Stephen Collins: Sinn Féin and DUP put party before people on Brexit
Delicate compromise not bullying is key to securing agreement on UK withdrawal
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald: her “extreme, uncompromising and bullying” manner is useless in Brexit negotiations, says Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
As the Brexit saga enters its critical final phase, one of the more absurd developments is the way in which Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have sought to inject their brand of bitter, intransigent politics into the discussions.
As if the whole thing was not already complicated and difficult enough, the DUP is pushing the British government to adopt a suicidal no-deal strategy while Sinn Féin is similarly engaged in trying to pressure the Irish side into a hardline position that would also ensure a no deal.
The approach of the two biggest parties in Northern Ireland to Brexit reveals not only their lack of political skill but their total unconcern for the long-term interests of people they are supposed to represent. They are both actively seeking an outcome they believe will boost their political strength even if it impoverishes the people of the North and damages the economy in the Republic.
The destructive approach of Sinn Féin was evident in the Dáil on Tuesday when Mary Lou McDonald castigated Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for saying he would be prepared to discuss a review mechanism for the Border backstop. She described this as a “cock-up” and demanded that he should not budge an inch.
Varadkar calmly explained why he was open to considering a review and explained that in order to find agreement on difficult issues it is sometimes necessary to be open to creative solutions and creative language. He then told the Sinn Féin leader some home truths.
“It is a very good thing that Deputy McDonald is not leading these negotiations. She holds the world record for failing to negotiate a coalition agreement in Northern Ireland, which now stands at more than two years. We can see from her performance here today that she is too extreme, uncompromising and bullying. Deputy McDonald would turn our friends into enemies within months.”
Varadkar will have to steel himself for further claims of a sellout if a deal between the EU and the UK is agreed in the coming days or weeks, but they will be nothing compared to the attacks that British prime minister Theresa May will have to endure if and when she agrees a deal.
Deputy McDonald would turn our friends into enemies within months
By all accounts the two sides are tantalisingly close to a deal but the final step will be the hardest. Having initially opposed a backstop for Northern Ireland, the British are now proposing a backstop that will apply to the entire UK. The EU, for its part, is now prepared to accept such a UK-wide backstop having initially opposed it for fear it would allow the British to cherrypick the single market.
The question is how much detail the withdrawal agreement should contain. While the Border backstop will be a key element, the British are seeking to have the UK-wide arrangements included in as detailed a fashion as possible and this is being resisted by Michel Barnier and his team.
“The British have tried to cram the details of a UK-wide backstop into the withdrawal agreement at the last minute and the fear in Brussels is that this will give them an advantage in the trade talks that will follow,” said one EU source.
Both sides already fear they may have given too much and that is why the final step is so difficult. May’s more hardline cabinet colleagues – including Brexit secretary Domnic Raab – want a quick way out of the backstop with three months’ notice being enough at any stage.
This is totally unacceptable to the EU and the Irish but they are prepared to look at some way of reassuring the British that they will not be locked into a permanent transition arrangement after the UK’s formal exit at the end of March.
Both sides already fear they may have given too much and that is why the final step is so difficult
In her phone call with the Taoiseach on Monday, the May wanted to discuss a review mechanism for the backstop. Varadkar rightly left the door open to that as it does not cut across the basic rationale behind the backstop, which is after all only a means to an end. The EU side is waiting for a British move in the coming days to get over the final hurdle. A review mechanism appears to be the favoured UK solution at this stage.
Varadkar is open to a review as a way of breaking the impasse, as is the EU, but there is no guarantee that May will be able to carry her cabinet never mind the Conservative Party and the House of Commons. The only way she will have a chance of succeeding is if she is able to claim some sort of victory.
One of the many wise statements of the great Irish-American politician Tipp O’Neill was that in order to get the kind of deal he wanted in any negotiation a serious politician has to be prepared to let the other guy claim the credit.
The only way an EU-UK deal will work is if everybody involved is able to claim some credit for the solution. From the Irish point of view, that means avoiding the winner-takes-all approach to negotiation favoured by Sinn Féin and the DUP and focusing on a deal that can give the maximum benefit to both sides.