Wednesday 18 September 2019

Kevin Doyle: 'A whirlwind Brexit week dumped us all right back where we started'

State talks: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon and Chief Minister of Jersey John Le Fondre at the British-Irish Council’s summit on the Isle of Man. Photo: PA
State talks: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon and Chief Minister of Jersey John Le Fondre at the British-Irish Council’s summit on the Isle of Man. Photo: PA
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

More than three decades after Ulster first began to say 'no', the DUP is yet again chanting Ian Paisley's slogan.

It was last December when Arlene Foster first stormed into Downing Street to warn she could not countenance anything that would create an effective border down the Irish Sea.

Nearly 12 months on, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has indicated that scenario is still on the table - and Foster is again threatening to pull the support of her 10 MPs who prop up the Conservative government.

The situation is as predictable as it is intractable.

The DUP leader said yesterday her party has "only one red line" which is that Northern Ireland cannot be distanced from their "precious union".

At the same time, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said this week: "We haven't had many red lines in these negotiations, but one we have had is that we must have a legal guarantee that a hard border will not emerge on the island of Ireland."

As the clock ticks on towards a 'no deal' scenario, May appears unable to make those red lines meet. Foster and Varadkar can't both get their way, which means the prime minister must decide who she needs more.

The DUP has kept her in power, but if she fails to do a deal with the EU, she will most likely become powerless anyway in the face of an economic collapse.

"She has to do the maths around all of that to see whether she can proceed without our support in parliament," Foster said last night.

The numbers don't look good and the prime minister's cause wasn't helped by the resignation of Boris Johnson's brother Jo from cabinet yesterday.

He voted 'Remain' but now feels the two options on the table - a UK-wide customs arrangement with a Northern Ireland backstop, or no deal - represent "a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis".

Varadkar spent most of the week in Helsinki, where he enjoyed sharing a stage with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Council President Donal Tusk.

The future of the European Union was very much on the agenda at the European People's Party (EPP) conference.

Much of the talk focused on the threats to the EU from populism, with chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warning: "There is a now a Farage in every country."

Brexit was far from top of the agenda but it lurked ominously in the background.

A high level of solidarity and sympathy is being afforded to Ireland - but there's no doubt EU leaders really want a deal in the coming days. Pressure is coming down on the Irish to show some flexibility to May if it helps her "land the plane safely".

Varadkar said he was willing to use "creative language" to pacify Brexiteers. For some reason, he was surprised when this sparked alarm in Dublin.

His openness to discuss a "review mechanism" under which the backstop could be ended may have been motivated by the desire to help May - but it came a day after it was revealed UK Brexit secretary Dominic Raab wanted any customs arrangement to last just three months.

Varadkar quickly went back to his original script - the Northern Ireland backstop must stay "unless and until" a new trade deal which ensures an open Border is agreed.

Meanwhile at the British-Irish Council, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon found herself in a "heated debate" with Theresa May's deputy over how the whole mess is playing out.

So after another whirlwind of activity, everyone has retreated back to their trenches, rehashing the same old arguments again.

Q&A: Have we made any new progress on Brexit?

This was hyped as the week we would finally see the UK's withdrawal agreement. What happened?

Theresa May pulled back from briefing her cabinet on the full plan because she is still unsure it will approve. She needs ministers to back it or the country could be heading for a 'no deal' scenario and possibly a general election.

Had they reached a compromise on the Irish Border question?

The EU has conceded to the idea of a UK-wide customs arrangement rather than one that applies exclusively to the North. However, the Irish Government insists a 'backstop' for the North must also be agreed in case the UK leaves the customs arrangement at some stage. Mrs May admitted this could see the North operate under different regulatory rules.

But the DUP made it clear a year ago that it wouldn't tolerate any regulatory divergence from the rest of the UK?

DUP leader Arlene Foster has been consistent in saying any deal to maintain frictionless trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic cannot lead to checks on the Irish Sea.

Can Theresa May just ignore the DUP?

Any deal will have to be passed in the UK Parliament, which means the PM needs to count her numbers carefully. Ideally, she needs the DUP's 10 MPs on board.

Will a 'review mechanism' help Theresa May get this over the line?

The PM rang Leo Varadkar to ask if he would be open to including an exit clause in the 'backstop'.

He agreed to look at the idea - but made it clear the backstop must be in place "unless and until" a better arrangement is devised.

Irish Independent

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