Thursday 18 April 2019

Jody Corcoran: 'Europe will eventually be blamed if a border is ever returned to Ireland'

A no-deal Brexit is still unlikely, but negotiations will go down to the wire and Leo Varadkar needs to tone down the political rhetoric, writes Jody Corcoran

Leo Varadkar (Brian Lawless/PA)
Leo Varadkar (Brian Lawless/PA)
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Will Leo Varadkar's Government - in the words of Simon Coveney - be the Government that "reintroduced a physical border on the island of Ireland" in the event of a no-deal Brexit?

The short answer is yes.

The more accurate answer is the European Union, of which Ireland is a member, would oblige the Government here to reintroduce a border in such circumstances.

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But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

What started out as a bad week for Ireland, after an EU spokesman mentioned the unmentionable - a border on the island of Ireland - later shaped up somewhat more positive, and could be more positive still come Tuesday.

Until then, Leo Varadkar needs to calm down.

Here is the general state of play…

The UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, is sticking with her withdrawal agreement, which was defeated by 230 votes in the House of Commons earlier this month.

To leverage her case, she is continuing to hold out the threat of a no-deal Brexit in the belief that she can return to the EU to seek a concession on the backstop element of the deal.

To that end, May's Plan B this Tuesday is expected to include an amendment that a time limit of December 2021 be added to the withdrawal agreement.

Fearful that a Commons majority will ultimately vote for an even 'softer' Brexit, or to remain in the EU, the hardline Brexiteers are now leaning towards supporting May's deal, time-limit included.

Similarly concerned, but more motivated by its fear that Northern Ireland's bond to the UK could be weakened otherwise, the Democratic Unionist Party is also leaning towards supporting May's deal, time-limit included.

Other Conservatives, and possibly some in Labour, may also row in behind the Prime Minister's withdrawal agreement, time-limit included.

However, the backstop element is not a primary concern for many who voted against May's deal last time.

In short, it is a terrible deal for the UK, but the only one possible dictated by her red lines.

Such was the scale of her initial defeat, it is doubtful that May's Plan B will command enough support, let alone a majority, to convince the EU that a deal is in the offing, even if it were minded to be so convinced.

Meanwhile, two of the more able backbench MPs in the Commons, Yvette Cooper of Labour and Dominic Grieve of the Conservatives have amendments of their own pending on Tuesday.

Cooper is seeking to block a no-deal by giving time to a draft law that would require the Government to delay Brexit should a deal not be agreed by February 26.

In other words, if her amendment is passed, it will effectively remove May's remaining leverage with the EU.

Grieve's proposed amendment is, perhaps, potentially even more significant. He is seeking to set up weekly debates that would mean regular votes on what to do in the absence of a deal.

Grieve's amendments set aside six named days for the debates - including March 26, that is, three days before scheduled Brexit.

Ultimately, I expect this date to be crucial, perhaps the seminal moment in the tortured history of Brexit.

Should, or not, the Commons vote in favour of Cooper's motion, a majority will still have to agree to some form of Brexit.

The crucial vote, on March 26, may see a Commons majority vote to defer, by extending or even revoking Article 50, as the European Court of Justice, in a recent judgment, allows it to do.

To revoke would not necessarily mean an end of Brexit, but would allow Article 50 to be triggered again in the future, creating time for either a new, sensible deal to be negotiated under a different set of UK red lines; or, alternatively, for a second referendum to be held.

Following on from a decision to defer Brexit, there may be a leadership challenge to Theresa May and, possibly, to Arlene Foster of the DUP, or alternatively a general election may be called in the UK.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves again...

Last week by confirming that a no-deal Brexit would require the reintroduction of a border on the island of Ireland, the EU has given succour to the UK, the DUP and Brexiteers, and has made Leo Varadkar's task more difficult than it need be at this moment.

On Friday we got an indication of the level of pressure he is now under, a measure, it must be said, brought on by himself, such has been his dogmatic approach to Brexit.

By insisting on a backstop, his critics argue, Varadkar could usher in an accidental no-deal and actually introduce the very border he seeks to avoid at all costs.

The EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and others, have since attempted to put the genie back in the bottle, but their reference to a hypothetical border based on technology, really only further makes the case that Brexiteers and the DUP have sought to make all along.

So Varadkar is left to ratchet up the rhetoric: to bolster his position, he has said that Northern Ireland's customs and regulations would still have to align with the Republic's in the event of a no-deal - to preserve the Good Friday Agreement.

He has also dismissed the notion of a high-tech border and warned of the return of soldiers and physical infrastructure on the Border: "The problem with that in the context of Irish politics and history is those things become targets," he said of such a border.

The truth is, such a border could become a target for terrorists in the future. But now might be a good time to dial down such rhetoric.

One other thing seems more evident this weekend.

Should a border be returned to Ireland as a result of a no-deal Brexit, the UK government will be blamed by many people in Ireland in the first instance; followed by the DUP and shortly thereafter the negotiation tactics of the Government, and ultimately Leo Varadkar himself, forever to be known as the man who "reintroduced a physical border on the island of Ireland".

Eventually, though, it will be the European Union itself which will come to have 'ownership' of such a border.

It is worth recalling what Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president told the Dail last June. There were those, he said, who thought the other 26 countries in the EU would "abandon Ireland at the last minute for a separate deal that suits them". Such people, he said, did not understand what it means to be part of the EU.

Now might also be a good time to remind the elites of Europe what being part of the EU really means; or is it, as I warned in December 2017, that the EU has used Ireland to flush out the UK's position?

A year later, we know what is the UK's position, and, so far, it does not spell compromise. But it could be a lot worse than even that.

For should a border be returned to Ireland, inevitable as that may be, this country's love affair with the EU, which was dealt a blow during the financial crisis, could be more seriously damaged in the long-run, and with it, the staggering but still standing middle ground of politics here.

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