Friday 20 September 2019

Editorial: 'Johnson's visit kindles faint hopes - but turmoil goes on'

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Getty
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Getty


It is often hard to find the right side of the line between assertion and aggression. But in fairness to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, he found the right side of that line yesterday as he played host to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Dublin.

At his first face-to-face meeting with Mr Johnson, the Taoiseach struck a tone of warm welcome which was courteous and friendly. But he also articulated Ireland's key concerns around the departure of our nearest neighbour from the European trade bloc upon which Ireland has staked its hopes for a prosperous and peaceful future.

In fairness to Mr Johnson, he also behaved with some grace and courtesy. He modulated his language and spoke with some concern about Ireland's legitimate concerns.

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Courtesy and good manners are the indispensable tools of international diplomacy and good neighbourly relations between nations. It was encouraging to see these being honoured on this visit - but while such attributes are helpful, of themselves they are not enough.

So, we are left going back over Mr Johnson's words especially to see what signs of hope they may offer us, a little over seven weeks away from a Brexit deadline which threatens a UK no-deal crash-out bringing economic calamity and worse to the people of these islands.

It was notable that the UK prime minister admitted that a no-deal Brexit would be a "failure of statecraft" which would damage both the UK and Ireland. He also confirmed signals emanating from London in recent days that he would be willing to see agriculture and food treated as part of an "all-Ireland economy" based on EU rules after Brexit.

It would ensure no health checks on produce passing over the Border between Ireland north and south. That would be positive but a huge deal short of what is required. Agrifood is not the only thing traded across the Border, and addressing product standards to respect EU single market rules still leaves open the prospect of big tariffs under the World Trade Organisation rules in the event of no deal.

It was encouraging that Mr Johnson hinted at a partial climbdown on demands to end the Irish backstop before he can agree a Brexit deal. Since his appointment as UK PM on July 24, he has been insisting the backstop must be scrapped entirely.

But Mr Johnson suggested that he was looking for assurances that the UK would not be trapped indefinitely in the arrangement. He said "the landing zone", or potential five-to-midnight EU-UK compromise, would turn around finding a way out of the backstop for the UK, while giving Ireland the assurances it required.

So, there were some grounds for hope from this brief meeting between the Taoiseach and his UK counterpart. We shall watch developments closely over the coming days and weeks.

But the turmoil continues in UK politics and its parliament effectively shuts down for five weeks as Brexit heads towards its endgame.

Time is short and uncertainty persists.

Irish Independent

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