Dublin must be open to a last-minute compromise on backstop
Government and Opposition will have to weigh carefully where national interest lies
A feature of the whole Brexit debacle is the way political rhetoric has propelled all of the main actors into adopting positions that are almost certain to have the opposite effect to the one pursued. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
The admission by the Government that checks of some kind on cross-border trade will be necessary in a no-deal Brexit is a belated admission of reality. It was camouflaged up to now behind the mantra of a “no hard border” in any circumstances but one of the basic requirements of EU membership has finally been acknowledged.
While the Government should be able to deliver on its pledge not to rebuild infrastructure on the border, some form of checks, particularly for animal and food imports, will be required in the Republic to preserve the EU single market.
A feature of the whole Brexit debacle is the way political rhetoric has propelled all of the main actors into adopting positions that are almost certain to have the opposite effect to the one pursued. The most obvious is the claim by Brexiteers that the UK will be better off outside the EU when there is little doubt that it will cause economic chaos and reduce the living standards of ordinary British people. The impact is likely to be particularly harsh if the country departs without a deal.
The other side of that coin is that the forces in the UK fighting to remain in the EU who ensured the defeat of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement for a managed departure have brought about a situation in which a chaotic no deal exit is a real possibility.
The big question now is whether all of the various forces are committed to plans of action from which they cannot pull back
Then there is the intense opposition of the Democratic Unionist Party to the Border backstop which the party claims will undermine the union with Britain. By virulently opposing the sensible withdrawal agreement negotiated by May the party has put the union in peril.
The party’s outright rejection of the initial offer of a special arrangement whereby Northern Ireland could avail of the benefits of EU membership while remaining part of the UK made no sense, particularly as the majority of people in the North voted to remain. Having rejected the best of both worlds the DUP now finds itself facing the worst possible outcome – the break up of the UK.
Finally the Irish Government, with the backing of all the main parties in the Dáil, has clung doggedly to the backstop designed to prevent the return of a hard border on the island. The net result of that stance could be the imposition of the kind of border controls the backstop is supposed to prevent.
The big question now is whether all of the various forces are committed to plans of action from which they cannot pull back. The analogy with the way the leaders of the major European powers sleepwalked their way into the first World War has become a bit of a cliché but it is uncomfortably close to the truth.
Going by the way the rival Conservative Party leadership candidates Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are seeking to out-do each other in their enthusiasm for an EU exit by the end of October, a no deal has moved from the realm of the possible to the probable. The sheer irresponsibility of Johnson and Hunt is demonstrated by the fact that they are promising tax cuts and/or massive public spending increases in tandem with a no-deal.
Unlike the bulk of the British political class, the Government and the Dáil have demonstrated a great degree of cohesion in pursuit of a national position
It is possible that if senior established figures in the Conservative Party like Philip Hammond and David Lidington will follow through on their opposition to a no deal by voting to bring down a government that pursues it. If they are resolute they may be able to change the direction of British politics but at this stage all the momentum is with the hardline Tories.
As for the DUP they have been firmly with the Johnson camp for a long time and one thing that can be said of them is that compromise does not feature high on the party’s agenda.
A minor modification
That leaves the question as to whether the Irish Government has any wriggle room to modify its position as the clock ticks down to October 31st. Unlike the bulk of the British political class, the Government and the Dáil have demonstrated a great degree of cohesion in pursuit of a national position. Whether that level of cooperation will be able to survive the strains of a no-deal Brexit is another matter.
The big question is how the Government will respond if there is a last-minute attempt by the next British prime minister to seek a compromise with the EU on the backstop. While it doesn’t look likely at this stage, when reality dawns Johnson may seek an agreement with the EU on a minor modification of the backstop that could sell to the House of Commons as a big concession.
In that scenario the Government in Dublin would have to weigh very carefully whether the national interest might best be served by agreeing to something the British could characterise as a climbdown. Whether the EU would agree to any such development is another matter but any feasible proposal for avoiding a hard border needs to be explored.