Stephen Collins: Maybe Theresa May has a cunning Brexit plan

Prime minister could be playing waiting game comparable with Jack Lynch during arms crisis

 Britain’s prime minister Theresa May has managed to steer the UK on a trajectory that will keep it as close as possible to the EU in terms of trade and regulation while holding her party together. Photograph: EPA/Neil Hall

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May has managed to steer the UK on a trajectory that will keep it as close as possible to the EU in terms of trade and regulation while holding her party together. Photograph: EPA/Neil Hall

 

As the moment of truth for Brexit looms closer it is still unclear whether British prime minister Theresa May is following a cunning plan to inch towards a soft Brexit or whether she is drifting along at the mercy of events.

Some clarity may emerge after the House of Commons votes next week on what kind of relationship the UK should have with the EU customs union after Brexit.

The week after that, European leaders meeting in Brussels are due to make a final decision on the nature of the Irish backstop. While postponement of that decision to October cannot be ruled out, the discussion should clarify what each side is looking for.

One of the oldest political tricks employed by leaders facing apparently irreconcilable pressures is to play for time

The big unknowable in all of this is what May’s game plan is. Since her disastrous decision to call an early election last year she has confounded her legion of critics by holding on to office, keeping the Conservative Party together and edging towards a soft Brexit despite the anti-EU rhetoric of some of her most powerful ministers.

There are good grounds for believing that May is trying to steer the UK towards a Brexit that nominally keeps the country outside the single market but binds it to the EU regulatory framework so that to all intents and purposes it remains inside a customs union and with large, ongoing payments to Brussels.

One of the oldest political tricks employed by leaders facing apparently irreconcilable pressures is to play for time. The classic example from Irish political history was the performance of Jack Lynch during the period leading up to the arms crisis of 1970.

Procrastination

That episode was the most dangerous threat Irish democracy faced in the entire history of the State, apart from the Civil War, but Lynch managed to defuse it in spectacular style after months of what appeared to be indecisive procrastination.

The crisis began in August 1969 with the outbreak of widespread violence in Northern Ireland with thousands of Belfast Catholics fleeing south as their homes were burned out by loyalist mobs.

The government in Dublin was thrown into turmoil as it considered how to react. Dominant ministers such as Neil Blaney, Kevin Boland and Charles Haughey demanded a strong response with an invasion of the North by the Army urged by Boland.

Lynch went on television to address the nation and delivered what became known as the “we will not stand idly by” speech even though he never used the word idly.

Behind the scenes the Blaney/Haughey faction continued to agitate for strong action but Lynch delivered a carefully considered speech in September setting out the conciliatory approach.

However, he also agreed to the drawing up of contingency plans for an invasion of the North and over the following months his powerful ministers encouraged the establishment of the Provisional IRA and concocted a plot to import arms.

Lynch took no action although the evidence was mounting until in early May 1970 when the opposition leader Liam Cosgrave told him he had evidence from the highest level in the gardaí about the plot to import arms.

Masterful manoeuvre

Lynch then moved suddenly and decisively by sacking Haughey and Blaney in the middle of the night while Boland resigned in solidarity. There was an immediate political crisis but Lynch, in a masterful political manoeuvre, got the backing of his parliamentary party and the ministers who thought they were untouchable found themselves in the political wilderness.

Observers then and since have wondered why Lynch remained passive for so long in the face of disobedience and disloyalty from powerful ministers.

The answer is clear. Lynch was fearful in late 1969 and early 1970 that if he confronted his troublesome ministers he would be removed from office and the country left in the hands of people whom he regarded as a danger to democracy.

Instead of confronting them he played for time but kept abreast of developments through information supplied by his minister for defence Jim Gibbons whom the conspirators believed was on their side.

It was only when the plan to import arms was put into effect that Lynch had the opportunity to catch the conspirators red handed. He was then able to dismiss them and secure the backing of his parliamentary party for his approach to the Northern problem.

What would have happened if Blaney and Haughey had come out on top is unknowable but there is every chance that the entire island could have been plunged into an appalling civil war with large scale ethnic cleansing as happened in Cyprus a few years later. By waiting, Lynch saved his country from peril.

May is facing an equally important moment in the UK’s history. Until the drama plays itself out it will be impossible to tell if she has a plan and if so whether it will work.

On the face of it, though, she has managed to steer the UK on a trajectory that will keep it as close as possible to the EU in terms of trade and regulation while holding her party together and giving her leading opponents little room for manoeuvre.

Whether her solution will be acceptable to the EU is the big question but there should be some clarity on that by the end of the month.

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