Irish politics needs to wake up to the consequences of a no-deal Brexit

Fiach Kelly: The main threat from a crashout is political and constitutional, not economic

‘The Government has built its argument on the backstop, the insurance policy to avoid a hard Border, around the Belfast Agreement, insisting its sole concern is protecting the hard-won peace.’

‘The Government has built its argument on the backstop, the insurance policy to avoid a hard Border, around the Belfast Agreement, insisting its sole concern is protecting the hard-won peace.’

 

If only the consequences of a no-deal Brexit were as quaint as postponing tax cuts and welfare rises, and a swing from a government surplus to a deficit.

Most, if not all, of the debate around a disorderly Brexit either later this year – Boris Johnson has promised the UK will leave the EU “do-or-die” by October 31st – or following a British general election months afterwards has centred on the economy. Yet the main crisis would not be economic. It would be political and constitutional. But its consequences are not being discussed by the political system.

This week’s publication of the Summer Economic Statement saw Paschal Donohoe outline the effect of no deal on the budget and the State finances. The allocation of public resources is, of course, a serious matter – as is the threat to 55,000 jobs in sectors such as agri-food. But an air of unreality hangs over a no-deal discourse confined within these parameters.

It is not hard to predict how public opinion in the Republic, and nationalist opinion in Northern Ireland, will respond to Johnson, if, as seems likely, he wins the race to be Tory leader and prime minister. His campaign performances show he has learned little more about the Border or Ireland since he was UK foreign secretary between 2016 and 2018. And even then his knowledge of Irish issues was risible, according to people who engaged with him.

The Government has built its argument on the backstop, the insurance policy to avoid a hard Border, around the Belfast Agreement, insisting its sole concern is protecting the hard-won peace.

Should a new British prime minister throw out the existing Brexit withdrawal agreement and pursue no deal it then logically it follows that Dublin believes he will have significantly damaged the 1998 peace accord.

Confrontation

Senior figures in Government say there will be no change on the backstop no matter how hard Johnson pushes. Confrontation is inevitable, and a row with an opponent such as Johnson may actually help Leo Varadkar improve his standing among voters, who have recently moved away from him and from Fine Gael.

But the fortunes of individual politicians are concerns of a much lower order if there is a no-deal Brexit.

Nationalists in Northern Ireland will not forget Varadkar’s December 2017 promise that they would never again be left behind by a Dublin government. That statement was made against what now seems like the benign early stages of an orderly Brexit, when the EU and UK agreed the joint protocol which first contained the principle of the backstop.

Earlier this year senior figures in Government privately suggested that conversations about the relationship between North and South would need to start once Brexit was settled.

The constitutional settlement across Ireland may feature in a general election debate

Speculation about the the future status of Northern Ireland came against an assumption that the existing withdrawal agreement would pass, a prospect that now seems remote.

The talks on restoring the Stormont institutions have only a slim chance of success. The coming period takes in the marching season, a summer break and a probable autumn Brexit crisis, with the DUP urging Johnson on in his efforts to thrash the backstop – hardly propitious conditions for a Stormont deal.

The British government has said a form of direct rule will be enacted if Stormont is not functioning at the time of a no-deal Brexit. Dublin will push to have some involvement, but will hardly meet with success if relationships with London have just been through the stresses of no deal.

There is also a real risk of Ireland being the scapegoat in the UK for a disorderly Brexit, and a reciprocal ill will flowing from Irish citizens towards Britain.

Election debate

Sometime next year we will have a general election here. If it happens against the chaos of no deal, and even if it does not, the constitutional settlement across the island is likely to feature in the election debate.

Just because senior figures across all parties in Dublin are not talking about what they believe the political consequence of no deal will be doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about it.

It is implausible that Varadkar and Micheál Martin, his rival to be Taoiseach, are not giving serious thought to the settlements on the island, or that the senior echelons of the civil service are not gaming out every potential scenario.

In the Dáil this week Green Party leader Eamon Ryan warned of “a political crisis, not only in the economic order but also in respect of the constitutional fabric of our agreements”.

Some in Government suggest the crisis would be so serious that a rickety minority government or a majority coalition comprised of small parties tacked on to either Fianna Fáil and/or Fine Gael would not be strong enough to withstand the pressure, and suggest a national government will be needed.

Others in Leinster House, and not just in Sinn Féin, speak of a white paper on a united Ireland – backed by the full machinery of the civil service – within the lifetime of the next government as agreed policy between all parties in the Dáil, with a unity referendum within a decade.

None of this will be seriously discussed before a potential no-deal Brexit for fear of agitating unionism. But it is these questions, and not just the economic costs of a disorderly Brexit, that could dominate the years ahead.

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