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Ireland must switch from muscle to charm in Brexit phase two

There is a clear expectation that Ireland will now become Britain’s best champion

Let’s be friends: UK prime minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar outside 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

You could forgive the British prime minister for forgetting it’s the season of goodwill. Her party has given her a bloody nose, her DUP allies have issued her with an ultimatum and her nearest neighbour, Ireland, recently declared they’re not best friends any more.

In the Brexit fairy tale of the past few weeks, Leo the Lion has roared into action, Arlene Foster has been painted as the witch and Theresa May remains stuck in the wardrobe, still unsure of what new world she’ll find on the other side. As the new year approaches, this would probably be a good time to install some reality back into the debate. A bad Brexit deal for Britain is a bad deal for Ireland and no deal would be a disaster for this country.

While acknowledging the success of Ireland’s strategy for the first phase of Brexit talks, it is important to remember that the UK government, the DUP and pretty much every other player in the game were all against a hard border on the island of Ireland from the very start. However, Irish Ministers anticipating credible solutions from the Brexiteers may find that it’s a bit like waiting for Godot. We know, as the Taoiseach has reminded us, who created the mess, but pointing out who started the fire while the house burns down around you only feels good until your feet start to burn.

Speaking to my former colleagues and UK government advisers last week, they acknowledged that tensions were high and some expressed frustrations about the megaphone diplomacy of the Taoiseach during negotiations. But now that the dust has settled, there is an acceptance that this was Ireland’s chance to throw its weight around and it played the part it had to. All sides got what they wanted in the end, and despite some hyperbolic reports from the English press, only the more nationalistic fringes of the Conservative Party feel any serious damage has been done to Anglo-Irish relations in the long term.

However, among those at the top, there is a clear expectation that, moving into the second phase of talks, Ireland’s tone will shift to see it become Britain’s best champion at the EU table in recognition of the interdependence of the two economies and the desire for frictionless trade.

Ireland’s EU operation seems to be smooth and effective but more will need to be done in Westminster in 2018. We cannot afford to pick sides in the Brexit debate, because if Britain and the EU cannot agree a worthwhile trade deal, it will be the island of Ireland that pays the heaviest price. A bitter divorce never ends well for the children.

Let’s throw a party

While it may have felt good for Ireland to flex some muscle over the UK this month, we will notice our biceps rather deflated going forward. Ireland cannot expect anywhere near the same level of clout now that the Border question has been answered (or fudged, depending on who you ask). It is time to start using the weapon of choice that has always served us best: charm.

The Irish Embassy in London does terrific work engaging MPs and their advisers through, among other things, its legendary Christmas parties. Let’s utilise opportunities such as this to demonstrate why a hard border would be disastrous not just for Ireland but also for the UK.

Some MPs in Westminster have shown a remarkable lack of understanding of Irish politics in recent months. While it is tempting to laugh, these people can hold the British government to ransom on key votes due to the prime minister’s lack of a majority in the House of Commons. We cannot afford to do nothing.

We should invite Brexit-supporting backbench MPs on fact-finding missions to the Border communities in Ireland so they can see first-hand how intertwined our economies are and the benefits this brings. We could host receptions for Remain-supporting politicians to work together to build the case for a soft Brexit. Ireland would also be wise to engage with the Labour Party in Britain, as the volatile climate of UK politics means no one can be sure who will be in power by the end of the talks. If there is an absence of practical solutions to the Border question, let us be proactive, take the initiative and make the case for solutions that serve Ireland’s interests.

We may not be able to gift the British government a miracle this Christmas season but perhaps we could send some wise men to lend a hand.

  • Shane Fitzgerald was a senior adviser in the Policy Research Unit of the UK Parliament between 2011 and 2015. He now works in local government in London