Pat Leahy: Brexit woes must not obscure deeper problems of North

With little progress on backstop, Dublin must pool ideas with DUP and Sinn Féin

British prime minister Theresa May in Belfast on July 20th: her administration can resemble the final days of Brian Cowen’s chaotic, disintegrating government. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/WPA Pool/Getty

British prime minister Theresa May in Belfast on July 20th: her administration can resemble the final days of Brian Cowen’s chaotic, disintegrating government. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/WPA Pool/Getty

 

If, as Simon Coveney said, last week was a good one for Brexit with the Chequers deal, the resignations of the Cabinet Brexiteers and publication of the British White Paper, this week has assuredly been a bad week for Brexit.

The European Commission issued a document urging member states to step up preparations for all the eventualities of Brexit – code for a hard Brexit, or worse, a crash-out Brexit next March.The Irish Government agreed a package of measures, including the recruitment of 1,000 customs and veterinary inspectors to staff new checks at ports and airports.

Dublin remains adamant that it will make no preparations for a hard border in Ireland as the UK and the EU have promised that will never happen, no matter what. That looks optimistic: “no matter what” covers a lot of eventualities.

And as Paddy Smyth reported from Brussels on Friday, senior commission officials have a slightly different view of things. Either way, the Government’s position seems to be that they are preparing for all eventualities, except the worst one.

Also this week, Theresa May backed down in the face of the hard Brexiteers in the House of Commons, bearing out the concerns of those in Brussels and in Dublin who believed that for all the optimism following the White Paper, she would backslide when confronted by the hard chaws in her own party.

May’s administration last week resembled the final days of Brian Cowen’s chaotic, disintegrating government of early 2011; from day to day, more or less anything can happen. So much for the seriousness of the British political elite; there are more coherent stag parties, 10 beers in. Nonetheless, she is the prime minister and it is with her and her government that the EU must deal.

So much for the seriousness of the British political elite; there are more coherent stag parties, 10 beers in

May vs DUP

May reiterated a hard line on the backstop when she visited Northern Ireland. Her speech in Belfast confirmed what British cabinet ministers have been saying privately to their Irish counterparts for months: if the backstop means carving Northern Ireland out of the UK economically, it is dead.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be true if she wasn’t reliant on the DUP for her survival. But she is.

This explains another aspect of the bad week for Brexit – the lack of any progress in the talks in Brussels between the EU and UK teams. A session specifically devoted to Irish issues on Monday adjourned early; subsequent sessions weren’t much better. As of today, the prospect of a disastrous, disorderly Brexit is now closer than ever.

The path to a crash-out Brexit is clear. If the two sides remain deadlocked on the Irish backstop, then it won’t be possible to conclude a withdrawal treaty – a legal agreement governing the terms of the British exit and which includes the two-year transition period, continuing British participation in the EU while being technically outside it, UK financial contributions and the protection of EU citizens rights, and so on. Why? Because as the Irish and the EU side keep saying, no backstop, no withdrawal treaty.

So no withdrawal treaty means no transition period. And that would mean, as a matter of EU and British law, the UK is out from March 29th next year. Car crash is one description. Train crash might be a better one. Clusterf**k is the one being used around Westminster a lot.

Car crash is one description. Train crash might be a better one. Clusterf**k is the one being used around Westminster a lot

I think that remains an unlikely prospect. It is certainly one which would amount to a historic failure of politics, leadership, statesmanship and negotiation. No sensible person on either side would choose it. But history is filled with examples of bad things happening by accident, or through the stupidity and negligence of usually well-meaning people.

Political vortex

All this brings us back to the backstop, putting Ireland at the centre of this swirling political and diplomatic vortex.

The sum total of progress on the backstop since last December, when the British government agreed in principle that it should be part of the withdrawal agreement, is that the EU has put forward a wording that was rejected by the British, and the British put forward a wording that was rejected by the EU.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said the Border issue needs to be “de-dramatised” if there is to be progress.

It is probably fair to say that it is the Irish Government that has largely dramatised it in the first place. One way of assisting the de-dramatisation would be for Dublin to talk to the DUP about these issues and about unionist fears. But Dublin-Belfast communication seems limited to public sniping.

The failure of the DUP and Sinn Féin to adequately and responsibly represent the North’s interests on Brexit is depressingly obvious – but Dublin should be trying to coax them out of it, rather than tut-tutting about it.

They could talk, for example, about the creation of a special economic zone for Northern Ireland, allowing it access to both UK and EU markets, but which would have no constitutional implications one way or another. It could be accompanied by a package of UK and EU funding and investment.

As the unrest in Derry and Belfast lately has shown, the North is a society with deep economic social and political problems. That, more than Brexit, is the real threat to peace and stability.

Ultimately the backstop will probably be overcome by legal guarantees of no physical infrastructure in the withdrawal agreement. That would get over the autumn hurdle and allow the UK to proceed to transition. The Border can probably be kicked down the road for a few years.

Brexit is a nightmare, and the backstop is a challenge. But the North’s problems go deeper. Dublin should be trying to help on all fronts.

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