Monday 19 August 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Should a cliff-face Brexit occur, the reckoning will focus on EU's best interests - if push comes to shove and they diverge from ours, then Ireland will be sacrificed'

German chancellor Angela Merkel and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Gerry Mooney
German chancellor Angela Merkel and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

I don't buy the version of events about Angela Merkel, the most powerful politician in Europe, coming to Dublin to give us that word salad about how we're not to worry because she's on Ireland's side - one for all and all for one yadda yadda.

No, she wanted to look Leo Varadkar in the eye, preferably scaring the living daylights out of the man, and quiz him on how precisely he proposes to safeguard the single market in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Details, please, she must have said. Preferably with spreadsheets.

The German Chancellor was inspecting the Taoiseach's homework and we can presume he's done it, even if he doesn't want it shouted from the rooftops on the basis of least said, soonest mended.

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Should a cliff-face Brexit occur, the political reckoning will focus primarily on the EU's best interests - if push comes to shove and they diverge from Ireland's, then Ireland will be sacrificed. But Europe doesn't want to be blamed for negative repercussions ranging from chaos to catastrophe. So its leaders are keen to help minimise disruption.

Currently, Theresa May is in last-minute negotiations - make that last-nanosecond negotiations - with Jeremy Corbyn. Having taken almost three years to get nowhere, she is belatedly engaging with Labour as her best chance of securing Commons approval for an orderly Brexit.

Fortunately for Ireland, Labour favours remaining in the customs union, previously one of Mrs May's red lines.

If those discussions collapse and Britain crashes out, Border checks are inevitable. Outside the EU, there are no borders anywhere in the world without some physical infrastructure.

While a certain amount can be done in factories, abattoirs and ports, some agrifood inspections, including livestock examination, will have to take place at the Border flashpoint. Maybe not at once following a hard Brexit but soon after.

Glanbia says it brings 130 million litres of milk annually into the Republic from the North. Will that be held up to sour at crossing points while arrangements take time to bed down?

Some side-dressing was laid on with Mrs Merkel's visit. She met victims of the Troubles and people who live along the Border. Those delegates had an important message to share but none of it was news to her.

Ventilating it in the British parliament would be more helpful because many MPs remain clueless about Ireland.

The obvious solution to the backstop is to abandon it in favour of a border along the Irish Sea. Special status for the North, with all the advantages of EU membership, was the gift horse offered by the EU in December 2017, accepted by Theresa May but slapped on its rump and sent galloping off by the DUP.

But Nigel Dodds has already signalled a shift. "I would stay in the European Union and remain, rather than risk Northern Ireland's position.

"That's how strongly I feel about the Union," he says now. To my mind, special status could be usefully considered again.

Mrs May, who must have a template letter by this stage with a blank left for the date, has asked Europe for yet another extension, to June 30. "Sorry, it's not me it's you," seems to be the kind of letter she'll receive back.

After all, it's the British parliament which must decide how long an extension is needed, followed by an instruction to this most neutered of premiers to request that date. A year with conditions attached seems to be the likeliest bet.

But the longer the extension, the more infighting among Tories. It also allows time for a People's Vote to be held. Neither appeals to Mrs May. But what she likes is becoming increasingly irrelevant. A leak suggests that ministers are considering giving MPs a vote on whether to hold a referendum on the deal as part of the talks with Labour.

Most Labour MPs and activists support this but some in the party's upper echelons don't want another referendum - especially if they represent Leave constituencies.

Meanwhile, a no-deal Brexit means direct rule in Northern Ireland, we have been told. Although Commons leader Andrea Leadsom suggests it be called something else, in a fine example of spin over substance.

Direct rule, like a hard Border, would fan the flames that could lead to the Troubles reigniting. But Tory priorities spare little attention for the North.

Still, chin up, the European Research Group is looking less than united. The Boris and Jacob Rees-Mogg have wobbled and voted for the government's Withdrawal Agreement while other colleagues remain diehard.

"My only condition is the position of the DUP," Jacob Rees-Mogg assured the BBC. "I won't abandon the DUP because I think they are the guardians of the union of the United Kingdom." Two days later, the guardians went overboard.

I have a friend who calls Mr Rees-Mogg the Child Catcher. He does, indeed, look unnervingly like that terrifying lurker in 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'.

However, his recent tweet urging British MEPS to be disruptive within the EU could lead to something constructive, paradoxically enough. He suggests they block plans for an EU army and more integration; many would agree that overreach from Brussels should be resisted.

Could England be any more divided? Short of public rioting? Oh yes, it could. European elections appear to be on the horizon and they will be nasty.

At the very least, an election campaign for MEPs, short of voting, may take place because Mrs May has confirmed Britain is to start preparations.

A costly business - the price won't be in pounds and pence alone. Nigel Farage is running; expect the acrimonious rhetoric to heighten.

Nobody can suppose Europe relishes the prospect of British MEPs being petulant in Brussels and Strasbourg but there are legalities which make it necessary - the EU can't allow some of its citizens to be disenfranchised (a problem in Northern Ireland, too).

Mrs May has a cunning plan, however. She's hoping to cancel the election as late as the day before polling day on May 23, if parliament lets her Withdrawal Agreement through by May 22.

So many deadlines, so few met. Next week's April 12 deadline is meaningless, nothing more than an attempt to force British politicians to make a decision. And still Mrs May limps on. She was given a year's grace after surviving her last challenge to her leadership just four months ago.

It's possible, however, she could be leaned on to step down voluntarily - they may not have thumbscrews in their armoury any more, but those Tory grandees can make life unpleasant for her.

We're still watching misrule in action over at the House of Commons. Even the building itself has developed frayed nerves, judging by that leak it sprang on Thursday.

Irish Independent

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