Noel Whelan: Not insisting on place at Brexit table may prove costly

Ireland now only a bystander in crucial discussions about future of the country

The papers published this week by the British government went some way towards exposing the absurdity at the heart of its position on Brexit negotiations. However, the debate which followed their publication also exposed the vulnerable position that Ireland and its Government now find themselves in.

We are minnows among many in the major negotiations taking place in Brussels which affect us more than all others.

In the most significant talks on Ireland’s economic, political and constitutional future for many decades, we are no more than a single voice in the EU27.

The events of this week reveal again the significant strategic error which our Government made this year in accepting a structure for the Brexit negotiations which did not allow for some element of direct face-to-face involvement by Irish politicians and officials in these crucial discussions about the future of Ireland.

Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty under which Brexit is being conducted makes no express provision for direct involvement by a member state bordering the exiting country in the withdrawal negotiations. This is just one of many deficiencies in that weakly-drafted provision which at the time nobody really expected would ever be utilised.

It is worth reiterating, however, that there is also nothing in article 50 or elsewhere which prohibits such direct involvement by the neighbouring state.

The decision that it would only be a group of Brussels officials – loosely overseen by the European Council – who would conduct the detailed negotiations with British politicians and officials was a political decision made by the European Council and not a legal requirement.

It was decision Ireland wrongly acquiesced to. This diplomatic and political error is now coming home to roost.

Separate strand

The Government could and should have insisted that there was at a minimum a separate strand to the Brexit talks in which Irish politicians and officials could directly participate.

Such was the concern in January at the faintest suggestion that Irish assertiveness might be seen as distancing ourselves from the other EU27 states, or as assisting the British position, that Ireland adopted a meek posture.

We settled for warm language about our concerns in the pre-negotiation documents published by Michel Barnier (EU chief negotiator for Brexit) instead of insisting on actual involvement in those negotiations with the British ourselves.

We are left then in a position where the Irish response to the publication of the British papers this week amounted to little more than a generalised welcome for the broad principals stated therein and implied criticism of the enduring lack of detail.

It seems the Government is constrained because of the group structure of the negotiations by the EU side from doing anything more than soft media interviews.

The Irish Government should be able to publish a detailed and blunt response to the British negotiation position which called out the fantasy therein but appears constrained from doing so.

Writing in the Irish Independent, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney said "Ireland is analysing these papers, and in doing so will engage with the European Commission, the Barnier task force and our EU27 partner states".

Propaganda sheets

The British papers don’t require much detailed analysis. They are no more than political propaganda sheets. They are not and could not be serious or sustainable negotiation positions.

In them the British government trumpets its preference for retaining the position where there are no physical Border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but they do so knowing that if, as is currently proposed, Britain leaves the Customs Union then such controls are inevitable.

The British government objective is not to change that fact in the negotiations but to frame the narrative so the European Union will be blamed for the imposition of Border controls.

The truth, of course, is that it is the British who, by choosing to leave the Custom Union, will be responsible for the reemergence of physical Border controls.

The British government’s messaging in these position papers is transparently absurd to those of us outside the UK, but is targeted at the pro-Brexit audience in Great Britain and in the North who, both before and since the referendum, have been all to willing to accept such propaganda.

Target audience

Among this target audience the British government's position papers have already achieved their primary political objective as evidence by bizarre newspaper headlines in London on Thursday about how the British government was fighting Europe to retain the invisible border.

The Irish dimension will be front and centre in Brexit negotiations in the crucial weeks between now and a European Council meeting in October. Unfortunately between now and then Ireland’s voice will only be heard in the anterooms.

We should never have let ourselves to be put in this position. Now we just have to make the best of it.