Wednesday 24 July 2019

John Downing: 'So, what's the plan now? Ask Tory Brexiteers - and the DUP'


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Photo: Frank McGrath
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar Photo: Frank McGrath
John Downing

John Downing

A hard Border will happen automatically in Ireland if there is a no-deal Brexit.

So, what are our options then, the Taoiseach was asked by five different opposition TDs. In essence, Leo Varadkar said we will be looking for 'a backstop to the backstop'.

The scenario here is brutally simple and the European Commission has finally told us up front what we have known for a long time. Brussels and the other EU capitals have bent over backwards on arrangements to avoid any restoration of a hard and visible Border in Ireland.

But all bets are off if the UK exits without a deal. The commission has studiously avoided the brutal reality up to now.

Over 10 years reporting from Brussels, I learned that EU spokespeople do not do 'off-the-cuff throwaways'. This was a very deliberate statement, frankly replying to a simple and direct question at commission HQ yesterday, as time runs out for Brexit.

Without any changes, that stretch of ground between Dundalk and Derry becomes the only EU-UK international land frontier. It's the EU telling Ireland to do its single market duty if the cards fall like that.

"Ireland is part of the European Union and we will have obligations to protect the single market," the Taoiseach admitted to the Dáil. That means a Border with border controls - with the UK governed by World Trade Organisation rules.

But let Mr Varadkar continue this story himself. "What would we have to do in that scenario? We would have to negotiate an agreement on customs and regulations that would mean full alignment so there would be no hard Border," the Taoiseach said.

How do you do that, we hear you ask. Well, it appears we would be back to the Tory Brexiteers and the Democratic Unionist Party, those same people who blocked the compromise deal on the backstop.

This time we would be asking them for that hoary old chestnut 'a backstop on the backstop'. Let's recall the furious row this idea caused in the British parliament in early December, which came after MPs forced publication of the full legal advice of the UK attorney general, Geoffrey Cox. Mr Cox's advice - though he did stress much of the deal was political - was there was a scenario where Northern Ireland could be left inside the EU customs union and large parts of the single market after the rest of the UK had left. That scenario assumed the EU and UK failed in the next few years to do a post-Brexit trade deal - a sort of eventual no-deal.

The Taoiseach has again argued that Ireland and the UK still have obligations to the North under the Good Friday Agreement. He pointed out that the backstop is the only extant arrangement avoiding a hard Border.

But such arguments have cut no ice with the DUP and radical Tory Brexiteers up to now. At kindest assessment, hoping for a belated conversion in these quarters appears a major long shot. No deal automatically means hard Border.

Irish Independent

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