Irish Government is partly to blame for Brexit shambles
Analysis: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney showed diplomatic inexperience
The shambles into which the Brexit talks plunged on Monday may yet turn out for the best if it forces the British government to confront the reality that a soft exit from the European Union is the best outcome for the UK.
Going by the comments of Brexit secretary David Davis in the House of Commons on Tuesday that process is already under way but, given the levels of hysteria in the Conservative party, there is no knowing how it will all turn out.
The British government and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) are the ones primarily responsible for Monday’s debacle, but the Irish Government didn’t exactly cover itself in glory.
The way Tánaiste Simon Coveney jumped the gun with a premature radio interview on Monday morning and the subsequent mood music suggesting that the Irish side had got what it wanted, even before Theresa May met Jean Claude Juncker, was tempting fate.
It didn’t take a genius to know that the one sure way to frighten the already nervous horses in the DUP and the loony Tory right was to put on a display of Green triumphalism.
To make matters worse, the response of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to the collapse of the deal was to publicly stick it to the British government insisting he was “surprised and disappointed” May had not been able to sign off on what had earlier been agreed.
This only served to put May under more pressure and fuel the paranoia of her internal critics whose ideal scenario is to see the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal.
The bottom line is that Ireland more than any other country needs Britain to exit the EU on the best possible terms, but the approach adopted in Dublin has the potential to push our neighbours in the other direction.
The fact that all of the other parties in the Dáil rallied around to wave the green flag on Tuesday demonstrates not that the Government got it right but that it successfully pandered to populist sentiment.
Varadkar and his Fine Gael ministerial colleagues might do well to study how Garret FitzGerald dealt with a potentially disastrous intervention by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984 when she dismissed the three options put forward by the New Ireland Forum with the famous phrase “out, out, out”.
There was outrage across the Irish political spectrum but FitzGerald refused to respond to Thatcher in kind as all and sundry were demanding. Instead he took it in the neck and focused on the ultimate prize of a deal that would protect the position of the nationalist minority in the North. The result was the ground breaking Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.
As in 1985, the deal arrived at between the Irish side and the British on Monday had been negotiated painstakingly by senior officials and involved some give and take on both sides.
The last-minute change from “no regulatory divergence” across the Irish Border to “regulatory alignment” post Brexit was a sensible concession by the Irish side to ensure that May had a formula of words she could live with.
As in all such diplomatic deals a little ambiguity was required to get it over the line. The outcome was a form of wording that represented a reasonable fall-back position for the Irish side if phase two of the talks between the EU and the UK on trade end in stalemate.
The fact that the DUP didn’t get the message may partly have been a failure by the British to keep the party in the loop, but it also reflects the way hardline sectarian politics in Northern Ireland works. If one side is happy the other assumes they have lost and tries to scupper whatever deal is on offer.
The British and Irish governments have indulged the DUP and Sinn Féin far too much over the past two decades and Monday’s holding to ransom of the entire EU by a few DUP hardliners was the end result.
What really matters now is where things go next. The acceptance by David Davis that if there is “regulatory alignment” after Brexit it will apply to the whole of the UK is an important development.
It means the Brexit secretary has been convinced of the need for Britain to remain as close as possible to the EU. His remarks don’t mean it will happen as there are tough negotiations on trade ahead, but it does show the dawning of reality.
Over the past six months the British government has retreated from all its forward positions and now accepts the need for a significant divorce bill, reciprocal recognition of citizens’ rights and some form of regulatory alignment to allow trade to continue as uninterruptedly as possible.
The Irish Government can nudge that process along by helping May find a formula of words on the Border that will help her to survive.