous. Some call it arrogance, although he has a big heart and is actually a bit of a softie. But it is a style that is too loose and casual at moments like this.

It is also a gamble. And Leo is a gambler. He has gambled with public money, spending it everywhere, even though he knew Brexit was looming and that such spending crashed the economy before. He explains away the huge overruns in the costs of the new National Children's Hospital and of the rural broadband plan. It will all work out, he says. He treats Fianna Fáil with disdain, even though it props up his Government, because he thinks it won't pull the plug and cause the election.

So far, so good.

But Leo's gambles are coming undone. His populism was not rewarded at the recent local and European elections as Fine Gael would have wished.

But these gambles are nothing compared to the huge historical risk he is taking on Brexit.

Namely, that the European Union will support us all the way in rejecting any controls at the Irish Border. Or even any meaningful co-operation with the British on the issue. Even though it is clear that some kind of border controls will go up.

We have made no efforts to cut a deal with the United Kingdom on overcoming the impasse. We have just played hard-ball on the backstop.

And that is fair enough.

The UK created this problem with its destructive withdrawal from the EU and it should have foreseen this. A 30-year armed conflict took place on this island, and within the UK, and it took great energy by international mediators to sort it out.

The Brexiteers should have seen beyond their own selfish English nationalism to appreciate this. But they are on a destructive journey which could even break up the UK.

However, we are in the path of the destruction. Britain is our biggest trading partner and still governs Northern Ireland. We cannot just sit there, like the Buddha, hoping for the best. Varadkar should have been on the blower immediately to Johnson and kept up the pressure.

He should stay nimble and flexible, even explore Johnson's so-called options - at least explore them, while holding to our bedrock position. We cannot just sit there, waiting for the waves to crash over us. We have to take ownership of the issue - urgently.

Irish Independent

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