Sunday 15 September 2019

John Downing: 'The Brexit 'phoney war' is over - Varadkar must keep his nerve, but not at expense of telling us all the full truth'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
John Downing

John Downing

Brexit has been a potential Irish economic calamity since June 2016. But since late 2017, it has been safe territory for this Government because of public confidence in its response.

In recent months, the Government has lost a deal of public confidence due to cumulative problems like runaway-spending on the children's hospital and rural broadband; the continuing lack of progress on the CervicalCheck débâcle; ongoing housing problems; and tricky personalised stuff like the ill-starred Maria Bailey compensation claim.

But a slew of opinion polls have long shown that voters had confidence in this Government's Brexit response.

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Now, the Kantor opinion poll findings for the 'Sunday Independent' raise questions about public confidence in Leo Varadkar and his impressive lieutenant, Simon Coveney, in their management of the biggest issue to confront this country since the explosion of the Northern Troubles in the late 1960s.

It is crucially important to keep a sense of perspective about these 'Sunday Independent' opinion poll findings. We are far from predicting that the public will soon be marching on Government Buildings, demanding a Brexit cave-in to the newly installed UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, who is suddenly enjoying a very predictable honeymoon among the punters on our neighbouring island.

A Deltapoll for that quintessentially English newspaper 'The Daily Mail' puts the post-Boris Tories on 30pc and up 10 points. Jeremy Corbyn's Labour trails on 25pc. The trenchantly pro-EU Liberal Democrats are on 18pc while the Brexit Party is down to 14pc.

Granted that UK survey finding is no guarantee of anything for Boris Johnson.

But it does give him breathing space to quieten the naysayers inside his own party as he tries to broaden his canvass by appealing to voters in an unlikely heartland in the Midlands and north of England.

The Irish Brexit survey was remarkable in that it showed voters not entirely ready to give a ringing endorsement to Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and company.

Just a little over four in 10 people surveyed are "satisfied" with the Taoiseach's Brexit stewardship to date, while a little over one in four is dissatisfied.

Some 22pc cannot make up their minds one way or the other - and 8pc just don't know what to think.

A bit like the last two undecided and don't know groupings, we are left to say that the overall outcome is neither a cause for Mr Varadkar to break out the Champagne nor reach for a good bottle of gloom-supporting gin.

But it is a clear signal that now the phoney Brexit war is over and that we are likely to find some kind of conclusion by October 31 at the latest, Irish people are becoming more anxious.

Election speculation across the UK has exploded since Mr Johnson's arrival in Downing Street last week with the slenderest of margins in the national parliament.

There is no need for such election speculation on this side of the Irish Sea because we know there will be a general election here by June 2020 at the latest. It still might happen earlier if Brexit was concluded or parked in some shape or form, perhaps to allow for a UK general election.

Still, the point is the next Irish election will surely be a battle about who can best guide us through the perilous times arising from the departure of our nearest neighbour and major trading partner from the trading bloc upon which we have pinned our national fortunes. It is a choice we never thought we would have to make.

Indeed, so many of our other arrangements - not least the 1998 Good Friday Agreement forging a fragile peace in Northern Ireland - were based on the certain assumption that both Ireland and the United Kingdom would remain inside the European Union, which both countries happily joined in January 1973.

The surprise June 23, 2016, UK Brexit referendum result changed so much for everyone in these islands.

Mr Johnson has arrived into his new job in a fanfare of no-deal Brexit rhetoric.

The cabinet team he has picked have continued his theme over the weekend.

The EU side has appeared immovable in its response - the word from mainland Europe is "what part of 'non' can you not understand" when it comes to demands to open up the Withdrawal Agreement and its Border backstop provision.

The Taoiseach is coming under more pressure in Ireland to do something for our nearest neighbour. To avoid "a nose-for-face job".

This is because a no-deal Brexit means no backstop, and no transition period to help smooth preparations.

Even the more exposed other EU member states - notably France, Germany and Netherlands - have nothing like Ireland's scale of exposure. All are bigger, more stable economies which can withstand unwanted shocks like Brexit. All of them have close sea connections with the island of Britain, but none has a land border, much less a complex enmeshing of citizenship via the north-south Border and a troubled mutual history.

The question arises if Mr Varadkar was to encourage the EU to do what Boris Johnson is determinedly demanding - and drop that backstop - would we move to a better Brexit outcome?

Sadly, reality is that Brexit divisions in England - and we mean England as opposed to Britain - are so deep and emotional that there is no certainty that abandoning the backstop would secure a good outcome.

There are, however, dangers in abandoning the backstop, which let's recall is a position of last resort, with the abiding hope that a better long-term EU-UK trade deal can be done post-Brexit.

The whole concept of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is based on an island of Ireland approach to all sorts of human activity.

The EU has done more to advance the prospects of co-operation on every level of life than the most recalcitrant of Irish nationalists.

The 1993 EU single market made the Border invisible and virtually non-functional for trade. From the first IRA ceasefire in 1994, lavish EU peace grants and ramped up regional and cross-Border grants have boosted the quest to end violence.

It is tempting - but specious - to urge the Taoiseach to break EU ranks to try to do a backstop fix for everyone's benefit. But he and everyone else knows that we all now face very worrying weeks ahead.

This means the Taoiseach must get better at telling us all the Brexit truth in all its potential brutality.

The spin doctors' weasel words in times of crisis are 'communicate better'. But why not just tell the full truth in good time. Delay gains nothing and people have the right to know.

Irish Independent

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