Pat Leahy: Dublin does not share London’s optimism on deal

Imminence of Brexit about to force Government to reveal plan for Border checks

Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson: London’s objectives are miles away from the EU’s. Photograph: Frank Augstein

Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson: London’s objectives are miles away from the EU’s. Photograph: Frank Augstein

 

It was a strangely listless week in Leinster House, exactly the opposite of what usually happens the first week back after a long recess.

Normally you can expect opposition TDs to tear into the Government with pent-up vigour. Like a junior hurling team who hit everything that moves in the first 10 minutes after a rousing speech in the dressing room.

But it was nothing at all like that and Ministers, officials and TDs from all parties remarked on it. Opposition leaders didn’t land a single blow on Leo Varadkar, and in truth, they didn’t look like they were all that interested in doing so. In contrast to the pyrotechnics of Westminster in recent weeks, Dáil business resumed more with a whimper than a bang, with subdued sessions that suggested TDs wished the summer recess had gone on for another week or two.

It’s partly because of the strangulating effects of Brexit on our politics – sucking up all the oxygen and depriving everything of space, time, attention and energy. But it’s also because the Government has lost any real forward momentum and is – like everyone else – awaiting the general election that will enable the periodic reset that politics and government need.

Our hyper-locally competitive electoral system means that TDs are spending the bulk of their time concentrating on constituency matters, in the sure knowledge that if they don’t, they will be in danger of losing their seats. It’s certainly not the best way to run national politics, but that’s an argument for another day.

Endgame ambience

The torpor of Leinster House politics was in stark contrast to the increasing pace of Brexit and the growing realisation that we are entering the endgame – or at least the endgame of this phase. (Yes, sorry, there will be others.)

Despite the public statements of optimism by the Taoiseach that a deal is possible (the “mood music” has improved, he reckons), and the softening of the Democratic Unionist Party’s line signalled by Arlene Foster’s speech in Dublin, the view privately among senior politicians and officials is that the chance of an agreement with Boris Johnson’s government in the coming weeks is actually receding, not increasing.

The chance of an agreement with Boris Johnson’s government in the coming weeks is actually receding

The DUP wasn’t the big problem. The problem is London’s objectives are miles away from the EU’s. The optimism being briefed out of Downing Street – and swallowed thirstily by most of the British press – is simply not reflected by the facts, according to politicians and officials at the highest level, here and in Brussels.

Yes, two British cabinet ministers visited Dublin this week for cordial exchanges with their Irish counterparts. Yes, Boris and Leo are meeting next week in New York. But according to people who have been briefed on the exchanges, no, there has been no fundamental shift in the British position and no, there hasn’t been any shift in the EU’s position either. And these positions are, as Simon Coveney bluntly admitted, a long way apart.

Comments by European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker on Thursday to the effect that he would have no objection to getting rid of the backstop were seized on in London, with Downing Street declaring that a deal was within reach, the Daily Telegraph reported.

British blame-management

They paid less attention to a rather important qualification delivered by Juncker. “If the objectives are met – all of them – then we don’t need the backstop,” he said. That, as senior Irish officials point out, is a rather big if. It is also what the EU has been saying for weeks and weeks.

So Dublin shares little of London’s highly spun optimism about an imminent deal, and suspects it’s all part of an elaborate exercise in domestic British blame-management.

Dublin shares little of London’s highly spun optimism about a deal

The Government doesn’t know what will happen if it becomes apparent that a deal won’t be reached in the coming weeks. It doesn’t know what will happen in Westminster, whether anti-no-dealers can stop a crashout. But the Government here does know that it will have to face up to the reality of a no-deal in the coming weeks. And it knows that much of this will be transmitted through the prism of what happens on the Border, and the checks the Government has lately admitted will be required.

Pretty soon, the Government will have to decide what to say about these checks. Talks with the European Commission have been quite difficult at times, with Brussels pressing for the sort of muscular protection of the single market that Dublin has blanched at.

Unresolved as yet is the question of when the Government should outline the nature and location of those checks. Do it now to allow people to prepare for a possible no-deal? Or wait and see if that threat is averted?

Against immediate disclosure is the realisation that a plan for minimal Border checks would be seized on by London to support its claim that the Border problem is manageable. It would also mark the end of the political consensus in Dublin, as Sinn Féin will surely object to the prioritising of the single market over the all-Ireland economy, prompting inevitable declarations in London that Dublin is under pressure and close to cracking.

As it has been before now, this will be rubbish. The only thing that could prompt a compromise by the Government on the backstop is a realistic and reasonable approach by the British that does most of what the backstop does. Despite all the claims of progress this week, that seems farther away than ever. Ignore the soporific state of the Dáil – a few weeks of high-octane, high-pressure politics lie ahead.

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