‘What we are about to discuss in this room is to be treated with the strictest confidence’
Inside Dublin’s Brexit lockdown where Government secrecy reached new levels this week
Simon Coveney, Leo Varadkar and Helen McEntee, on Wednesday. The three are believed to be among about a dozen people at the Tuesday night briefing in the Taoiseach’s meeting room. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
The high-level Brexit meeting started with a warning, given the sensitivity around what would be said.
“What we are about to discuss in this room is to be treated with the strictest confidence,” said John Callinan, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s diplomatic sherpa who liaises with counterparts in the EU and the UK.
Varadkar, Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Minister for European Affairs Helen McEntee were among about a dozen people at the Tuesday night briefing in the Taoiseach’s meeting room, according to sources with knowledge of the week’s events.
There had been some intense tic-tacking over the previous days as the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and his team finalised the last remaining issues in the EU-UK divorce agreement.
There were rumblings of an imminent deal when Coveney met Barnier in Brussels on Monday morning and the amber light started flashing more strongly as Tuesday wore on, said a source.
By that night, cabinet meetings had been called on both sides of the Irish Sea. Callinan’s warning at the beginning of the briefing was characterised as a “sharp intake of breath moment” in the 19-month, zig-zagging efforts to find a deal on the UK’s departure from the EU in March 2019.
Callinan, a second secretary in the Taoiseach’s department, cautioned against anything from his briefing on the draft deal emerging ahead of a special British cabinet meeting the following day.
Nothing could come from Dublin before British prime minister Theresa May’s meeting with her ministers that could stoke the already-burning ire of pro-Brexit MPs.
A bare-bones outline of the draft deal had leaked out five hours earlier via RTÉ, drawing criticism from Tories and unionists who had not had sight of the 585-page draft withdrawal agreement.
Any leaks, with Dublin’s fingerprints on them, could be interpreted as triumphalism. There had been false dawns and missed deadlines in the Brexit negotiations in the past and the Irish side had long since learned a lesson after stepping out too early.
Vow of silenceVaradkar asked four questions at the Callinan-chaired meeting; Coveney and Donohoe two each. The two-hour meeting ended with agreement on a vow of silence. That vow was communicated privately to the UK side on Wednesday morning.
There was an exchange of text messages between senior Irish and British ministers and officials.
The gist of them was: from the Irish – “We won’t be in your way, we won’t be appear in your media, and good luck selling the deal”, and from the British – “Thank you, and talk on the other side”.
In Dublin, on Wednesday morning, the Cabinet was brought into the information lockdown. Mobile phones were left outside the room for the two-hour meeting. Varadkar and Coveney walked their fellow Ministers through 15 key points from the withdrawal agreement.
Shutters downThey covered everything from the constitutional status of Northern Ireland in the UK post-Brexit, to fisheries, to the issue of the so-called UK trade landbridge taking goods between Ireland and the EU.
The importance of the “shutters-down” approach was understood by all; one Independent Minister even suggested the Cabinet should declare that no member should speak on Brexit that day.
The discipline held and nothing leaked ahead of May emerging from 10 Downing Street on Wednesday evening to say her cabinet had approved the deal. In Government Buildings, Ministers and their staff gathered in twos and threes around TVs off the ministerial corridor.
“It was like listening to neighbours on a road to hear if a goal had been scored in a World Cup match,” said one insider. “But there was silence.” Everyone seemed relieved.
Another Irish official acknowledged the task ahead of May in trying to sell the plan to Westminster, putting this week’s deal in similar sporting terms: “It is not the final whistle being sounded.”