How Brexit nightmare before Christmas was ended

After Monday’s debacle, Friday’s breakthrough on Border brought welcome cheer

Relief was already a welcome guest at the table as the Cabinet sat down for its Christmas dinner in the National Gallery, next door to Leinster House, on Thursday night.

After weeks of political turmoil, Ministers gathered in a private room for a seasonal get-together that had been organised weeks earlier by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

They were already buoyed by the findings of the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll, released earlier that morning, which put Fine Gael on 36 per cent, a high not seen since 2011.

A Christmas general election had been avoided, too. But the mood lifted further when it became apparent that a breakthrough was imminent in the Brexit negotiations, and that the following morning would bring yet more cheer.


Varadkar spoke a few words of thanks to his colleagues over the fish supper, and the evening concluded at 10.30pm.

By that stage, Varadkar and his Tánaiste, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, knew the omens were good.

A series of phone calls had already taken place around teatime between Varadkar, British prime minister Theresa May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker .

May had told Dublin she was ready to accept a fresh clarification which – it was hoped – would assuage the DUP, upon whose support she relies in a confidence and supply agreement in Westminster.

She is understood to have told Varadkar she would go and do what she had to do, taken to be a reference to talking to DUP leader Arlene Foster.

Only before midnight – with text of the new clarification having passed between London, Dublin and Brussels, up to the end – was it confirmed a deal would be signed the following morning, when May flew to Brussels to meet Juncker.


Lessons had been learned from Monday’s shambolic crumbling of what Dublin had believed was agreed with London, and there was no pre-emptory announcement of press conferences.

After Monday's fiasco, John Callinan, a senior figure in the Department of the Taoiseach who has led the official government response to Brexit, began to pick up the pieces.

Callinan began informal contact with his counterpart in May's office in Downing Street, Olly Robbins, and Sabine Weyand of Michel Barnier's European Commission negotiating taskforce.

Callinan, Robbins and Weyand were the three "sherpas" who shaped the passage of Friday's Brexit deal on Ireland.

Declan Kelleher, the Irish Ambassador in Brussels, and Martin Fraser, secretary to the Government, were also centrally involved. The formal structure was that Britain negotiated through the EU, although there was bilateral contact between Dublin and London.

Ireland had initially submitted a draft of what it wanted to Barnier’s taskforce, and it was thrashed out between the three sides in Brussels on November 29th and 30th. A broad understanding was reached, and drafts were sent to Varadkar and May to consider over last weekend.

Sources said May suggested a number of changes to the key paragraph of the text, such as greater emphasis on the Border problem being solved in the context of the final EU-UK trade deal; a change to use of the term of regulatory alignment instead of no regulatory divergence; and allowing Britain to come up with its own solutions to address the Border problem.

The one thing we didn't want was a three-way discussion between the Irish Government, the British government and the DUP

On Sunday, Varadkar, Coveney, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, Minister for European Affairs Helen McEntee, Varadkar's chief of staff Brian Murphy and senior officials reviewed the state of play. Dublin believed it had a deal, only for it to fall apart following the intervention of the DUP.

The Government let it be known, both in private and public, it would not budge on the substance of what May had agreed, particularly the crucial guarantee there would be no hard Border in any circumstances, even if Britain left the EU without striking an exit deal.


A clarification that would not damage the thrust of the deal would be acceptable, however. A suggestion by Brexit secretary David Davis the UK as a whole could take on "regulatory alignment" – an implied soft Brexit – surprised some in Dublin.

“We don’t know if they meant that all along,” said one source.

The Government insisted the last-minute problem had to be solved by Britain and calls of support for the Irish position came in from other European capitals. The coherence of the EU was crucial, but negotiations with the DUP were not something Dublin wanted to get involved with.

"The one thing we didn't want was a three-way discussion between the Irish Government, the British government and the DUP," said one source.

While official contacts continued, Varadkar gave May space to deal with the DUP, whose demands were transmitted to Dublin and Brussels.

One of the changes requested by the DUP, it is understood, was to change the phrase “Good Friday Agreement” throughout the text to the “1998 Agreement”. The change was duly made, an amendment Dublin put down to DUP indifference to an accord it never signed.

Sources said London had a “good nose” for what would be acceptable in Dublin, and Callinan is understood to have screened some ideas before presenting them to Varadkar, Coveney and others.

A phone call between May and Varadkar on Wednesday evening helped lift the mood, and allowed both leaders explain their positions.

The new paragraph of clarification was presented to Dublin and Brussels early on Thursday and was assessed in Government Buildings once more by Varadkar and his team.

A day of hectic activity, with suggested changes, followed before a final agreement was reached.

May was going to travel to Brussels first thing on Friday, and while there was a feeling she couldn’t come back empty-handed a second time, nervousness still lingered.

Given the cautious welcome from the DUP yesterday, Dublin assumed May had faced Foster down and there was to be no last-minute upset this time.