House of Commons’s Brexit irresponsibility makes Irish democracy look good

Stephen Collins: Failure to come together at time of national peril reveals rot in UK politics

The contrast between the restrained behaviour of TDs in the Dáil on Tuesday and the downright irresponsibility of a majority of their counterparts in the House of Commons was the best possible way of commemorating a century of Irish democracy.

The clarifications provided by the European Union for British prime minister Theresa May in Strasbourg on Monday night could have been used as ammunition by the Opposition in the Dáil to try to chip away at the Government’s position in what is likely to be an election year.

After all, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Ministers had agreed under pressure on Monday to new wording on the legal underpinning of the Border backstop. That could have been interpreted as a watering down of the commitments already in place in the withdrawal agreement but the Opposition didn’t try to make this spurious claim.

Instead Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, in line with the responsible approach he has taken throughout the Brexit process, said he could appreciate the significance of the attempt to use language to reassure the British of the temporary nature of the Border backstop. Sinn Féin's David Cullinane took an equally nuanced approach, saying the legal reassurances for the UK did not alter the terms of the withdrawal agreement.


Muted approach

On the Government side there was a muted approach, with Tánaiste Simon Coveney resisting the temptation to point out that little had changed as a result of the Strasbourg clarifications. In the event, of course, all the restraint in the world didn’t matter as British MPs for a second time shot down the deal agreed with the EU. Most of the blame for that irresponsible rejection of a deal negotiated by their own government is focused on right-wing Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party but the British Labour Party hasn’t covered itself in glory either.

It has behaved in classic opposition fashion, ruthlessly exploiting chaos in the ranks of its opponents, despite the great danger involved for the people of the UK. The failure of the British government and opposition to come together at a time of great national peril indicates that something is truly rotten in the state of politics in that country.

The coming days will reveal whether the Commons is capable of devising any kind of coherent approach to the dilemma it has created for itself. Anything from a general election to a second referendum is possible but a crash-out no-deal Brexit is also now a real possibility, regardless of yesterday’s vote to take it off the table.

The British announcement of its temporary tariff regime shows just how devastating a no-deal Brexit would be for this country. While there would not be tariffs on goods crossing the Border, a range of tariffs on goods entering Britain pose a massive threat to the Irish beef and dairy sectors.

It is now up to the British to sort it out among themselves and come back with a realistic proposal

The Government and the EU will have to decide how to respond if this devastating scenario develops. Incidentally it shows that the border backstop is more than an Irish issue; it is about protecting the integrity of the EU single market and customs union.

The tariff announcement highlights the fact that the withdrawal agreement which the Commons has already rejected twice or something very like it is the only way it can depart in an orderly fashion. The coming weeks will reveal whether the British political system is capable of getting its act together but the evidence of the past two years is not encouraging.

It is easy to blame May for the mess and she certainly has made one mistake after another. Her initial fatuous statement that “Brexit means Brexit”, followed by the claim that no deal would be better than a bad deal set her up for a fall no matter what kind of deal was arrived at.

Arbitration mechanism

In the event it turned out that the withdrawal agreement was as good an arrangement as the British were ever likely to get. The all-UK backstop was a British request which the EU was very reluctant to concede for fear of undermining the single market and, despite claims to the contrary, it contained an arbitration mechanism from the start.

Probably because of her initial foolish approach, epitomised by her Lancaster House speech of January 2017, May had done a terrible job of explaining and selling her deal to her own MPs and her failure to attempt an early accord with the opposition left her with nowhere to go when a sizeable section of her own party and the DUP deserted her.

It appears that the majority view in the Commons now is to extend the deadline for leaving beyond March 29th but that is a matter on which all of the 27 EU governments have to agree and some have grave reservations about any kind of extension.

As for Ireland the only thing the Government can do is to wait and see what emerges from the trauma in the Commons. As Coveney said, it is now up to the British to sort it out among themselves and come back with a realistic proposal. When or how that will happen is anybody’s guess.