Border deal a triumph for Government in Brexit talks
News review of the year: conundrum of frictionless Border remains unresolved
Protection of a frictionless border between the two parts of Ireland was accepted as one of the three key concerns of the EU that would have to be addressed in the first phase of Brexit talks. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/EPA
The prominence given to the Border in the first phase of the Brexit agreement represented a significant triumph for the Government. It was an achievement for which both political leaders and senior officials deserve credit but it is only the first stage in a complex process.
At the beginning of 2017 it was clear that Brexit would be the most important challenge facing Ireland in decades. Not many would have forecast that the first phase of the talks would end up on such a positive note for this country.
In fact many commentators forecast that Irish concerns would be pushed to one side when the European Union and the British government locked horns.
That the opposite happened is a tribute to Irish diplomacy and also to the solidarity shown by the European Commission and the other 26 EU member states.
Former taoiseach Enda Kenny played an important role from the start in ensuring that Irish concerns were known to his fellow EU leaders. He received vital support in this effort from European Commissioner Phil Hogan as well as from the Irish diplomatic team in Brussels and other EU capitals.
When Kenny was under pressure to step down in February one of the factors that persuaded his opponents in Fine Gael not to push the issue was his importance in the Brexit talks.
During his long period as party leader he had developed important contacts with a range of prime ministers through his involved with the European People’s Party and that opened a lot of doors to him.
Following the triggering of article 50 by British prime minister Theresa May at the end of March the formulation of the EU response was critical for Ireland.
In the event the protection of a frictionless border between the two parts of Ireland was accepted as one of the three key concerns of the EU that would have to be addressed in the first phase of the talks, along with the financial settlement and citizens’ rights.
Once that decision was made Kenny announced his intention to step down from office and new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar took over responsibility for ensuring that Irish concerns remained to the fore as the phase-one negotiations proceeded.
Whether the new 38-year-old Taoiseach would be up to the job of representing Irish interests at European level at this vital point in our history was the big question.
In the event he appeared totally unfazed at his first European Council meeting in June and in subsequent one-to-one engagements with other European leaders he grew in confidence.
The deal finally agreed in early December between the EU and the UK reflected Irish concerns in a more direct and unambiguous manner than had been widely expected.
The panic reaction of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which forced May to abandon the initial draft during a highly embarrassing meeting in Brussels with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker threatened to undo the hard work.
In the second version of the deal which emerged a few days later Irish concerns remained intact albeit accompanied with reassurances to the DUP that Northern Ireland would not be treated differently from the rest of the UK.
The perception of Varadkar standing firm against the British and the DUP boosted his popularity, as reflected in an Irish Times poll conducted at the height of the crisis.
However, the central conundrum relating to a frictionless Border remains. How can it survive if the UK leaves the European single market and the customs union? That is the big question that all sides will have to face in the year ahead.