Wednesday 18 September 2019

Kevin Doyle: 'Ministers held their breath as UK went into deal meltdown'

Brexit anger: Protesters outside Downing Street in Westminster, London, yesterday. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Brexit anger: Protesters outside Downing Street in Westminster, London, yesterday. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

The only consistent thing about Brexit is the amount of bluster it inspires from politicians.

As soon as news emerged that a deal was in the offing on Tuesday, there was a race to the camera at Westminster.

Boris Johnson was there. So too was Nigel Dodds. Jacob Rees-Mogg seemed to be everywhere.

But Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was in the Dáil playing dumb and denying he knew anything about the conclusion of the negotiations.

An hour later his spokesman sounded like 'Comical Ali' at the weekly briefing for political correspondents, repeatedly insisting the Irish Government knew nothing of a final text.

As phones in the room pinged with the latest updates from London and Brussels, the spokesman suggested negotiations were ongoing.

In reality, Tánaiste Simon Coveney had a full briefing on the draft deal on Monday when he met with the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier - but he was sworn to secrecy.

Compromises had been made but the Irish side were "content" with what was on the table.

Since the referendum on June 23, 2016, Dublin's main objective was to find a way of ensuring the Border with Northern Ireland remains open. The proposal making its way to Theresa May's desk fulfilled that aim.

Under normal circumstances, news of the latest 'backstop' would have found itself into the media by yesterday, but Mr Coveney and Mr Varadkar made a decision that if it was to be leaked, it wouldn't come from Dublin.

They learned a harsh lesson last December when there was a rush to claim victory over the United Kingdom in the initial stages.

A press conference was called but Europe's media was left waiting outside Government Buildings in the cold as the DUP raced across the Irish Sea for a showdown with Theresa May.

Two days of arguments followed and a blame game erupted. Government sources claimed DUP leader Arlene Foster "set out to villainise" the Taoiseach and Tánaiste with statements that were "utterly untrue".

And a spokesperson for the Taoiseach was forced to give a "categorical denial" that he had told the British government not to show the DUP the deal.

It was the moment Anglo-Irish relations really began to deteriorate towards their lowest ebb in two decades.

Eventually Mr Varadkar did appear in public to say that he had secured a "cast-iron" guarantee that there would be no hard Border - but the success was somewhat tainted.

So this time around there would be no triumphalism. Instead ministers were briefed to sit back and quietly watch the madness unfold.

In any event, Mr Johnson and Mr Rees-Mogg were making it clear which side 'won'.

The former foreign secretary was protesting: "For the first time since partition, Dublin under these proposals will have more say in some aspects of the government of Northern Ireland than London."

Mr Rees-Mogg was fuming about "white flags all over Whitehall".

By the time Mrs May's Cabinet was concluding its meeting yesterday evening, the DUP was in full-blown meltdown with Sammy Wilson comparing the deal to a "punishment beating".

Meanwhile, ministers were asked to hand in their mobile phones and iPads as they went into yesterday morning's Cabinet meeting.

Nobody was allowed take away any documentation. And the message was clear: 'Do not discuss Brexit with anybody.'

In the Dáil by requirement rather than choice to answer questions, Mr Varadkar declined to get involved in a debate saying he didn't want to risk saying something which "might up-end it or make things any more difficult than they already are for the prime minister".

With unusual discipline, Mr Varadkar's ministers held their breath before finally releasing a huge gasp of relief last night.

Irish Independent

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