Brexit: Deal protects main Irish priority but difficulties may yet follow
Clamour in Fine Gael for early election will become deafening if deal passes
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaks while Donald Tusk, president of the EU listens during a news conference in Brussels, Thursday. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
As he entered the European Council summit in Brussels on Thursday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said: “I think it’s always the case that a compromise never has one father. We were all involved in making these compromises.”
The latest Brexit deal had been done to the consternation of the DUP, the apparent delight of EU leaders, and received a weary, sceptical welcome from the officials and journalists swarming around the Justus Lipsius building in the city’s EU quarter.
They have all been here before. They all had the same question: will the latest deal pass in Westminster?
Nobody knows yet. But there is now, at least, some momentum towards that goal. The uncertainty clouded the dramatic turnaround that led to the agreement. The full, behind the scenes account of how this latest Brexit deal was pieced together has yet to be told.
But it is clear that the meetings and contacts in recent weeks between Varadkar and Boris Johnson – and the secret ones between their officials – probably played a decisive role.
Though Varadkar never admitted it in public, the idea of a compromise on the backstop – a time-limit, perhaps, or a process to review it – that could unlock a majority in the British parliament, has been knocking about Irish Government circles for a long time. But a convincing case was never made, not least by the British.
Revised Withdrawal Agreement
Privately, senior Government figures say the deal agreed on Thursday would have been on offer if Theresa May had wanted it. But she didn’t. And the longer she went on, the less likely she seemed to get a deal across the line. But Johnson was a different matter.
While European leaders were horrified at Johnson’s accession to 10 Downing Street, he set about convincing them that he was earnest, not just about leaving on October 31st but also that he wanted a deal.
Varadkar waited a few weeks before meeting him, and when they did, Johnson told the Taoiseach, and convinced him, too, that he wanted a deal and was prepared to compromise to get it.
But the dealmaking was going nowhere until Johnson made a decisive move three weeks ago, offering to keep the North under single market regulations (while the UK would diverge) and thereby conceding checks in the Irish Sea, subject to Stormont’s consent.
A week later, he met Varadkar near Liverpool and extended the offer on customs. He was rowing back on everything he and May had previously said about keeping the North integrated in the UK economy and legal order.
To the DUP, it looked like moving the border – necessary when the UK leaves the EU – into the Irish Sea. In response, Dublin gave up the backstop, reasoning that as they were now negotiating an acceptable final destination, there was no need for temporary guarantees of the status quo.
Varadkar conceded on a time-limit and an opt-out clause for Stormont – feeling secure in the expectation that there would be an enduring majority in the North for avoiding a hard border.
Since the outset, the highest Irish priority has been to avoid a hardening of the Irish Border, and that has been achieved. But the UK’s determination to diverge from the EU – described by Johnson as the whole point of Brexit – will spell difficulties for this country in the years ahead.
One senior Irish source described the package as “a hard Brexit for Britain, and a soft Brexit for Northern Ireland”, which there is good and bad in.
Nonetheless, Fine Gael will sell it as triumph of statesmanship by Varadkar, and if the deal passes at Westminster, the clamour for an early election in the party will become deafening.