The emphasis placed by British prime minister Boris Johnson during his Dublin visit on his preference to leave the European Union with a deal at the end of October represents a glimmer of hope that the worst-case scenario can be avoided. However, it would be naive in the extreme to read too much into the comments of this prime minister. After all, his colleague and friend Amber Rudd resigned from the British cabinet at the weekend because she believes he is not serious about pursuing a deal.
Nonetheless, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will take some modest encouragement from Johnson's declaration that his overwhelming preference is to get a deal by October 31st and his admission that not doing so would represent a failure of statecraft by all sides. Although the prime minister also made it clear he is serious about taking the UK out of the EU by the current deadline, one way or another, the tone and content of his comments about wishing to avoid a no-deal indicate that there could yet be a basis for serious negotiations in the coming weeks.
The Taoiseach struck the right note as he greeted Johnson on the steps of Government Buildings by being firm but friendly. He underlined that he was ready to listen to constructive suggestions as to how to resolve the impasse but also made the important point that whatever happens on October 31st there will be no clean break, just a new phase in the process. Varadkar was adamant that he could never accept the replacement of the legal guarantee contained in the backstop with a promise of good behaviour, saying that while he was open to alternatives they must be realistic, legally binding and workable and no such proposals had been received to date.
Varadkar and his EU counterparts will have to establish if the profoundly untrustworthy Johnson is serious about looking for a deal or merely playing another political game
Johnson’s visit reinforced the reality that has become abundantly clear in the past week – the most credible means of taking the UK out of the EU and avoiding a no-deal by the end of October is a solution involving a Northern Ireland-only version of the backstop. Finding a formula to enable him to do that would be a huge challenge. It would involve disappointing Tory diehards, who are determined to see a no-deal, and convincing EU leaders that he is capable of getting a deal through the House of Commons. The ultimate attitude of the Democratic Unionist Party to any refinement of the arrangement would be critical to its acceptance by parliament.
A new version of the backstop would also challenge Varadkar to convince his electorate that it does not represent an embarrassing climbdown while reassuring unionists that an all-Ireland solution is not a threat to the constitutional position of the North. Firstly, though, he and his EU counterparts will have to establish if the profoundly untrustworthy Johnson is serious about looking for a deal or merely playing another political game. That in itself is a tall order.