Friday 18 October 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'Crunch time is now coming for Johnson - so can he pull a rabbit out the hat?'

British Prime Minster Boris Johnson. Photo: AP
British Prime Minster Boris Johnson. Photo: AP

Gerard O'Regan

Ground rules are being set for years ahead. In blunt diplomatic speak, Ireland wants to be best mates, whenever possible, with its nearest neighbour. But when push comes to shove we will have to be even better mates with our friends in Brussels.

We have been reminded yet again the EU is a mighty force to have on your side. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is finding the sheer power and scale of the Brussels monolith makes it a formidable foe. Accordingly, the rule book which governed Dublin-London relations for almost a century is no more.

The Brexit saga continues to bring some home truths to bear upon Westminster power brokers.

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Diplomacy as it traditionally applied to Ireland can no longer be pursued in isolation. The knock-on effect of Downing Street decisions for Brussels and Berlin must now be factored in.

The traditional Number 10 approach to a less powerful neighbour has been transformed. This is one of the more stunning conclusions to emerge from interminable Brexit joustings.

In London, Boris Johnson is trying it on one more time. He wiggled and waffled on a proposed customs union which, regardless of how he tried to sell it, would introduce dangerous divides on the island of Ireland.

The proposal that the DUP would effectively have a veto on future trading arrangements, to be activated every four years, beggars belief. Such a suggestion is totally unacceptable across the political spectrum North and south.

The real purpose of the Irish Border package Johnson presented to the EU is to bring his Brexit zealots on board. But while this might nudge him towards getting a Commons majority to pursue a personal agenda, he and his cabal know it is a reckless approach to the peace process.

Crunch time is coming. A moment of truth will be determined by the answer to two questions. Is the UK government prepared to make significant concessions on the single market, and to deal with the DUP veto? If not, all bets are off.

The immediate future remains impossible to predict. It may indeed require the catharsis of a British general election to bring its own clarity to the situation.

But while Johnson is doing well in the polls, there is no certainty he will bag his much ached-for Commons majority. In the interim, he desperately needs to "land Brexit" in one shape or another. Being seen to deliver is vital for him to see off the challenge of Nigel Farage's Brexit Party across crucial constituencies.

In the background lurks the greatest mystery of all. At the end of the day, does Johnson want to ditch the EU completely, and leave the Brussels club lock, stock and barrel?

Or with an eye to future trade negotiations, does he want to leave with a deal which would lay the groundwork for tough-talking days to come?

If, post-general election, Johnson was to come back with a clear Common majority, he would no longer be dependant on side players such as the DUP. What would be his approach to a Brexit exit if he had a free hand in Parliament? Nobody really knows. But one thing is for sure. He would - if necessary - sell down the river those no longer relevant to his personal political advancement.

Meanwhile, all is not gloom and doom. An accidental offshoot from the swirling debate and discussion across Europe these past few years is a new transnational awareness of the Irish peace process. Matters have come a long way from when our foreign affairs officials fought an often forlorn battle to counter Britain's worldwide diplomatic network.

There is also consolation that in British political circles - apart from the hardliners - there is such genuine goodwill towards this country.

And so we wait to find out the real Johnson bottom line. Can a man so used to dealing cards from the bottom of the deck play a secret ace that will satisfy the Irish Government?

If he can, it's game on. If not, he will have to take his chances, like all the rest of us, tiptoeing towards an unknown future.

Irish Independent

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