Sunday 22 September 2019

John Downing: 'It is not Dublin's job to manage those deep EU Tory divisions'


A view of the Palace of Westminster. Stock picture
A view of the Palace of Westminster. Stock picture
John Downing

John Downing

On the face of things the Taoiseach is telling us that he is only trying to help and it is as much in Ireland's interests as anyone else's. Ireland needs a proper Brexit deal as much, or in fact more, than most other EU member states.

Without a workable Withdrawal Agreement for the UK to exit the EU, there would be no transition period to allow Irish business to adjust. There would be no chance for a future EU-UK post-Brexit trade relationship, seriously damaging Irish trade. Both problems would undoubtedly cost many tens of thousands of Irish jobs.

So, Leo Varadkar is about being helpful to UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who needs to get some additional political cover if she is to stand any chance of getting whatever deal she might get ratified at Westminster. London's demands turn around when and how any "backstop" would end.

Ideally, the UK wants to have the authority to exit any backstop unilaterally. Mrs May's Brexit minister, Dominic Raab, spoke about either the EU or UK being able to exit with just three months' notice.

The Taoiseach was emphatic: there can be no expiry date and no unilateral exit power. In fairness, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier is saying the very same thing.

But Mr Varadkar is prepared to talk about a "review clause". Such mentions of "a review" send alarms bells ringing. We may be close to that perilous five-to-midnight time here, with anything up to 95pc of the Withdrawal Agreement in the bag and only the Irish Border left.

Could this be the type of situation former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern had warned about last April when he spoke about Ireland's interests being "squeezed" if the Irish Border became the last issue to be resolved?

This was where Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald was coming from when she went on the attack in the Dáil. She accused the Taoiseach of appearing to "lose his nerve" and she urged him "not to blink".

It did not take long for that offering to bring some tough ripostes from the Taoiseach. The simpering exchanges of last year between the pair of party leaders became a distant memory. Mr Varadkar had to point out that Sinn Féin's negotiating performance had left the North without a government for "a record two years".

Labour leader Brendan Howlin, a veteran of three governments, struck a more reasonable tone as he asked a key question. Why would you need to review something which would only operate for the North "unless and until" the EU and UK made a proper trade deal?

The Taoiseach said he was only trying to be creative, offering creative language to find a solution. Ireland needed a deal as much as anyone else and review clauses were common in international treaties and in domestic legislation.

But Mr Varadkar is on a dangerous corner here. The blockage is still being caused by a totally riven British Tory party. It is not his job to fix that deep rift in another polity.

Irish Independent

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