Brexit: UK’s inability to get past party politics ‘extraordinary’, says Coveney

Irish political parties work together while UK parties are ‘unable to agree on anything’

The inability of the British political system to see above party politics in relation to Brexit is "extraordinary", the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.

Ireland has to keep planning for the possibility that the UK will crash out of the European Union, he said.

The talks between the Conservative and Labour parties, which ended without success on Friday, had been a “real and genuine effort” to find an accommodation on Brexit, but had failed on a number of key issues.

One of these was the idea of a so-called people’s vote, or second referendum, which was something he did not think the Conservative Party can, or will be, in a position to offer.


In Ireland, he said, the two main political parties work together on Brexit, as do Sinn Féin and the Green Party, but in the UK the two main parties “seem to be unable to agree on anything”.

The more the British prime minister, Theresa May, shifts in order to accommodate the opposition, the more she loses her own people, Mr Coveney told the This Week programme on RTÉ Radio One.

He said Mrs May was trying to bring her country together and that it was not just Westminster, but all of British society, that was divided on the Brexit question.

Middle ground

“I really do think that Theresa May is a decent person trying to find a middle ground,” he said. “But her own people are impossible on this issue.”

The UK is about to make a “huge, huge decision” of generational consequence and British politicians needed to think about their country and not party politics. “I think it is extraordinary that that hasn’t happened.”

He said there were individuals in all the parties that were trying to find a consensus, but in terms of the leaderships “it hasn’t happened”.

Mr Coveney said that the personalities might change in the leadership of the Conservative Party but the facts would not.

In the UK the Brexit debate has been about party politics and personalities. Some people think that the UK could have achieved a better withdrawal deal if it had had a different prime minister, but in his view this idea was mistaken, he said.

A lot of British politicians did not understand the nature of the EU, or the situation in Northern Ireland, and had tried to “dumb this down” to a simplistic argument about Britain versus the EU, when in fact it was a case of “two friends” trying to navigate through the complexity of a very difficult agreement.

The UK is due to exit the EU on October 31st next if it cannot negotiate another extension. Mr Coveney warned that the political landscape is changing in Europe as well as the UK with the coming EU elections. Time was of the essence and the danger was that the UK’s political system would simply not be able to agree a solution before the October 31st deadline.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent