Wednesday 21 August 2019

John Downing: 'With courtesy and candour, the Taoiseach must stress perils of no-deal Brexit'

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a joint news conference at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, in London, Britain June 4, 2019. Stefan Rousseau/Pool via REUTERS
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a joint news conference at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, in London, Britain June 4, 2019. Stefan Rousseau/Pool via REUTERS
John Downing

John Downing

It is no easy task meeting one Donald J Trump, whose specialty is "no political rule book at all". But Taoiseach Leo Varadkar must use his short meeting with the US president at Shannon Airport this afternoon to deliver a few concise messages - especially on Brexit and peace in the North.

Mr Trump likes to think of himself as "Mr Brexit" and in many ways he saw the June 2016 UK Leave vote as the forerunner of his own surprise win in the US presidential election five months later.

Mr Trump spent over two years baiting the ill-starred UK Prime Minister Theresa May on what he said was her mishandling of the Brexit negotiations, going as far as claiming she had "betrayed" the spirit of the referendum result.

Though he was his usual "no-rules" bull in a china shop self during the business end of his UK visit yesterday, the president did what one US journalist termed "making nice in the end" to Mrs May, who drops down to caretaker status this Friday. He essentially said the PM had done a good job - and did not get the credit she deserved.

"I would think it will happen and it probably should happen. This is a great, great country and it wants its own identity, it wants to have its own borders, it wants to run its own affairs. This is a very, very special place," he said of Brexit.

"I think it will happen and I believe the prime minister has brought it to a very good point where something will take place in the not-too-distant future. I think she has done a very good job. I believe it would be good for the country," Mr Trump continued.

So, Irish officials will have been somewhat relieved that Mr Trump did not go so far as to advocate a "no-deal Brexit". That piece of restraint, combined with belated praise for Mrs May, could be as good as it gets.

But we note his renewed praise for Boris Johnson, the front-runner to succeed her. "I know Boris, I like him, I've liked him for a long time, I think he would do a very good job," he said.

And we also note Mr Johnson's ominous insistence that Brexit must happen on the October 31 deadline - deal or no deal. The president has also praised Nigel Farage, the high priest of no-deal Brexit.

Mr Trump also added to no-deal Brexiteers' fantasies of the UK going it alone by talking up a big and prompt UK-US free trade deal. "As the UK makes preparations to exit the European Union, the United States is committed to a phenomenal trade deal between the US and the UK," he said.

"There is tremendous potential in that trade deal - I say probably two and even three times of what we are doing right now."

Now is the time for Mr Varadkar to make the counterpoints.

He must remind Mr Trump of the huge US political and economic investment in building peace in the North. This US work extended to people in Mr Trump's own Republican Party as well as his rival Democrats.

The Taoiseach must use the time to drive home the real dangers surrounding a no-deal Brexit. He must point out that the fallout from this would impair many US investments in Ireland and Irish investments in the US.

The tone of Mr Varadkar's messages to Mr Trump must be as courteous as it can be. But it cannot lack candour or a quiet forcefulness.

These are the central elements of today's encounter at Shannon Airport. The courtesies will, we trust, be rigorously observed on the Irish side. The Taoiseach must stress that the president of the United States is always welcome as the democratically elected leader of a country with which Ireland has very strong and venerable links.

Irish Independent

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