Stephen Collins: Brexit deal reveals politics at its best and worst
UK departure saga from EU shows that political compromise a virtue rather than a vice
President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and British prime minister Boris Johnson during a press conference on the Brexit deal in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: EPA
The 11th hour deal on Brexit between the European Union and the United Kingdom, after all of the sound and fury of the past three years, has demonstrated once again that the most essential virtue for any serious politician is the ability to grasp the best available compromise.
The extraordinary aspect of the current breakthrough is that it amounts to virtually the same thing as Theresa May’s original Northern Ireland backstop which was shot down by the DUP in December 2017.
That forced May to devise a UK-wide backstop which she tried and failed three times to sell to the House of Commons. It is beyond irony that Johnson who was one of the prime movers behind the plot to destroy her has now reverted to her original deal.
The DUP may or may not succeed tomorrow in the House of Commons by scuppering the complex arrangement. But, either way, the party has once again demonstrated an uncanny ability to alienate potential allies in the UK and further afield. It is not as if the DUP represents Northern Ireland in any meaningful way. A majority of people in the North voted to remain in the EU, polls show a clear majority favours a Brexit deal to avoid a hard border on the island and in the recent European elections the DUP got just 22 per cent of the vote.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar should not have a great deal of trouble selling the deal to the Dáil and Irish public
The other side of the DUP coin is the obduracy of Sinn Féin, which refuses to take its seats in the House of Commons despite the fact that it could have had a decisive impact on the Brexit outcome. It is no wonder that the two parties have proved incapable of co-operating to provide an administration at Stormont.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar should not have a great deal of trouble selling the deal to the Dáil and Irish public. He will be heartened by the result of the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll which shows a surge in his approval rating last week after his meeting with British prime minister Boris Johnson.
That meeting marked a decisive turning point in negotiations and paved the way for the breakthrough that ensured there will not be a hard border on the island of Ireland whatever happens in future trade negotiations. While the poll endorsed Varadkar’s strategy it did contain a note of warning. Asked if the Irish Government and the EU should compromise with the UK on the backstop to help secure a deal and avoid a hard border, 42 per cent said yes but 47 per cent said they should refuse to compromise even if this risks a hard border.
It is more than likely that views will change as the Government and the EU explain the deal and its consequences, but the finding shows how emotion can so often trump logic in politics. The prevailing view in this country is that the British electorate was extremely foolish to vote to leave the EU but the Irish Times poll shows that Irish voters may be equally susceptible to letting national pride blind them to their best interests.
Given the delicacy of the situation the last thing the Irish side should do is crow about a British climbdown. Any compromise can only work if both sides believe they have achieved something by it and Johnson has certainly managed to take the UK mainland out of the backstop. Keeping the entire UK within it was never the point of the Irish stance but it was certainly something that rankled with a large chunk of the British public and they may well give Johnson a political dividend for sorting it out.
Johnson has no such comfort in the British parliament
Varadkar should have an easier time in winning over the Dáil and the Irish electorate even if he agreed to bin the backstop. He can argue convincingly that it is no longer relevant as gains far outweigh concession. One wise political owl described the result as Leo 4, Boris 1.
It should not be forgotten that one important factor in ensuring the best possible deal for Ireland emerged when Fianna Fáil put the national interest first and gave the Government the space to handle Brexit negotiations without having to look over its shoulder at being undermined at home.
Johnson has no such comfort in the British parliament. Apart from the DUP and potential Tory rebels he has to deal with a Labour leader who has no clear alternative plan but is intent on using the issue for personal and party advantage.
For all his buffoonery Johnson has demonstrated real political skill in recent days. His decision to ditch the DUP has vague echoes of the way Charles de Gaulle came to power in France, pledging to protect the million or more white Algerian settlers only to abandon them once he was securely installed. As usual in the Brexit saga it is impossible to know what will happen next but it would be helpful if everybody, particularly the DUP, came to realise that political compromise is a virtue rather than a vice.