Ireland has yet to make its most important decision on Brexit
Pat Leahy: The Government is going to have to decide whether to help Theresa May
The critical decision Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will face will be whether to offer an amendment to the backstop to help Theresa May. Photograph: Tom Honan
If you’re fed up with Brexit now, I advise you to cancel the newspaper and switch off the radio, television and internet for the next few months. A further two months – at least, and probably six – of Brexitmania looms. There will be no let up. This is going to get worse before it gets better.
Theresa May’s “victory” in the House of Commons during the week – if persuading her own MPs to vote against her own deal, having previously assured them that there was no alternative, can be classed as such – is a short-term gain.
She will talk to the factions that now inhabit British politics in place of parties and then shuttle around Europe seeking changes to the backstop. But everywhere May turn, she will receive the same answer: no renegotiation, no changes. Conversations with people in Brussels and with officials and European Union diplomats here all chime with the same message: it’s the same one reiterated again and again by every EU leader that has a microphone shoved under their noses: we will not throw Ireland under a bus.
“She will get nothing,” says one high ranking Irish Government source. “For now, anyway.”
So then she will return to a Commons ready to vote (again) to prevent a no-deal outcome on February 14th. At that stage, we will be in true stalemate: the UK unable to leave; May unable to pass the deal; the EU unwilling to change it.
Article 50 extension
May might at that stage seek an article 50 extension to allow for a general election. She would have the advantage that the Tories could campaign as the party of leave – what would Jeremy Corbyn campaign as? His party wants to stay, but he wants to leave. The strategic bind it presents for Labour makes an election an attractive choice for the Tories.
But May is such a weak leader (and a terrible campaigner, remember) that I think this choice would be a last resort. Instead, in late February, she will make one last effort to pass her deal. That is when Ireland’s decision-makers will have to make the biggest call of their lives.
By and large, Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and the Government apparatus as a whole have handled the Brexit crisis well – just as the Opposition, in the main, has been pretty responsible. Contrast our politics with the comprehensive, multifaceted, omnidirectional crisis in leadership and good authority unfolding in Westminster.
It’s not all perfect here, of course. Sinn Féin seems determined to use Brexit to advance the united Ireland agenda, no matter how much it discommodes unionists, though I suspect this is a tactic born of deep uncertainty about their own political position and direction at present.
The Government needs to know if a concession will actually result in May being able to get the treaty through parliament
There have also been mistakes by the Government. The negotiation of the backstop was almost certainly overplayed, for domestic political reasons. Recent gaffes may have been understandable, but they were unhelpful all the same. In recent days, as it should, the Government has stuck to the not-an-inch line. But the time will come for a reappraisal of that position. It’s not yet, but it will come.
The choice that will face Varadkar, Coveney and Donohoe, the decision-making triumvirate of this administration, is this: do they stick to the not-an-inch position and therefore run the risk of a no-deal outcome; or do they offer an amendment to the backstop to help May?
The move on the backstop could be any one of a number of forms: a codicil pledging the temporary nature of the backstop, an additional protocol stipulating a beefed-up and independently-decisive review; a simple but long-dated time limit; or any other device designed to maintain the backstop guarantee for the foreseeable future, while also assuring the UK that it will not be trapped indefinitely in a customs union from which it wishes to exit. It would also give May a change she could bring back to the Commons to help her pass the deal.
However, before the Government can even approach making such a decision, it needs one crucial piece of knowledge: it needs to know if a concession will actually result in May being able to get the treaty through her parliament.
EU leaders will not accept May’s word for this; they have been suckered on that one once before.
So this will be a difficulty: May has little credibility among her European and Irish interlocutors right now, for obvious reasons. “Nobody trusts her,” says one person involved. It’s likely that a clear vote of the Commons in advance would be needed. Whether May can achieve that is anyone’s guess.
The great fear is that a concession is made and then rejected by Westminster. Or as one person involved tells me: “You play the card and it achieves nothing.”
Two further points are relevant, I think. One is that there is concern in Dublin that such a move would be seen as a damaging climbdown by the Taoiseach. I am not so sure; if it was a choice between the risk of a hard border now or the risk of a hard border at some stage in the future, I don’t think Varadkar would have much difficulty selling a concession to avoid the immediate risk.
The second point is that this will be Ireland’s choice to make. EU sources are adamant about that privately and publicly. Such pressure as is on Ireland (and it will be significant) will come from the reality of the situation, not from Brussels, Berlin or Paris.
These matters are already being discussed at the highest levels in Government; of course they are. No decisions have been made yet. But they are coming.