Friday 20 September 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'Ireland's fate is now inextricably linked to that of the UK prime minister'

British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: PA
British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: PA

Gerard O'Regan

To use a sporting analogy, we saw Conor McGregor-style politics at full pelt in the House of Commons and its surrounds this week.

It was bear-pit stuff at its most brutal. Raging ambition and unrestrained ego pushed Theresa May to the limit. In the background is the ever-present reality of Britain's declining power in a post-Brexit world.

From an Irish perspective, we can only look on in hope and horror. Hope that Mrs May - now a beacon of the moderate middle line - will survive. Horror that the UK could tumble out of the EU without a deal, provoking an unknown number of job losses here.

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Of equal concern is that the prime minister could be replaced by somebody from the hardline Rees-Mogg faction. A latent antipathy to the Republic of Ireland, and its concerns, is an obvious trait among some of his more extremist MPs.

However, some grim truths for our nearest neighbour will surely emerge. Away from the Westminster bubble, the court of public opinion must be heard.

Going over the heads of politicians - and arguing her case to the wider population - could get Mrs May out of the last-chance saloon.

Her message is already clear. Accept my more considered approach to this whole Brexit conundrum - or follow the illusions of the hardliners. The latter course will put employment and living standards at serious risk.

The choice for the UK is stark. Two years of talking has highlighted its limited power in facing down the might of the EU.

Of course, it can walk away and strike out completely on its own. But that would be an unprecedented act of economic self-sabotage.

Perhaps the most salient part of the past few days is the enormous reserve of stamina and self-belief displayed by Mrs May. She will not go down without a fight to the end. Once famously described as "a bloody difficult woman", this is now her greatest strength.

A verbal barrage attacking her premiership often strayed into personalised vitriol. At times, she looked visibly shaken. There were occasions where her voice seemed to weaken - but she refused to falter.

The situation in Brussels and Strasbourg could not be in greater contrast to the hysteria swamping Westminster. Michel Barnier and Donald Tusk, with languid continental ease, assured all who would listen the 500-page Brexit deal was done and dusted. And over the airwaves came a low-key authoritative warning from Angela Merkel; there will be no renegotiation of this document. And so the clock keeps ticking ever closer to the March 29 exit date.

As options narrow for all the main players, emotion can only run higher. As with all such scenarios, events may take on a life of their own - and become unstoppable.

This could see the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal, despite a majority in the House of Commons, and among the general population, not wishing it.

In the background hovers the DUP. Once again, Ulster unionism sees itself as having been let down by erstwhile soul mates in the Tory party. Now it is flirting with the right-wing cabal seeking to bring down Mrs May. But embracing the extremist fringe - and ditching the party's confidence and supply deal with the government - is fraught with risk.

Meanwhile, the opposition Labour Party looked increasingly inept this week. Its policies are contradictory and are certainly not putting the country first. Their only obvious strategy is a hope the Tories will implode and a general election will follow.

It will be a Houdini act, par excellence, if Mrs May claws her way back from the brink. Could she yet defy all the odds and get her plan through the Commons? She will be buttressed by public opinion polls showing growing support for a moderate departure from the EU; equally, there is gathering momentum for a second referendum.

Rarely are Irish interests so closely bound up with the fortunes of a Conservative prime minister. We have got to be eagle-eyed for any kind of sharp practice. But we desperately want her plan to prevail, and protect us from the unnecessary ravages of a hard Brexit. It's a classic case of fingers crossed.

Irish Independent

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