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Fintan O'Toole: Ireland has successfully shifted Brexit odds in its favour

In this high-stakes game, the Republic has a three-in-four chance of winning

What it comes down to, 31 days before March 29th, is risk. We are entering the high altitudes of history-making, the exposed zones where everyone has to face the hard question: what risks are you really prepared to take?

Risks are not facts; they are guesses – more or less educated – about unknown consequences. The fate of nations should not come down to the gambler’s instinct, but Brexit has taken us all to the bookies. And since we have to put our money down, mine is still on the Irish horse.

In a choice between two attitudes to risk – an Irish one that has been careful and serious and an English hard-Brexiteer one that is fundamentally phoney –the first is still a better bet than the second.

It is often said that by insisting on a cast-iron backstop clause in the withdrawal agreement, the Irish Government has risked a catastrophic no-deal Brexit. This is obviously true.


They have been working on the avoidance of responsibility almost from the beginning: it will all be someone else's fault (mostly Paddy's)

But we have to qualify it with two further truths. One is that the Brexit zealots want to threaten a no-deal anyway: if it wasn’t the backstop, they would have latched onto something else.

The idea that anything an Irish Government did or said, however emollient, would ever appease them is delusional. The other is that, for Ireland, the risk of no-deal has always had to be balanced against the even bigger risk of a return in some form to violent conflict on the island.

Irish diplomacy

There is thus, for Ireland, no way to eliminate risk: ultimately, the decisions will be made in Westminster and we will have to live with them. So what do you do when you face an unavoidable risk? You try to shift the odds in your favour. And Irish diplomacy has done this very successfully.

Think of it like this. There are now four ways Brexit could go. There could be no deal before Britain crashes out. The withdrawal agreement as negotiated by Theresa May could eventually pass in the Commons.

There could be a long delay to article 50 followed by the negotiation of a very soft Brexit in which the UK stays in the customs union and remains very closely aligned to the single market. Or there could be a second referendum and no Brexit at all.

Three of these four outcomes achieve Ireland’s basic objectives of ensuring the continuation of a soft border and of keeping open the flow of trade with Britain. And three out of four ain’t bad. It would be better to have no risk at all but since that is not an option, this is a pretty decent exercise in risk management.

Frankly, on June 24th, 2016, given a three-in-four chance to avoid the worst of the collateral damage from Brexit, any sane Irish person would have jumped at the offer.

Now consider the other side of this question of risk: the no-dealers. How much risk are they really willing to bear? On a personal level, none at all. Jacob Rees-Mogg has moved hedge funds to Dublin and advises his clients on how to “Brexit-proof” their investments.

Risk for other people

Nigel Farage admitted last April that his two children with his wife Kirsten Mehr have German passports and will remain entitled to all the advantages of EU citizenship whatever happens.

Even the best-informed analysis comes down to: go on, then, take a guess

He has also said that he intends to keep claiming his massive pension from the European Parliament – €84,000 a year plus a lump sum of €135,000. Boris Johnson has already jumped ship to his gold-plated lifeboat, a €317,000 annual salary for writing one column a week for the Daily Telegraph.

This is what must always be remembered: when these people embrace risk, they mean risk for other people.

But what about political risk? I’m not convinced they are fully serious about that either. In grown-up politics, leaders tell their followers the risks they are asking them to take and accept responsibility for urging them to take them.

The no-dealers do neither of these things. Their message has shifted between “there is no risk at all” and “whatever happens, we (meaning of course you) will endure it valiantly”. And they have been working on the avoidance of responsibility almost from the beginning: it will all be someone else’s fault (mostly Paddy’s).

Crucially, I don’t think they believe that no-deal will actually happen. They have always held to the paradox that by threatening no-deal, Britain will in fact get a fabulous deal.

If they hold their nerve, the Germans will crumble at the last minute (because that is what the Germans do in the face of British pluck) and order Brussels to capitulate. They are, in their own minds, not really risking anything: they think the endgame will play out triumphantly. Their embrace of risk is, on both the personal and political levels, essentially phoney.

Nobody should be playing for stakes that are so high. But here we are, a month from a self-imposed date with an unknown destiny, locked in with the key turned on our uncertainty.

Even the best-informed analysis comes down to: go on, then, take a guess. Mine is that those who have managed risk skilfully are more likely to prevail than those who play cards with other people’s lives.