Dublin could only watch on as Westminster lurched from one crisis to another
Juncker wanted a ‘verbal handshake’ with Varadkar before any sign-off with May
The Cabinet adjourned once more, with Ministers and officials – sustained by late-night sandwiches – gathering around televisions to watch the joint May-Juncker press conference. Photographer: Alex Kraus/Bloomberg
As British prime minister Theresa May prepared to fly to Strasbourg to meet European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker on Monday, some in Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s inner circle noted an omission from her travelling party.
May’s attorney general Geoffrey Cox was not on the plane, according to Twitter feeds being scanned in Government Buildings.
On Tuesday morning, Cox declared the “legal risk” of Britain being unable to unilaterally exit the provisions of the backstop, the insurance mechanism to avoid a hard border, remained.
His advice – essentially unchanged since late last year – torpedoed May’s chances of getting the withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons later that evening.
The backstop, once more the main obstacle to Westminster supporting the Brexit deal, was also the subject of one last push from the UK in the hours before May left for Strasbourg.
The mood at a scheduled Cabinet meeting in Dublin on Monday morning was downbeat, with no major Brexit breakthrough expected soon. Around the time the meeting was concluding, however, word reached Dublin that the UK was making a push for a deal.
“We got word there was a new attempt by the British to move things on,” said one well-placed source.
The first two documents of the new package of assurances on the Brexit deal - a joint interpretive instrument on the backstop and a statement on the political declaration, which sketches out the post-Brexit relationship between the EU and UK - had been agreed over the preceding days.
The third element, a unilateral declaration on the backstop, was still in play.
Dublin became aware the UK was once more attempting to engineer a form of words in this document that would allow it declare it could leave the backstop of its own accord.
Those among Varadkar’s staff who were due to travel as part of the Taoiseach’s delegation to Washington DC for the annual St Patrick’s Day programme were already in Dublin Airport on Monday afternoon.
Three of their number – secretary general to the Government Martin Fraser, Varadkar’s chief of staff Brian Murphy and Attorney General Séamus Woulfe – were called back to keep abreast of developments and to prepare for another Cabinet meeting later that evening. Woulfe’s luggage had already cleared airport security.
The initial plan was for Varadkar to be on the ground in Washington a day early so he could watch Tuesday’s House of Commons vote on the Brexit deal, but Government officials had “gamed out” different scenarios which would allow the Taoiseach to fly on either Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, ahead of his meeting with US president Donald Trump on Thursday.
Sources said it had initially been envisaged that May would travel to meet Juncker on the Sunday evening, but difficulties in negotiations had set the chain of events back 24 hours.
The previous Saturday evening, Varadkar, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, the Minister for European Affairs Helen McEntee and their respective partners dined in Dublin with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, and his sons Nicolas and Benjamin. The Barniers had rented an apartment for the weekend to attend the Ireland-France Six Nations game.
It was initially hoped that Barnier would arrive in Dublin the previous day to meet Coveney, pay Varadkar a courtesy call and inspect new customs facilities at Dublin Port, but business in Brussels delayed his arrival in Ireland. And on Sunday evening, Barnier was said to be anxious to return to Brussels.
As his staff headed to the airport on Monday, the Taoiseach remained in Government Buildings all day with Coveney and key officials, including Ireland’s Brexit sherpa John Callinan. Varadkar spoke to Juncker throughout the day, and contact between officials in Dublin and the commission’s task force continued.
The latest British effort to neuter the backstop had been rejected by the commission almost as soon as it was floated.
A unilateral exit clause had been repeatedly rejected by Brussels. Government figures wondered if this was yet one more push so May could tell her MPs she had tried to the last, or an effort to enable Cox change his advice.
Either way, it is understood to have been ruled-out before May even left London for Strasbourg, but the British prime minister still needed a deal.
And while there was some to-ing and fro-ing between the task force and Dublin on the wording of the unilateral declaration, it is stressed by senior Government figures that the EU never asked anything of Ireland that it could not accept.
“There was no point when we were at odds with the commission,” said one figure. “There were never any moments where they said: we think you should give them this.”
Varadkar called another Cabinet meeting, and whatever Ministers were around convened in Government Buildings at 7pm. Some scrambled as best they could. McEntee drove herself from her home in Slane, Co Meath, to Dublin, eschewing the usual ministerial driver.
Coveney and Varadkar brought Ministers through the texts that had already been agreed. Varadkar briefed them that the UK wanted to use its unilateral declaration to effectively say it could leave the backstop of its own accord, but this had been rejected.
The exact wording of that document was still being negotiated in Strasbourg between May and Juncker. Real business, and not just ceremony, was taking place in the Alsatian city as Ministers met in Dublin.
“This was the 11th hour,” said one Minister. Another said: “There was a fear because we didn’t know what was being discussed [in Strasbourg]. There has been tremendous solidarity but there is that little man in the back of your head thinking, ‘we are very close now’.”
Most of the Cabinet discussion, according to one source, was on the legal standing of the UK declaration, with the Ministers satisfied that it had none.
Varadkar first adjourned the meeting to speak to Juncker, get briefed on discussions with May, and relay the Government’s position. Sources said Juncker wanted a “verbal handshake” with the Taoiseach before signing-off on anything with May.
The meeting in Strasbourg was taking longer than anticipated because of the consultation with Dublin, which gave its views throughout the day on how various wordings of the UK’s unilateral declaration could be interpreted.
Eventually, the final document said the UK could instigate “measures that could ultimately lead to disapplication of obligations” under the backstop.
“That was the compromise in the end – disapply,” said a senior Irish source, adding it was made clear that the UK would also have to exhaust all arbitration methods outlined in the withdrawal agreement.
The Cabinet adjourned once more, with Ministers and officials – sustained by late-night sandwiches – gathering around televisions to watch the joint May-Juncker press conference. When it concluded, Varadkar and Coveney distributed the final agreed texts.
Woulfe had also fielded calls from some Ministers who could not attend Cabinet and the attorney general reassured them the substance of the backstop had not changed.
The following morning, Woulfe’s counterpart in the UK offered the same view.
“I thought going home last night that this was the critical point,” said one Minister on Tuesday, just after Cox had published his legal opinion which derailed May’s latest efforts to get the deal passed. “But after the last couple of hours . . .”
Once EU-UK negotiations had concluded, all Dublin could do was watch on as Westminster lurched from one crisis to another, day by day, for the rest of the week.
And as May continues to woo Brexiteers and her confidence and supply partners in the DUP this weekend – ahead of another vote on the Brexit deal next week – one senior Government figure warned against making any further unilateral UK statements on the backstop.
“The EU would have a difficulty with that.”