How should Ireland play its backstop cards now?
We must prepare for a no-deal Brexit but also work to protect our ties with the UK
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney (left) in May, with UK cabinet minister David Lidington, signing a deal preserving the Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland after Brexit. File photograph: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
My father used to tell the story about the Irishman, the Englishman and the Scotsman who were sentenced to be guillotined. The Englishman was first up on the guillotine. The mechanism to release the blade failed and the Englishman was pardoned and allowed to go free. The same thing happened with the Scotsman. Then the Irishman was strapped to the guillotine. He peered up at the blade and said to the executioner “hold on a second, I think I can see the problem”.
I sometimes think about that story whenever it is implied that it now falls to Ireland and the EU to amend the Brexit backstop to stave off a no-deal exit by the UK. After three years of detailed reflection and complex negotiation, the backstop was the only solution identified that would preserve the delicate balances of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. It is the product of the collective wisdom of 28 democratic governments, the UK itself having made a very significant contribution to its design. It does not now fall to the EU to dream up an alternative.
It only takes a small number of bigots, a dollop of ignorance and a pinch of xenophobia to poison a relationship to which the vast majority of people attach such importance
In the UK there has been much deliberate – as well as some inadvertent – misrepresentation of the EU’s response to the Johnson government’s stated wish to get rid of the backstop and its apparent intention to go back on the principles so painstakingly agreed. The EU’s approach has been rational, constructive and quite simple. It has indicated that it will consider constructively any proposal from London which is compatible with the withdrawal agreement. It has emphasised, crucially, that the ball is in London’s court. Papers leaked in London in the last few days confirmed that the British government has not yet identified a workable alternative to the backstop. It is hardly surprising that Michel Barnier is still waiting for the ball to come over the net.
Boris Johnson obviously over-interpreted his meeting with Angela Merkel as setting what he called a “blistering” 30-day timetable for negotiations. As the first weeks of that timetable have elapsed, the only thing which has seemed remotely blistering has been the Dominic Cummings-led assault on Conservative Party dissidents and on the House of Commons.
Faced with this regrettable and dangerous impasse, and developments in Westminster, the Irish approach should have five strands.
First, we should continue to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.
Second, we should work to maintain the friendship between Britain and Ireland. Although Brexit has inevitably set Britain and Ireland on different trajectories, our relationship with our closest neighbour will always be of central importance. Were we in Ireland not to recognise the importance of this, we would be making precisely the mistake for which we criticise Brexiteers who dismiss the importance of the UK’s relationship with Europe.
It only takes a small number of bigots, a dollop of ignorance and a pinch of xenophobia, in either Britain or Ireland, to poison a relationship to which the vast majority of people on both islands rightly attach such importance.
We should sit tight with our European partners and avoid any temptation to mess around with the mechanism of the guillotine
Third, we should continue to set out the truth as we see it, including to those in the UK who are willing to listen. We should continue, for example, to explain Ireland’s motivation in insisting on the backstop, especially as a few of our own compatriots have contributed to creating a fiction that Ireland’s approach reflects some sort of hostility to Britain. We should explain that, if the British government brings forward a new proposal, the EU will respond not with poker chips but with principle. Perhaps, most importantly, we should once and for all dismiss the nonsense that, in the event of a no-deal, it is the EU which would be responsible for putting up a border in Ireland. The single market, as the British well know, already entails an external border. A hard Brexit, without a backstop, would simply push that border on to the island of Ireland. Europe would, of course, help us to minimise the impact of such a development.
Fourth, we should remain ready to engage with an open mind on any British proposal which is compatible, as it would have to be, with the withdrawal agreement. Although it is difficult to be optimistic that the UK government will, or even intends to, bring forward such a proposal, the EU should be prepared to respond with the courtesy, respect and intelligence it has demonstrated throughout the Brexit process.
Finally, pending that, we should sit tight with our European partners and avoid any temptation to mess around with the mechanism of the guillotine.
Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Rome and the EU