Crisis? What crisis? Why Varadkar’s right not to panic about Brexit

Stephen Collins: Ireland needs to remain calm while preparing for the worst

Leo Varadkar struck the right note in response to the chaos engulfing Theresa May and her government this week by saying simply that there is no reason to panic. When the dust finally settles, at the end of March next year, there may well be reason for emergency measures to cope with a hard Brexit, but at this stage panic in Dublin is the last thing Ireland needs in response to the panic at Westminster.

One of the Taoiseach's qualities is a capacity to remain calm when all about him are consumed by the heat of political battle at Leinster House. His colleagues sometimes find this trait infuriating. His response to the political storm that followed his critical comments in New York about the media earlier this month, for example, was simply to shrug and say that these things happen from time to time and are not worth worrying about.

This is not the way many of his Cabinet colleagues viewed the matter, but the public didn’t get nearly as excited as the inhabitants of the political bubble, and the storm passed just as suddenly as it had blown up. The Taoiseach certainly made enemies in the media who will pounce when he has a serious stumble, but they would do that in any case.

One thing the Taoiseach cannot afford to do is respond to every twist and turn of events in London, because there is simply no knowing how things will play out

Dealing with Brexit in the coming months, he will need all the reserves of calm judgment he can muster. One thing he cannot afford to do is respond to every twist and turn of events in London, because there is simply no knowing how things will play out.


Every outcome, from a chaotic no-deal hard Brexit to a last-minute agreement between the EU and the UK on a withdrawal agreement that includes the border backstop, is possible. The only sensible approach from an Irish viewpoint is to remain calm while preparing for the worst.

On the positive side, the European Union’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has pointed out that the two sides are 80 per cent of the way to deal on the withdrawal agreement. The border backstop is a big outstanding issue, and Barnier has signalled a willingness to be flexible on the wording – but that depends on a willingness by the British side to engage fully. So far that has not been evident.

Theresa May's capitulation to Tory Brexiteers at the beginning of the week has put the soft-Brexit strategy outlined in her recent White Paper in serious jeopardy, while the rebellion by Tory Remainers a day later demonstrated the depth of divisions within the Conservative Party.

At this stage it is hard to see how she can go forward and negotiate a sensible deal with the EU, but it is equally hard to see how she can follow a course that will lead to a no-deal Brexit, as there is no majority for such an outcome in the Commons.

The Tory Remainer Dominic Grieve, one of the most considered voices in British politics, was adamant on Tuesday night that the House of Commons would not vote for a hard Brexit. He suggested that a realignment in British politics and a national government might be the only way out of the dilemma.

Although that appears a remote prospect at the moment, it would not be the first time British politics had undergone a radical realignment when confronted with a seemingly intractable issue. In the past Ireland was often at the centre of this process, so it is entirely apt that the border backstop is proving such a headache today.

Relations with Ireland have bedevilled British politics for more than 200 years, from the resignation of Pitt the Younger in 1801, over King George III’s opposition to Catholic Emancipation; through the break-up of Robert Peel’s Conservative Party in 1846, arising from repeal of the Corn Laws to deal with the Famine; and the split in Gladstone’s Liberal Party over home rule, in 1886; to the civil war that threatened to break out in the UK over home rule in 1914, and that was averted only by the outbreak of the first World War.

There is no obvious solution to the inadequacies of today's British political leaders. That threatens political and economic disaster across the UK

One of the reasons the Tory-dominated government agreed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 was to get the Irish issue out of British politics for good. There was considerable relief across the political system that Irish MPs were no longer disrupting business in the House of Commons – but here we are in 2018 and Ireland is back again, in the shape of the border backstop, to promote chaos in the Commons.

The big problem with British politics today is that the alternative to the deeply divided Conservative Party is a Labour Party led by the hard-left Jeremy Corbyn, who is a Brexiteer in his own right and leads a deeply divided parliamentary party.

When the UK was faced with a threat to its very existence in 1940, the Commons rebelled against prime minister Neville Chamberlain and installed a national government led by Winston Churchill. Crucially, though, the Labour Party under Clement Attlee was a willing partner in that government.

There is no obvious solution to the inadequacies of today’s British political leaders. That threatens political and economic disaster across the UK, with serious consequences for this island.