Coveney refuses to apologise for ‘stubborn’ Brexit talks strategy

Tánaiste jokes that one of his English uncles voted to leave EU – ‘the one I don’t talk to’

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said at this stage of Brexit negotiations, Ireland needs to be protected. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said at this stage of Brexit negotiations, Ireland needs to be protected. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


Tánaiste Simon Coveney said he would “make no apologies” for the Government being “overly stubborn or persistent” in pushing the British to commit to the so-called backstop option to avoid a hard Irish Border.

Speaking at a Brexit conference in Dublin, Mr Coveney, the Government’s lead Brexit minister, said negotiations between the EU and UK were in “a critical phase” over stalled progress on finding a solution to avoid a hard Border on the island of Ireland.

“Certainly, it would be easier not to be so persistent about this and to be reassured that everything will simply work at the time in the context of the future relationship discussions but I’m afraid we can’t do that – we can’t take that risk,” he told a conference hosted by the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants.

The Tánaiste said that at this stage of the negotiations Ireland “needs to be protected” and is “not going to be separated from the pack” of the remaining 26 EU member states.

Mr Coveney said the backstop, which would keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs union and the single market to avoid a hard border without another option, was the “only visible solution” on the table.

Protecting the peace process was why the Government was “so adamant” about legally operable backstop being agreed by the next European Council meeting of EU leaders at the end of June, he said.

“Personally, I think if we don’t have progress in June we are in for a very difficult summer with negotiations. It is important to be honest about that now with our friends and colleagues in London,” he said.

Mr Coveney said his “personal view” was that the transition period after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019 was that it was going to take more than two years.

He told the audience of civil servants at the Morrison Hotel in Dublin city centre that it was important in Brexit negotiations that what politicians and public servants say “constantly tally and I don’t go off on some tangent for political reasons or the civil service doesn’t feel the need to correct the political system.”

The Tánaiste praised British civil servants as arguably the best in the world and spoke of the importance of close relations between senior Irish and British officials in the negotiations.

Moving forward

“The kind of conversations that they can have to anticipate and compensate for the lack of political progress at times is really important to keep this whole thing moving forward,” he said.

He stressed how critical the Brexit negotiations were and how Britain’s departure from the EU would change relations between Ireland and the UK and between the EU and the UK.

“This is not a case of a political storm that we must weather and at the end of it when we get out the other side, everything goes back to normal,” he said.

“This is a political challenge that is going to permanently change the relationship for future generations in Ireland in the context of how we interact, how we trade and how we work with our closest neighbour.”

Mr Coveney repeated his view that it was “not helpful” to be calling for border polls on the island of Ireland in the middle of Brexit negotiations.

“It feeds and fuels polarisation in Northern Ireland which at a time when we are trying to provide practical, sensible solutions for Brexit,” he said.

Talking about the close Anglo-Irish relations even within his own family, Mr Coveney admitted that one of his English uncles on his mother’s side voted for Brexit – “the one I don’t talk to,” he said, to laughs.

Another speaker, Dave Penman, general secretary of the British civil servants’ union, the FDA, said the absence of clear political direction in the UK was “the biggest threat” to an orderly Brexit.

“We have situation where the civil service are having to negotiate effectively with both hands tied behind their back; it is unclear what they are being asked to deliver; the government can’t agree with itself,” he said.

Brendan Halligan, former secretary of the Labour Party and a one-time MEP, told the conference that there was a “very mild chance” of a cliff-edge Brexit where the UK would leave the EU without a deal leading to a “legal, economic and political blackout” the morning after Britain departs in 10 months’ time.

“I think that the car crash is very much on the cards,” he said.

Mr Halligan said that, “thinking the unthinkable” post-Brexit, there was a possibility of the UK breaking up “as a consequence of the driving force behind Brexit, which is English nationalism.”

“It has reached the stage where economics doesn’t matter; ideology has been triumphant,” he said.

He found it “slightly frightening” that Northern Ireland had come back on the political agenda and said Northern nationalists were determined “they are not going to go back into a cage” post-Brexit.

Emer Deane, director of the Brexit team in Ireland’s Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels, described Brexit as “the biggest change management project we have ever had to deal with.”