Noel Whelan: Nightmare scenario for Ireland is a Border fudging game
Government has gambled a lot on EU solidarity and UK concessions over next seven days
After a wasted week of convulsions during which the politics of stampede brought us precariously close to an early election, our Government and Opposition now have quickly to refocus on the Brexit challenges. The next seven days are arguably the most critical in the politics of this Island since Easter week 1998.
The days between now and a European Council Meeting will be defining for Ireland’s relationship with Britain, and separately with the European Union. They will also be crucial for our relationship with the people of Northern Ireland, both unionist and nationalist. What Irish Ministers and officials manage to achieve, and the manner in which they achieve it, will have enduring implications in all these sets of relationships.
The Government has played a high stakes game so far with considerable skill on the Brexit process. It has ensured that Brexit’s implications for the North and the Border with the Republic would be one of the three priorities in the first stage of the negotiations, on which “sufficient progress” would have to be made before the second phase of negotiations can begin.
The Government has, therefore, gambled a lot on this moment. On one side it has gambled much on the solidarity of our fellow member states. On the other side it has gambled much on the capacity and inclination of Theresa May’s government to make substantial concessions on the nature of Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit relation with the Republic and the EU.
What the Irish Government is looking for before the European Council meeting is a written agreement that there will be no regulatory divergence in EU-related matters so as to avoid a hard Border after Brexit; that there will be no “customs complications” on the Border after Britain leaves; and that the British government pledges to “implement, protect and sustain the Good Friday Agreement”.
These demands amount collectively to all but requiring that Northern Ireland be kept in the customs union and the single market after the rest of the UK leaves.
Here in Ireland we see these demands as reasonable and as a means of ameliorating the collateral damage which Britain’s decision to leave will cause for Ireland. The EU negotiators and the other EU 27 states appear to agree. However, Brexiteers – both in Britain and in the North – see the Irish Government’s demands as incendiary.
Our ideal scenario would be for the British government to agree to clear and unambiguous language on each of these points in the coming week. Pulling that off would be a massive diplomatic and political coup for the Varadkar government, particularly given the feebleness of the May government and its dependence in parliament on a confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party.
Such a clear cut win for Irish diplomacy also seems difficult to achieve given the poor levels of understanding on Irish issues in British politics and the media generally. While the volume of the rhetoric from both Dublin and London has eased off in recent days, there is no sense that the groundwork is being laid in the UK or, indeed, among pro-Brexit unionists in Northern Ireland for such a concession.
The nightmare scenario for Ireland is one in which, having got a commitment to about €55 billion from the UK government for the Brexit “divorce bill’ and having got “sufficient progress’ on the rights of EU citizens in Britain after Brexit, the other members states seek to prevail upon the Irish Government to stand down its demands for these express commitments, and ask us to leave the substantial aspects of the North-South trade and custom relationship to wider talks about EU-UK trade.
Requiring Varadkar and his Government to abandon its requirement for specific commitments at this stage would be a dramatic breach of trust with Ireland, and we are currently been assured by all the key players in the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council that Ireland fights on these issues are their fight too.
There has to be some risk, however, that we will be asked to accept a fudge where the language agreed is left so vague that it can be interpreted differently as each side chooses. Multilateral diplomacy often requires “creative ambiguity” of this type to achieve progress.
Any such fudging on the Irish dimension to Brexit at this stage, however, would be counter-productive. It would only delay, for mere months, the political, diplomatic and economic reckoning of what have hitherto been irreconcilable positions.
Varadkar found last week politically challenging, to say the least. How he and his newly promoted Tánaiste Simon Coveney handle the coming days will be much more important; not only in the historical assessment of their political skills but also in the history of this country.