Miriam Lord: Dáil walks on eggshells but Westminster goes loony

A fretful Dáil avoided upsetting our highly strung neighbours. It made no difference

Tánaiste Simon Coveney and colleagues during a statement to media in relation to the latest developments regarding Brexit at Government Buildings. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Tánaiste Simon Coveney and colleagues during a statement to media in relation to the latest developments regarding Brexit at Government Buildings. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

So Cox’s codpiece turned out to be a load of codswallop as soon as he revealed his bottom line. But in the Dáil, it wasn’t something to be sneezed at.

Not a bad “interpretative instrument”, argued Simon Coveney of the UK Attorney General’s saucily monikered solution to his prime minister’s Brexit dilemma.

It’s “different”, Simon said, doing his best to upsell Geoffrey Cox’s legal tinkerings. Different, but in a good way. Different yet the same, and there is a lot to be said for that.

Micheál Martin went one better. Not only was it different, it was also “significant”. The Tánaiste and the Fianna Fáil leader then had an interesting chat about meaningful arrangements and reassurances and the way they might look at you.

Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane and Labour’s Brendan Howlin joined in along the way and it was most thoughtful and respectful and mature. But then, all the serious stuff was happening across the water. The Ceann Comhairle didn’t once have to raise his voice in a chamber full of innocent bystanders just putting in their time between Leaders’ Questions in Dublin and the screening of the latest episode of Looney Tunes from Westminster.

Away from the high drama in the House of Commons, a fretful Dáil avoided making any sudden movements in case it might upset our highly strung political neighbours and unhinge them entirely. Those MPs still had a “meaningful vote” to get out of the way, and you’d never know what way they might turn. For a time, a very short time on Monday night/Tuesday morning, there was a faint hope that Cox might deliver a legal opinion on the latest tweak to Theresa May’s deal that might save her bacon.

It wasn’t to be. Rumpole of the Brexit said the extra assurances extracted from the EU made no legal difference to the actual agreement. But until MPs voted on it, the Tánaiste was loath to say anything in Dublin that might be picked up in London and influence MPs voting on the retinted original.

Cautious approach

Coveney, standing in for the Taoiseach, who was on a flight bound for Washington, said they had to be conscious that another parliament would be voting a few hours later on the deal and cautioned TDs to choose their words carefully.

Nothing said in the Dáil should have a negative effect on “the capacity for a fair deal to be ratified” in Westminster. It could easily happen if people were to lose the run of themselves and “exaggerate” or “emphasise elements of the deal” to score political points. For the day that was in it, he didn’t want to see any spin. Although not for one moment, added the ever courteous Tánaiste, was he accusing anyone of such a thing.

Sinn Féin didn’t even mention a Border poll. In keeping with the line repeated ad nauseum from Government sources on Monday night when the ever-patient Irish backstop was being tweaked yet again in Brussels – all was “calm”. Keep calm. It’ll be grand. We have the “interpretative instrument” now to add to the “joint instrument” and the “legal instrument”, and by the weekend we should have more than enough instruments for the St Patrick’s Day parade, if not for the House of Commons.

The extra documents agreed in Brussels are “complementary”, the Tánaiste explained, which was a little confusing because somebody always ends up paying in the end and the big fear is that it will be us. This complementary tweaking meant Westminster would be voting for a “different” Brexit deal.

“That being said, from an Irish perspective the text and content of the withdrawal agreement has not changed.” The only change was “the extra language”.

Martin the philosopher

Micheál Martin could appreciate the significance of it. “Sometimes we have to stand back,” he mused, taking a philosophical turn.

“What has the argument been about this last while? Essentially people are arguing about how temporary is something that we all agree should be temporary. I mean that is the essence of where we are now. What is the stars?” Okay, we added that last bit. But we must not forget those reassurances about the assurances about the backstop being insurance and everybody’s “best endeavours” to ensure the assurances are paramount in the “alternative arrangements”.

“Alternative arrangements” narrowly beat “best endeavours” as the most popular phrase of the day. The Tánaiste explained: “What is significant, though, and what is different and has legal effect, is around the reassurance and the processes that deliver that reassurance around the temporary nature of the backstop. So again, this is an insurance mechanism that nobody wants to use, but if it is ever used both sides will use their best endeavours to ensure that it’s temporary.”

And you can’t get clearer than that. Except that the DUP said no.

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