Tuesday 23 July 2019

Laura Larkin: 'When this Brexit farce is finally solved, we may need to re-evaluate our place in new-look EU'

Tánaiste Simon Coveney. Picture: Justin Farrelly
Tánaiste Simon Coveney. Picture: Justin Farrelly
Laura Larkin

Laura Larkin

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Tánaiste Simon Coveney have repeatedly underlined the importance of Ireland's relationship with Britain post-Brexit - but just how solid will that relationship be?

During the fraught negotiations before a compromise was found on the Border issue, Mr Coveney said Anglo-Irish relationships were being "tested" by Brexit talks. It was, as is often his approach, an understated assessment of the situation.

For people on this island it was inevitable that Ireland would become irrevocably intertwined in Britain's exit from the EU from the moment the referendum was triggered. But it was never really part of the debate across the Irish Sea. With the question of Ireland scarcely rearing its head prior to negotiations, for many in the UK it has become at best surprising and at worst repugnant that it is Ireland that is at the heart of the thing.

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The backstop, or Irish backstop as it is known everywhere but here, has become shorthand for the dissatisfaction in Westminster with the deal that has been secured. The so-called insurance policy to prevent the re-emergence of the Border represents everything that Brexiteers find abhorrent about the proposed deal and risks tying the UK to Europe indefinitely. Meanwhile, supporters of it are pressing home the fact that without a deal - and any deal requires a backstop - the risk is that there will be no Brexit at all. In either assessment it is the Irish question and not immigration, money or security that could ultimately derail Brexit.

It will take a skilled strain of diplomatic yoga to avoid Ireland assuming the blame for either outcome.

The Government has to date been pursuing a diplomatic strategy guided by the adage that the less said soonest mended, conscious that Irish contributions in the UK political fray are lightning rods among arch-Brexiteers and Eurosceptics.

But the diplomatic approach by Mr Varadkar and his team has still drawn ire from ardent Brexiteers and in some quarters of the British press; almost anything uttered has the potential to be picked up as a threat. For obvious reasons Ireland has played up its allegiance to Europe, shoring up support for our position.

But that strategy has not come without risks and while the constant and ardent defence of the need to avoid a Border has done its job among our EU counterparts, it has politicised the issue to the nth degree, and when Brexit happens - or doesn't - there will be bridges to be mended with London and Belfast.

In Northern Ireland too there has been much to stoke up fears of a united Ireland - something that has been seized on by the British government in a bid to push the deal through. The fragile relationship crafted between Ireland and the unionist community in Northern Ireland may emerge the most bloodied from Brexit.

A lot of the commentary has focused on the need for the UK to realise its place in the world - it is no longer a superpower, is the argument. But if the UK needs to recalibrate its internal measurement of its status then a similar stocktake may follow Brexit in Ireland.

In a post-Brexit Europe, Ireland will find itself separate from our closest neighbours and a distance from our closest allies. It will be a difficult landscape to navigate.

It is then that the question of Anglo-Irish relations will come into laser focus and that will be the real test of the strategy pursued by the Irish Government.

But for now, like everything Brexit related, the likely future state of Irish relations remains in flux.

Irish Independent

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