Anglo-Irish relations a ‘major worry’, says former top UK diplomat

Ivan Rogers says dispute over Border backstop has ‘soured the mood quite a bit’

Ivan Rogers: ‘I do think a general election is becoming more likely.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Ivan Rogers: ‘I do think a general election is becoming more likely.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The future state of Anglo-Irish relations is a “major worry” due to exhaustive Brexit negotiations and tensions over the Northern Ireland backstop, a former UK diplomat has warned.

Ivan Rogers, the UK’s permanent representative to the EU until 2017, said the mood between both countries should be of considerable concern given the historic improvements in recent years.

“Anglo-Irish relations before this [Brexit] process got under way had been the best they have been in my professional lifetime, maybe the best they have been in several generations, if not centuries,” he said, citing strong political and bureaucratic co-operation.

“That is more imperilled through this process and it’s been a tortuous process and difficult between Dublin and London. It must be in both sides’ interest, really, for the relationship to remain as strong as it had become.”

Mr Rogers was speaking to The Irish Times at the Institute for International and European Affairs on Wednesday, where he was discussing his book, 9 Lessons in Brexit.

Mr Rogers, a veteran of the highest levels of the British civil service, was chief EU adviser to former prime minister David Cameron and permanent representative to the EU until his resignation in 2017.

On Anglo-Irish relations, he said: “I think the mutual animosity over the backstop question and how it’s been handled by respective capitals has soured the mood quite a bit. I am not saying it is terminal or it’s irreversible but I think it has become a really neuralgic issue.”

With the political sands continuing to shift on Wednesday as UK prime minister Theresa May requested a short delay to the Brexit deadline, Mr Rogers warned of a potential economic cold war between the UK and EU if no deal is reached.

“It’s very fast-moving. We are in the midst of a major political crisis, potentially a constitutional crisis,” he said of the most recent developments in London.

May’s deal

He said European Council president Donald Tusk’s response to Mrs May’s anticipated request for a delay – in which he said it would be acceptable on the basis her exit deal was passed in the House of Commons – would be of some assistance to the prime minister’s attempts to have it ratified.

However, he was less optimistic about her continued strategy. Opponents had not bought into her arguments that her deal was the only one available, he said.

Despite this Mr Rogers said a hard Brexit was more likely in the summer than by the end of March and that EU leaders were likely to hold an emergency summit toward the end of next week to discuss their next move.

“Do we really believe that the 27 leaders confronted with a further paralysis next week and another failure of the meaningful vote will say, ‘I’m sorry, that’s it, you’ve had your time’?” he said.

“I doubt it. We don’t know. The leaders haven’t had that discussion; they will have a first discussion on that [on Thursday].”

However, he added, Mrs May’s letter requesting an extension to the deadline “probably heightens the risk that ultimately we move to no deal in the summer”. While there is a majority in the Commons against leaving the EU with no deal, that remains the legal default.

“There are all manner of options out there [to resolve the impasse]; the question is: can any of them command a majority in the house?”

However, he added, the prime minister was not likely to back a permanent customs union as such a move would irreparably split the Conservative Party.

“I do think a general election is becoming more likely.”