Micheál Martin: Government has made strategic error on Brexit
What was said before Christmas contrasts sharply with what transpired, says FF leader
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: critical of the Government failure to push the need for State aid for companies left high and dry by Brexit. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times
“The reality of Brexit has been sheltered from a lot of people,” Micheál Martin says.
The Fianna Fáil leader, who has led his party back from the brink of oblivion after the 2011 general election is not one of life’s pessimists. But he believes there is a lack of awareness in both the Republic and the UK about just how bad Brexit is going to be.
“There is a prevalent view in the UK – ‘Ah they’ll work it out’,” he says. But it’s going to be a lot more serious than that. “I think we should let people know. We should engage more with Britain.”
The Government must share some of the blame for this, he says. He thinks he might have made more of a difference if he was in Leo Varadkar’s shoes.
“I’d like to think I would have kept better channels open with Britain.”
Fianna Fáil has also been critical of the Government’s domestic preparedness for Brexit. “The level of engagement from SMEs for example is very, very low,” he says.
Is that the Government’s fault, though?
“I think so, yeah. I think the Government should have been far more proactive.”
He is also critical of the Government’s failure to push the need for State aid for companies left high and dry by Brexit. There is a willingness in the European Commission, he says, to relax the rules for Irish firms when Brexit becomes a reality. The Government has not done enough to make the case, he says.
Progression of negotiations
But Martin also has a more substantial complaint about the Government’s handling of Brexit, one about which he has become increasingly vocal in recent weeks. He fears Varadkar and Simon Coveney have made a major strategic blunder in agreeing to the progression of the negotiations at the last summit.
The Government, he says, should have blocked the agreement on the transition for the UK until there was more progress on the Border.
“There has been a very sharp contrast between what was said before Christmas and what has transpired.”
The December agreement with the British for a “backstop,” he says, “was spun brilliantly before Christmas, you know, it was as if it was peace in our time.
“There was celebration before Christmas that we had arrived at the Holy Grail. And that the North was going to be sorted. And all of that.”
He says Coveney has spoken of the need for clarity by June, the European Council’s next deadline for progress on the Border issue, “but the Taoiseach is saying, ‘No, it doesn’t have to be done by June, I’m quite comfortable with October.’
“So if the original strategy was that Northern Ireland had to be sorted first, so the island of Ireland has to be sorted first before we get into the next phase, the transition and the overall trade agreement, what has changed?”
What then should the Government have done between Christmas and now?
“I think they should have held back on the transition agreement. They should have gone harder in the negotiations.”
Should they really have blocked the transition agreement?
“I think they should have held back and gone harder in negotiations . . . at least until we were farther down the road than we are. We’re not down the road at all now. It could be a major strategic error,” he says.
But is it?
“It could be. It’s potentially. Yeah.”
Most people here and in Brussels blame the British for the fudge, though don’t they?
“That is true. The British incoherence has been a big problem. But the can is getting kicked down the road, and that may be the worst of all options.”
The UK’s most likely destination now, he says, is “a Canada-plus-style trade agreement – which would be bad for Ireland”.
“That’s where [Theresa] May is at the moment,” he believes.
What are the chances of a second referendum?
“I don’t think they’re there.”
Brexit cannot be used as a battering ram for unity, or a platform for unity. Brexit should be about bread and butter”
Martin’s big idea is a special economic zone, with distinct rules for the North, allowing it to operate, essentially as part of both the UK and the EU. The idea hasn’t flown with the British, though.
“Northern Ireland has the worst indices in terms of poverty, second-level school completion, economically it’s very dependant on the public sector and so, long term, it can be argued it needs a lift, it needs an economic stimulus.
“And what is wrong with Northern Ireland getting a special deal via an economic zone that would both be within the EU and within the UK system? It doesn’t threaten the constitutional framework. They get the best of both worlds. It’s a win-win for them.”
Martin is concerned about the danger of “pulling people back into tribal positions again” in the North.
He is very critical of Sinn Féin, as he always is, saying they are “using Brexit as a proxy for a United Ireland”.
“Brexit cannot be used as a battering ram for unity, or a platform for unity,” he says. “Brexit should be about bread and butter,” he says.
Does he see any chance of a British change of mind? He shakes his head and grimaces. “Only when the damage happens.”