Irish Times view on Varadkar-Johnson meeting: treading carefully through chaos

The PM's remarks could be a sign that a backstop confined to the North could re-emerge

It would be wise to treat any initiative from Boris Johnson with extreme caution. Photograph: Danny Lawson/WPA Pool/Getty Images

It would be wise to treat any initiative from Boris Johnson with extreme caution. Photograph: Danny Lawson/WPA Pool/Getty Images

 

Comments by British prime minister Boris Johnson about the possibility of greater cross-Border alignment suggest a possible path to progress in resolving the Brexit stalemate. Citing the famous remark by the late Rev Ian Paisley that his people were British but their cows were Irish, Johnson indicated that this approach could be extended to sectors other than agrifood. Though he stressed that any divergence depended on “democratic control” in the UK, Johnson’s remarks could be a sign that a backstop confined to Northern Ireland could re-emerge in London’s thinking.

It would be wise, though, to treat any initiative from Johnson with extreme caution. Despite public and parliamentary fretting about the malign influence of the supposedly master strategist Dominic Cummings over Johnson’s administration, the events of this week suggest that Downing Street is flying by the seat of its pants – and not very well at that – rather than carefully implementing some genius masterplan.

Varadkar should state the Irish case forthrightly. And given the turbulent time ahead, he would be wise to keep his options open

The week began with Johnson formally losing his majority when one of his MPs crossed the floor of the House of Commons while the prime minister was at the dispatch box. It progressed with the Conservative party ruptured by expulsions, the resignation of Johnson’s brother from the cabinet (he will also step down as an MP), and the passage of legislation which will prevent, as it stands, a no-deal Brexit at the end of October. Diminished, disempowered and widely ridiculed, Johnson is left pleading for an election which his opponents, wisely in the short term, are disinclined to grant him.

But the Government here would be wrong to mistake the parliamentary chaos for a preview of what will happen when the debate moves to the broader canvas of an election campaign. The election cannot be put off forever. And when it comes, Johnson must stand some chance of uniting pro-Brexit voters in sufficient numbers to give him a shot at a parliamentary majority, presenting him with the capacity he currently lacks to pursue and implement either a deal or a no-deal.

If Johnson is serious about seeking a deal, then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Government colleagues will be presented with some very significant decisions. Any new deal would likely require some movement from Dublin. It would also require that due regard be paid by the Government to unionist sensitivities about the North being treated differently to the rest of the UK. The Taoiseach will get an opportunity to judge for himself on Monday when Johnson visits Dublin for the first bilateral meeting between the two men.

The prime minister will be well-briefed about Irish frustrations with the British position. Varadkar should state the Irish case forthrightly. And given the turbulent time ahead, he would be wise to keep his options open.

BREXIT: The Facts

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