British government realises Brexit is a mistake, official says

John Callinan claims London is aware that leaving the EU is an ‘act of great self-harm’

The British government is slowly realising Brexit is "an act of great self-harm" and that upcoming EU-UK negotiations must seek to limit the damage, the State's top Brexit official has said.

The official, John Callinan, said on Thursday: “I see signs in the contacts that we’re having, both at EU level and with the UK, of a gradual realisation that Brexit in many ways is an act of great self-harm, and that the focus now is on minimising that self-harm.”

The remarks by Mr Callinan, the second secretary-general at the Department of the Taoiseach, were delivered at a Brexit seminar organised by the trade unions Impact and Siptu.

Mr Callinan also highlighted the existence of internal divisions on the British side just weeks out from the start of formal withdrawal negotiations with the EU, saying it was clear there was “no single, settled position” on Brexit in London.


“Even within the British government, there are very different views,” he said.

Mr Callinan, along with other Irish officials and Ministers, has been in regular contact with his British counterparts since the UK’s referendum on EU membership last June, in an effort to push key Dublin concerns to the top of the Brexit agenda.

The issues discussed include the future of the Border, the peace process and the Common Travel Area.

Having previously argued that Brexit must mean an end to the free movement of EU citizens into the UK, the UK’s contributions to the EU budget and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, British prime minister Theresa May last week acknowledged that some of these arrangements may continue for some time after Brexit.

Mr Callinan, who heads a team of officials from the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs charged with co-ordinating the Government’s Brexit response, said Ms May had to navigate “a delicate home situation” in which “oversimplistic views of what Brexit is and what it will do to Britain” were “front and centre” of public debate.

He compared the scale of the Brexit challenge facing the Government to “running an EU presidency for six months while dealing with an issue perhaps on the scale of the bailout”.

Outlining diplomatic efforts so far, he said there had been more than 400 engagements with EU counterparts on Brexit since last June’s referendum result.

Diplomatic campaign

He said the intensive diplomatic campaign, which drew in all Ministers, departments and Irish Embassies overseas, had resulted in widespread acknowledgment of Ireland’s unique exposure to the consequences of Brexit.

“It’s fair to say we’re seeing good support on that front,” he said.

He said that Dublin had to “navigate a delicate path” in not being seen to negotiate bilaterally with London, which might upset EU partners.

However, he said that, at the same time, “we’re unrepentant about the level of close engagement and discussion that we have been having with them [the UK]”.

The Government is satisfied that its main concerns have been strongly reflected in the formal British letter triggering article 50 - the exit clause contained in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty - and the EU’s initial negotiating guidelines, the official said.

“On the one hand, we are pleased that we have got to that point. On the other hand, in rugby parlance, it’s like winning the first lineout,” Mr Callinan said.

“It’s a good start, but we’re at the very beginning of a difficult and challenging negotiation process.”

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic is the Editor of The Irish Times