Brexit: No one should lose livelihood to spare PM’s blushes
As October 31st D-Day approaches, the danger is that we will descend into a blame game
There will be plenty of voices around Boris Johnson urging him to admonish the EU and Ireland as the reaction to Luxembourg prime minster Xavier Bettel’s press conference illustrates. File photograph: Getty
There is a road over the hill from Ventry to Dunquin in Kerry which neatly encapsulates where we are on Brexit and what is at stake not just for Ireland and Britain, but the European Union as a whole in the coming weeks.
The road is essentially a single track made possible for two-way traffic by a series of pull-ins or mini laybys dotted along its length – places where you can pull over just enough to let another car pass in the opposite direction.
The system works perfectly well 95 per cent of the time as drivers judge who is nearest the next pull-in and either wait or advance accordingly. But then there is always the one who thinks they can drive the distance without once giving way; the person who thinks through sheer will, determination and bloody mindedness they can force everyone else to pull out of their way.
It never ends well. The cars back up as more and more drivers think “sod you!” and refuse to give way. Impasse.
And that has appeared to sum up Boris Johnson’s approach to Brexit. Both before and after he took the driving seat as British prime minister he gave every appearance of not caring what damage he inflicted on Ireland, North and South, so long as he met his exit deadline of leaving the EU by October 31st. He was going to reach the end of the road come what may.
But over the past few weeks his body language has changed as he has gradually realised this is not the one-way street he assumed. Because the physical, economic and political reality has turned out to be different from what he imagined.
He and his colleagues in the Brexit campaign genuinely thought that taking the United Kingdom out of the EU would be straightforward, if only they showed enough determination. At the macro level, as Dominic Raab’s Dover comments last autumn illustrated, they didn’t understand the modern supply chain, either for basic foodstuffs and medicines, or for British manufacturers’ “just in time” production lines.
And in terms of Ireland they certainly didn’t understand the interwoven nature of cross-Border trade. A combination of the single market and peace process, along with the simple logic of physical and economic geography, has allowed the natural synergies of commerce to develop in places such as the Derry-Letterkenny corridor and, similarly, between Newry and Dundalk. Reinstating a political barrier in that natural order was always going to be disruptive and difficult.
But the Brexiteers, including the DUP, had not done their homework. Instead they allowed themselves to be driven by ideology and hatred of the EU. Hence the decision to rule out membership of the single market and customs union and to insist that Northern Ireland be treated no differently from any other part of the UK.
“One size fits all” solutions that do not take account of different circumstances and geographies never end well in politics or business, but once adopted it is difficult to get off the hook because it involves a recognition that the original analysis was wrong. That, for any politician, is difficult, but for this prime minister at this time it is particularly so.
The temptation is always to try a quick fix – and the agrifood proposal has all the feel of that. But, as we now know, it covers less than 30 per cent of cross-Border trade and any physical, tariff or regulatory barriers to the remaining 70 per cent would end up disrupting that business. No one should have to lose their livelihood to save a politician’s blushes.
Instead the better way is to admit the hard truth: that we all – leavers and remainers, Irish and British – know a lot more about the reality of cross-Border than we did pre-Brexit; not just the daily commerce that flows in each direction, but also the co-operation in virtually every area of public policy. It is that which needs to be preserved and which both governments need to, formally and legally, protect from any artificially imposed political barrier.
Of course the devil will be in the detail and that is what the next few weeks will be about. I have been involved in enough negotiations of this kind to know that deadlines can produce the movement necessary to get a deal. But I have also been involved in enough negotiations of this kind to recognise that sometimes you need more time and that the artificial deadline is the problem, not the solution, and that what you need is a device to keep that process of thinking through the issues alive. That, I suspect, may be the case here.
The danger, of course, is that instead we will descend into a blame game with the British side turning on the EU in general, and Ireland in particular. Moreover there will be plenty of voices around Johnson urging him to do precisely that as the reaction of Luxembourg prime minster Xavier Bettel’s press conference illustrates.
But while Dublin must prepare for that eventuality in the short and medium term, it should do everything it can to produce a “soft landing” if possible. It is in everyone’s interest that common sense prevails and that we learn again that if we want to get to our different destinations we need to respect the oncoming traffic in the expectation that it will do the same.
Tom Kelly was an adviser in the Northern Ireland Office (1998-2001) and 10 Downing Street (2001-2007)