Gloss comes off Irish Government’s Brexit backstop victory

If draft treaty is destroyed, prospect of a soft, managed Brexit may evaporate with it

Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar making a statement following the announcement of the draft Brexit deal from London. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar making a statement following the announcement of the draft Brexit deal from London. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

 

The Conservative revolt against Theresa May’s proposed Brexit deal has taken the gloss off the Irish Government’s happiness at securing a draft treaty that met and exceeded its hopes, and has thrown the future of the backstop into doubt once again.

Senior Government sources confessed on Thursday that they were watching half in horror, half in fascination as the procession of resignations gave way to the counting of letters requesting a vote of confidence in Mrs May as Tory leader.

Many in Dublin expressed admiration for Mrs May’s seemingly indestructible determination to keep going no matter what is thrown at her. Few, however, express much confidence in her chances of success.

Less than 24 hours earlier, it had all looked a lot different. On Wednesday night, following the publication of the text of the draft treaty, there was quiet (and in some cases, not so quiet) delight in Irish Government circles that the Border backstop had been included in such strong terms. Indeed, with the agreement introducing a UK-wide backstop, it was better than Dublin had hoped for most of the negotiations.

At his press conference in Government Buildings on Wednesday night, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described it as “one of the better days in politics”.

Government boost

The election lobby in Fine Gael believed that the outcome would enhance Mr Varadkar’s standing politically, and talk of an early election bounced around Leinster House, as it does with every decent poll for Fine Gael or every hint of a breakthrough in Europe.

However, at a meeting of Fine Gael Ministers on Wednesday night, during a wide-ranging discussion on the political situation and the talks on the confidence-and-supply agreement, Mr Varadkar told them the window for a pre-Christmas election had closed. In reality, it was never open very wide. But a Brexit victory would be a political boost for the Government, and everyone – inside and outside the administration – knows it.

The truth is that the draft treaty was a significant achievement for the Government and the officials and diplomats who work for it.

But that may come to naught if the UK – by whatever route – walks away from the agreement it made in Brussels earlier this week.

If the UK’s commitment to the draft treaty is destroyed by the machinations of the Tory party and the ambition of the British Labour party to force a general election, several senior sources at political and official level in Dublin believe that probably means the prospect of a soft, managed Brexit has evaporated.

The choice then will be between a hard Brexit next March and a second referendum that could cancel Brexit completely – an all-or-nothing gamble that both thrills and terrifies Dublin.