Monday 14 October 2019

John Downing: 'Promising signs, but just how big a breakthrough remains untold'


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives at Liverpool Airport ahead of private talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock as the departure deadline looms. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives at Liverpool Airport ahead of private talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock as the departure deadline looms. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
John Downing

John Downing

Not really a breakthrough - more a determination to keep the Brexit talks going, and a recognition by both leaders that hopes of avoiding a calamitous no-deal Brexit must be sustained right to the end.

After days of vitriolic exchanges between London and Brussels, and some ham-fisted efforts by Brexiteer elements in London to put Ireland right into the mangle, smiles and positive words by the two leaders were welcome in and of themselves. Yet the value of it all remains to be seen.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Prime Minister Boris Johnson met for almost three hours in a country hotel on the Wirral, close to Liverpool. It was really a home venue for the Taoiseach, given the region's strong Irish heritage and continuing antipathy towards Mr Johnson, despite his celebrated "operation Scouse grovel", or the apology tour he had to undertake in 2004, after very insensitive journalism about the Hillsborough disaster.

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But let's not digress too far. The meeting lasted far longer than anyone expected and was described as "constructive and cordial". The joint communiqué spoke of "a pathway to a possible deal" and when Mr Varadkar met reporters he was even more upbeat again. The Taoiseach said he hoped that what passed between the two of them would be enough to give a boost to talks again today. From Brussels' diplomats came signals that reports of the meeting suggested the UK was ready to move on Northern Ireland staying in the EU customs union, avoiding a recurrence of a Border.

Publicly, Mr Varadkar indicated that a deal is unlikely by this day next week when EU leaders conclude a crucial summit in Brussels. But he suggested a deal could still happen before the October 31 deadline.

Two extra notes of caution are required here. If a deal is to be done in the next 20 days, it would have to be something very like what Theresa May agreed. And that would still face the same wall of opposition in the Westminster Parliament, including Democratic Unionist Party MPs.

There is also the serious impediment of the role of the Northern Ireland power-sharing government and parliament in agreeing the North's status or otherwise within the EU. And there are other impediments besides the North to be got over.

To paraphrase Johnson's hero Winston Churchill's speech in 1942, this is not even the end of the beginning.

Clearly, both sides are keeping their options open for what comes after an inevitable UK general election. It is most unlikely there is enough time to bridge the UK-EU gaps before October 31. We are very likely still looking at an extension.

Then it's up to the UK voters. Boris Johnson could be back negotiating in December backed by a parliamentary majority. Leo Varadkar knows he could again be facing Mr Johnson - or another UK PM keen on a softer Brexit, or no Brexit.

Irish Independent

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