Friday 23 August 2019

John Downing: 'Coveney rightly got his Brexit retaliation in first, but what the Government does next will be crucial'

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Collins
Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Collins
John Downing

John Downing

The bookish and courteous Philip Hammond is an unlikely political rebel. As UK foreign minister he enjoyed a good relationship with his Dublin opposite number, Charlie Flanagan.

Now he has made it clear that he will exit his job as finance minister before Boris Johnson becomes the prime minister. After more than three years, this Brexit phoney war is finally nearing an end.

Today the UK Tory members will stop voting for Boris. Tomorrow he will be declared party leader. On Wednesday he becomes prime minister and then "the fun" will start.

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This is a big week for the Irish Government. Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney did the right thing yesterday by getting his Brexit retaliation in first with a plain-speaking article in a British newspaper, the 'Sunday Times', followed up with an interview on the BBC which was widely covered across all media.

But what the Dublin Government does in this crucial week and beyond will be very important. We will look at the options shortly, but first a little more about Philip Hammond.

He was derided for his devotion to strict budgets and dubbed "Spreadsheet Phil" after he took over in 2016 as chancellor of the exchequer, as the UK finance minister is grandly titled. Prior to that, in foreign affairs, he and Irish counterpart Charlie Flanagan managed to speak frankly to each other at all times.

As finance minister, Mr Hammond has been that nagging voice which keeps telling Boris Johnson that his promises of a bright no-deal Brexit future are both misguided and dangerous. "I will do everything I can from the backbench to ensure that parliament blocks a no deal," he said in an interview with two European newspapers published last Friday.

We can take it that the minister of nine years has not finished his crusade yet. He and other likely dissenters within the Conservative Party may well yet do Ireland some service if the incoming prime minister really does carry through his foul threat to push on to a no-deal Brexit by the deadline of Halloween, on October 31.

On the BBC yesterday, Simon Coveney said things which will not especially surprise those of us who are following this dreadful political drama called Brexit. But "on the eve of Boris" it was vital that the Foreign Affairs Minister and Tánaiste delivered his messages to a UK audience.

It's clear that somebody was listening over there. The pro-EU Liberal Democrats, enjoying a resurgence due to Brexit, said the comments showed the Irish deputy prime minister was "reminding the Conservative party of the realities of Brexit".

"There will be no changes to the backstop. The Conservatives must not be allowed to waste any more time to push the country ever closer to no-deal Brexit," said Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrats' Brexit spokesman.

The Tánaiste effectively castigated Boris Johnson's approach to Brexit during the Conservative Party leadership campaign. Mr Coveney characterised this as "give me what I want or I'm going to burn the house down for everybody".

He categorically ruled out any renegotiation of Theresa May's failed divorce agreement - regardless of the UK's new prime minister taking a new hardline approach. "If the approach is going to be to tear up the withdrawal agreement then I think we are in trouble - we are all in trouble," Mr Coveney said on the BBC's 'Andrew Marr' programme.

The Foreign Affairs Minister warned Mr Johnson, certain to be the next Tory leader, not to threaten the EU with a no-deal Brexit. Mr Johnson, and his rival Jeremy Hunt, continue to insist the Irish backstop must be taken out of the divorce deal if it is to pass the Commons to avoid a crash-out Brexit. Mr Coveney said that would amount to the UK forcing a no-deal Brexit on everybody else.

"We want to resolve these issues, but we won't do it by being told what must happen to get it through the House of Commons. A new prime minister does not change this," he vowed.

Mr Coveney also said the Irish Government would, if forced, introduce checks on goods, to protect the EU single market. But again he insisted that these would happen away from the Border with the North.

It was all well worth doing - and it was well done. But the question now is what does the Dublin Government do next?

There is a quiet view in Dublin, and other EU capitals, that Boris Johnson's leadership election rhetoric can be seriously discounted once he get himself into the top job. It is true that his stances on this, the UK's biggest post-World War II political issue, have never been consistent.

Indeed, he has always travelled light politically and has few discernible views on anything much. Once he gets into power, he could use his credibility with Brexiteers, and everyone's weariness of the topic after three years, to finally sell a dressed-up version of the Theresa May package to the UK parliament.

That is a very tenable line of argument - but it overlooks two very important points. One is that Boris Johnson may not really deep down realise just how ruinous a no-deal crash-out would be for the United Kingdom.

The second point is that it could be dangerously wrong to assume that Boris Johnson will be in control of the next moves in the Brexit saga. After all, he will begin his tenure at number 10 Downing Street with a majority of just three MPs - including the Democratic Unionist Party's 10 fractious MPs.

The other problem is a serious lack of time, with fewer than 100 days between Mr Johnson's election and the Brexit deadline. We must never forget that a no deal happens on October 31 in the absence of anything else.

So, it is hard to overstate the tricky position we all are in right now.

Even if we assume that the new UK PM really wants to find a "good solution", we still return to the situation the country is left in by Theresa May's three Brexit goals. These are: 1. Taking the UK out of the EU - including the single market and customs union; 2. Avoiding a hard Irish Border; 3. Acceding to DUP demands that the North leaves the EU on exactly the same terms as England, Scotland and Wales.

It is clear that, at best, you can only do two of those three. In recent days the prospect of restricting the backstop to the North is back in vogue.

It would satisfy Dublin and the EU, who were reluctant to concede it beyond the North's 1.5 million people to all of the UK's 64 million people. The change might satisfy some of the more recalcitrant Brexiteers in Britain.

But while Boris Johnson would handily enough dispense with DUP objections, he still needs their votes. Back with Irish mainstream concerns, we must never underestimate EU determination to defend the EU single market.

Irish Independent

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