Noel Whelan: British cannot be allowed to set the pace on Brexit

It is foolish to wait and see what the UK will do before deciding what is best for Ireland

There is much in what European Commissioner Philip Hogan wrote in these pages last Monday with which many would disagree. But there is one thing nobody can take issue with: Hogan's statement that Brexit is "a mess and getting messier".

British politics has reached a "perfect storm" moment. The Conservative government is divided and paralysed on how to proceed with Brexit. Theresa May is unable to decide or communicate what kind of post-Brexit relationship Britain should have with the European Union.

Meanwhile, the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party continues to prove itself ineffective, with a botched new year's attempt to reboot its fortunes. The Liberal Democrats, for whom this should be a moment of resurgence, are still rife with internal divisions over the tuition fees climbdown.

If that wasn't messy enough, the Northern Ireland Executive has collapsed and the stage is now set for distracting and divisive elections. Just when the North should have its own politicians at the forefront of Brexit discussions representing its best interests regarding the Border, there is a real prospect that it will be governed from London for months, maybe years.


Parliamentary approval

At the same time, the UK supreme court is about to throw a constitutional flare into the political mix. In a ruling due within weeks, the court will likely determine that the prime minister must have advance approval from parliament before she can activate article 50 to leave the EU.

Indeed, the court may go further and decide that because Westminster has devolved areas of responsibility to the assemblies in Edinburgh and Stormont since Britain joined the EU, and has approved the Belfast Agreement, then Scotland and Northern Ireland must also have a role in approving Brexit outcomes in some areas.

Phil Hogan didn't say so, but others have suggested that real public debate about Ireland's options arising from Brexit cannot begin until London gets it act together. This is absurd; in fact, the opposite is the case. It is precisely because Brexit policymaking in London is so tardy and tortured that we should now be actively exploring outcome scenarios, their implications for Ireland, and our response.

Those who suggest Ireland cannot or should not yet engage in real debate about Brexit should look closely at Nicola Sturgeon’s actions.

Separately, last August the Scottish government published a paper on “the Potential Implication of the UK Leaving the EU on Scotland’s Long Run Economic Performance”. Last month it published a comprehensive “options paper” on “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, setting out choices about the nature and extent to which Scotland could continue to be in or have access to the single market even after the UK leaves.

Stay quiet

The openness to external expertise and public exploration of options in Scotland contrasts with the closed situation here in Ireland, where the Government would prefer that everyone sit tight, stay quiet and let them handle our response – once the British position becomes clearer.

Interestingly a recent initiative, from the Seanad of all places, may finally begin to enable some structured public discourse about Ireland’s Brexit scenarios. On foot of proposal from Michael McDowell and others in the Independent Senators group, the Seanad has decided to give over Tuesdays from the end of February to public hearings on Brexit.

The Seanad will take testimony and question a variety of expert and representative voices from Ireland, Britain and Europe. It might be the start of a real debate.