Miriam Lord: It’s oh so quiet as Brexit causes rare Irish vow of silence
In an uncommon moment of Irish political solidarity, all sides zip it to give May space
Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar at a press conference on Brexit in Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Government members zipped their lips, sat back and thought of Germany.
In the end, when the Taoiseach addressed the nation at 9pm to say a Brexit draft deal was agreed, they were glad they did.
Painful though it must have been for them, they held the line. They held it all day and into the night.
They can do it, you know, when they put their minds to it.
Not one word did they say about the draft agreement between the UK and the EU. They didn’t leak anything.
Although we understand Finian McGrath had to be bound and gagged and locked in an office cabinet for the duration. It was a double cabinet, because they needed room to put Simon Harris in beside him.
The others were stripped of their mobile phones and iPads.
The Taoiseach – wearing an EU flag-Irish Tricolour badge on his lapel – gave his ministerial troops their Brexit briefing at an early cabinet meeting and then ordered them to say nothing until Michel Barnier gave the nod from Brussels.
He was all too mindful of the time the German parliament was shown elements of our budget before the Dáil saw it. He reminded TDs of this on Wednesday when stressing he couldn’t tell them too much, vowing that we would not make the same mistake.
Until Barnier moved, the Irish strategy was simple and clear: don’t disclose the draft document’s contents and don’t declare a deal is done until it has cleared Theresa May’s cabinet in London, her representative has conveyed the result to the EU’s chief negotiator, he has formally accepted and the draft document is cleared for release.
A slight delay
At least that is how the “choreography” was supposed to go until the steps went awry due to issues with timing.
The UK prime minister had to convince her cabinet to accept her Brexit withdrawal plan before the rest of the routine could go ahead. Their crunch 2pm meeting turned into a five-hour marathon, but May eventually emerged from 10 Downing Street with the hard-won support of her cabinet and a draft deal. But by then events in Europe, which had been scheduled in the event of a positive outcome, had been shelved.
Then word went around that the 500-word draft document might not be published until Thursday. EU ambassadors closeted in a room in Brussels for most of the day awaiting the result of the UK jury were sent home when the London meeting dragged on way past their teatime. A number had already fallen into diabetic comas due to the overconsumption of Ferrero Rocher and the rest were dangerously hyperactive.
But things moved quickly after Theresa May delivered her statement. It wasn’t long before the full text of the document went up on the EU’s website, and 40 minutes later, Barnier was on a podium in Brussels holding up a doorstopper and declaring: “This is the draft.”
Back in Dublin, the Ministers relaxed.
Radio silence was briefly lifted by the Taoiseach, who was required to take questions at midday in the Dáil. Dara Calleary of Fianna Fáil and Pearse Doherty of Sinn Féin asked about the Brexit state of play in light of the previous evening’s news that the teams of civil servants carrying out the negotiations had come up with an agreement.
Leo Varadkar was being very cautious, giving nothing away.
His Opposition colleagues, mindful of the serious nature of the negotiations, were very supportive.
“We appreciate on this side of the House that it is necessary to give the UK cabinet space this afternoon to consider the document and the findings it contains. Given in particular your new-found interest in de-dramatising the relationship between Ireland and the UK, we understand you are possibly constrained in what you can say,” said Calleary.
Leo said he appreciated colleagues’ forbearance on the issue and their understanding as to why he might not be in a position to answer questions in the detail he would like.
The cabinet meeting due to take place in London was “very important and sensitive” and he didn’t want to say anything in the Dáil that might upset a delicate situation “or make things any more difficult than they already are for the prime minister”.
Giver her space
Everyone agreed to give Theresa “space”.
But there was no doubt but that the Taoiseach was optimistic about the proposed deal and that he believed his Government’s “objective from day one”, to “minimise any harm to Ireland and Northern Ireland and maximise any opportunities that may arise”, had been achieved.
“Our strategy from day one has been to be European and very much one of the EU 27 and indivisible from them,” he added. They wanted to make sure the EU understood Irish concerns and vital national interests and to make those interests European concerns too.
For the morning that was in it, everyone in the chamber donned the green jersey. It’s isn’t often you see that happen.
The mood was cautiously good.
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney looked very relaxed when he arrived in the canteen for a late lunch of bangers and mash with onion gravy. But did he give anything away? Not a sausage.
Then the media blackout descended again.
It stayed in place until 9pm on Wednesday night when the Taoiseach and Tánaiste hosted a joint press conference in Government Buildings.
They could talk freely now. Up until then, they were terrified to shut the Barnier door in case the Brexit horse bolted.