Stephen Collins: Taoiseach avoids bombast in response to Johnson’s threats

Micheál Martin’s measured tone will win support in Brussels and Washington

Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson: His adoption of Trumpian disruptive negotiating tactics has already backfired by undermining the prospects of a transatlantic trade deal. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau

Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson: His adoption of Trumpian disruptive negotiating tactics has already backfired by undermining the prospects of a transatlantic trade deal. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau

 

Micheál Martin was absolutely right to avoid histrionics in his reaction to Boris Johnson’s stated intention of reneging on the Irish protocol. Whatever happens next, the Taoiseach’s calm but firm response to the clownish behaviour of his British counterpart will serve this country better in the long term than indulging in a public war of words.

By threatening to tear up an international treaty, the UK government has disgraced itself in the eyes of the international community and done serious damage to its prospects of negotiating its cherished free-trade agreement with the United States. Whether Johnson is adopting the “madman” approach to negotiation, in the hope of winning concession from the EU, or is signalling his intention of walking away from a trade deal only time will tell but the Irish Government has wisely avoided getting involved in megaphone diplomacy.

True to form, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald demanded in the Dáil on Wednesday that Martin dispense with diplomatic niceties in his dealings with the “dangerous and stupid” Johnson. She attempted to ratchet up the political temperature by reference to “perfidious Albion” and Johnson’s “blunt English nationalism”, as if her own strident Irish nationalism was not of the same blunt variety.

Martin rightly declined to go down that route, saying that while he was as resolute as anybody else in the Dáil in defending the Irish protocol he would not “react in a knee-jerk manner to any particular move in the middle of negotiations”. It was the correct response. Until it becomes absolutely clear what British intentions are, a descent into the kind of Brit-bashing rhetoric that comes so naturally to Sinn Féin will do nothing apart from exacerbating tensions in Northern Ireland.

The kind of Brit-bashing rhetoric that comes so naturally to Sinn Féin will do nothing apart from exacerbating tensions in Northern Ireland

The Government’s considered response is likely to prove a more effective way of ensuring continued EU solidarity and mobilising international opinion in support of the Irish protocol. The Taoiseach left the prime minister in no doubt about his government’s anger in his “forthright” telephone call on Wednesday evening. His views were reinforced by Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi which should give Johnson serious pause for thought about his strategy.

US backing

“If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday [Belfast] accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress. The Good Friday Agreement is treasured by the American people and will be proudly defended in the United States Congress,” declared Pelosi.

Her intervention puts the British hopes of a free-trade agreement with the US in serious doubt. Even if Johnson ally Donald Trump manages to defy the odds and make it back to the White House, he will not be able to deliver a trade deal with the UK without the consent of Congress. In the more likely scenario that Joe Biden, who proudly boasts of his Irish-American ancestry, wins the presidency with a solid majority in Congress behind him, the chances of a trade deal are close to zero.

Far from putting pressure on the EU negotiators, it has actually strengthened their hand as it makes the consequences of walking away from a deal with the UK’s biggest trading partner all the more damaging.

There is every chance that once his bluff is called Johnson will do a somersault just as he did last year when he went back on his promise to die in the ditch

Of course, there is every chance that once his bluff is called Johnson will do a somersault just as he did last year when he went back on his promise to die in the ditch rather than seek an extension of his country’s involvement in the single market. That U-turn was dressed up by him and his cheerleaders in the British press as a last-minute concession by the EU and fuelled the notion that grandstanding pays off.

Economic madness

This time around there is much less room for manoeuvre and that is what makes the situation so dangerous. It may be economic madness for the UK to turn its back on an EU trade deal but the political consequences of climbing down may stand in the way of reason.

The way in which northern secretary Brandon Lewis went about making a virtue of breaking international law is a worrying sign that political insanity may have taken hold. Instead of stressing that the UK intends to implement the key part of the Irish protocol on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland, he emphasised the less important element that involves goods going in the other direction.

The UK government has gone out of its way to create the impression that it is spoiling for a fight and it may now feel it has no option but to get involved in a brawl, even if the only outcome is going to be a severe beating. There is nothing to be gained by the Irish Government egging it on as British self-destruction will do more damage to us than to any other EU member state.

After an uncertain start to his term of office, the Taoiseach has handled himself well in this crisis, avoiding nationalist bombast and behaving like a statesman in contrast to the buffoonery in London. It could well be the making of him.

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