Tuesday 22 October 2019

Kevin Doyle: 'Let them eat fudge: Brexit deal now in sight as Irish backstop is wrapped up in shiny Union Jack paper'

'The consequences of a ‘no deal’ scenario for this island would be catastrophic in terms of trade.' Stock photo: PA Wire/PA Images
'The consequences of a ‘no deal’ scenario for this island would be catastrophic in terms of trade.' Stock photo: PA Wire/PA Images
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Strap yourself in, it's going to be another week of Brexitmania where fact and fiction are hard to tell apart.

The Sunday newspapers were always going to play an agenda-setting role in UK Prime Minister Theresa May's battle to get her latest Brexit plan to cabinet this week.

She needed to own the narrative, thereby preventing Boris Johnson or David Davis from grabbing the headlines as they have done so often in the past.

'May's secret Brexit deal' was the headline in Murdoch's pro-Brexit 'Sunday Times' in London yesterday.

The introductory paragraphs told us, courtesy of British government sources, that Mrs May had "secured private concessions from Brussels" that will keep the whole of the UK in a customs union for a time, helping to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

So far, so good. Officials in Dublin were pleased with the story.

Then they came to the bit where a "senior Whitehall source" explained: "It's UK-wide - success. There's an exit mechanism - success. And you've got Canada. The small print is that Ireland is f***ed."

While the line initially led to some deep intakes of breath in Dublin, it was ultimately dismissed as "spin".

What did they mean "Ireland is f***ed?" Well, the translation which officials here decided to adopt was that the UK believes Ireland is "f***ing annoying because they won't back down".

A spokesperson for Tánaiste Simon Coveney was unusually candid when I rang him yesterday: "Brexit negotiations are for serious people, not anonymous clowns."

The statement which came from the Foreign Minister's office was a little more diplomatic, pointing out that the 'Sunday Times' piece (a rewritten version of which appeared in the Irish edition) "is obviously aimed at a UK audience".

The statement also noted: "The UK has given written commitments last December and March that the Withdrawal Agreement will give a legal guarantee of no return to a hard border in Ireland in any circumstances - this is the backstop."

Indeed Mrs May's deputy, David Lidington, said on a visit to Dublin last Friday: "I cannot emphasise strongly enough that the prime minister feels absolutely committed to her pledge not to have under any circumstances a hard border on the island of Ireland."

In that scenario, it's hard to see exactly how Whitehall believes Ireland is "f***ed" - but perhaps these are the things that need to be said in order to get this across the line.

Sources here noted they would actually have been more concerned if the hard-line Brexiteers or the DUP had been out yesterday talking about their "precious union" and "red lines".

For a long time now, the EU, including Ireland, has been holding up Theresa May as those within her own party sought to knock her over.

The view from Brussels has been that she is the only person in the UK cabinet who understands the reality of what is at stake.

But the time has come for the prime minister to take a leap. The Brexit bomb is about to detonate and she can limit the damage by jumping on top of it.

"She needs to make a politics move," one Dublin-based source said.

With the divorce bill settled at €44bn and a deal done on recognising the rights of EU/UK citizens, the Irish question should never have taken so long to resolve.

We live in strange times. Had Mrs May's government not been propped up by the DUP, then it's likely she would have signed off on an agreement long ago. Some form of customs checks would have sprung up in the Irish Sea and life would have moved on for most people.

Instead, we are now hearing about the birth of a more complicated fudge whereby the UK will stay inside a "customs arrangement". Mrs May will say this is only temporary which then means it must include a "sub-clause" acknowledging Northern Ireland can't leave "unless and until" another mechanism for avoiding a hard border is found.

And that, folks, is the "Irish backstop" hidden inside a "UK-wide backstop". The hope is Arlene Foster won't notice the detail because it'll be packaged in shiny Union Jack wrapping paper.

Everybody will say the Northern Ireland element of the "insurance policy" will never be required.

However, Mr Coveney (through the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier) will insist that we require it to be written down.

If Mrs May manages that, then we will know the final shape of the Withdrawal Agreement this week.

Europe remains very much in a state of hope rather than expectation when it comes to the prime minister's ability to deliver.

But all sides know the time for reality to replace rhetoric has now come.

Maybe the comments about Ireland being f***ed can be viewed in that light: A final slice of mud cake thrown across the Irish Sea before we all decide to be friends again.

Of course, the Taoiseach probably didn't help the situation with his remarks on RTÉ radio over the weekend.

He spoke the truth, saying: "Brexit has undermined the Good Friday Agreement and it is fraying relationships between Britain and Ireland.

"Anything that pulls the two communities apart in Northern Ireland undermines the Good Friday Agreement and anything that pulls Britain and Ireland apart undermines that relationship."

Northern Ireland is like the abused child in this relationship as its parents row over their divorce.

Leo Varadkar didn't need to point out the obvious breakdown in Anglo-Irish relations at this key moment.

His comments were replayed time and again on the British media yesterday. The substance of his statement was lost in the sneering and jeering from Brexiteers.

In any event, it's now understood all ministers have been effectively banned from the UK airwaves until they see how tomorrow plays out.

There will be plenty more twists and turns before the deal gets across the line.

All the signs are that there will be one because the alternative is too scary even for those most anti-EU of Brexiteers.

It's now two years and five months since Britain voted to leave the EU.

Some still argue the public should get a second chance to decide on whether that was the right result - but we are about to pass the point of no return.

The consequences of a 'no deal' scenario for this island would be catastrophic in terms of trade. But, perhaps more importantly, these torturous negotiations should serve as a warning that a no-deal Brexit would leave Anglo-Irish relations hanging by a thread. To steal a phrase, they would be f***ed.

So all eyes are on Theresa May. Let them eat fudge.

Irish Independent

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