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The time for Irish grandstanding on Brexit is over

Varadkar will face strong pressure if he has to compromise on border backstop

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British prime minister Theresa May on the sidelines of an EU summit in Brussels last month. Photograph: Yves Herman/AP

The departure of Boris Johnson and David Davis from the British cabinet is good news for Ireland but it poses a new set of challenges for the Government in Dublin. The task now is to find a more conciliatory approach towards British concerns to ensure the softest possible Brexit.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney have gained lots of brownie points with the public over the past year by taking a tough line with the United Kingdom, particularly over the border backstop, but the time for grandstanding is over.

It is this country's vital national interest that a soft Brexit with the minimum disruption to trade, as well as the avoidance of a hard border, is the final outcome. British prime minister Theresa May is clearly trying to lead a reluctant Conservative Party in that direction and needs all the help she can get.

There was an encouraging welcome from both the Taoiseach and Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin in the Dáil on Tuesday to the evolving British approach, although Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald was predictably negative.


White Paper

The publication of the British White Paper on Thursday will put flesh on the bones of the UK approach to the crucial phase of the Brexit negotiations and while many large questions remain the direction of travel is positive.

Far from being the shambles portrayed by most British commentators the dramatic resignations from the British cabinet in recent days have left May in a stronger position than she was before. Instead of appearing to drift at the mercy of events she has finally taken the initiative and decided what kind of Brexit she wants.

Their departure has given her the authority to lead

Losing two of her most obstructive ministers is far from being the calamity described by much of the British media. Their departure has given her the authority to lead,which she has so markedly lacked since her disastrous decision to call a general election last year.

Despite predictions of a backbench revolt, the first meeting of her parliamentary party after the resignations gave her strong support. While her enemies certainly won’t give up, there is every chance that she will confound all of the dire predictions and remain in office to deliver Brexit.

Some time ago a parallel was drawn in this column between the approach to Brexit being taken by the apparently hapless May and the way taoiseach Jack Lynch dealt with rebellious ministers and a truculent parliamentary party during the arms crisis of 1970. Lynch ultimately outfoxed his powerful opponents and saved this country from a potential civil war.

It is still too early to say whether May will remain in control and bring her country to a soft Brexit. She will undoubtedly face a confrontation with rebellious backbenchers at some stage. However, as former Tory leader and foreign secretary William Hague pointed out this week, there is a sizeable majority in the House of Commons for a soft Brexit and that should prove telling in the end.

From an Irish perspective the big challenge is likely to be what kind of border backstop will be acceptable, assuming there is broad agreement between the European Union and the UK on trade. When pressed in the Dáil by McDonald to insist on the legally binding backstop devised by the EU in March, Varadkar responded: “I am not hung up on legal texts. It is not about the legal texts but the outcome.”


While this is undoubtedly the right approach to take, the Taoiseach will come under strong pressure if he has to compromise on the backstop. As he pointed out in the Dáil the final agreement between the EU and the UK will have to be ratified in the parliaments of the remaining 27 member states.

But it could still prove tricky when matters come to a head

Given the Government's lack of a Dáil majority that could be problematical, unless Fianna Fáil is on side. Martin's comments in the Dáil this week indicate that the main Opposition party has a similar appreciation of the options facing the country, but it could still prove tricky when matters come to a head.

Ultimately the choice may be whether to accept a watered-down backstop on the basis that a suitable trade deal is more important or to collapse a trade deal with all of the negative consequences that would entail for the entire island of Ireland in order to retain a theoretically strong backstop.

The attitude of the European Commission and the other member states will be crucial in determining whether we even get to that point. The initial reaction in Brussels to the latest British proposal was guarded and it will not be easy to find a compromise May can live with that doesn't infringe the basic principles of the EU.

That is where the relationship between Ireland and the UK could prove crucial in encouraging a spirit of compromise, rather than one of confrontation. Relations between the two countries have never been better, as the latest royal visit demonstrated.

Another straw in the wind is the unprecedented level of support in Ireland for the English World Cup team. Some of that is due to the modesty and honesty of the English manger and his players but it is also a sign of the more mature relationship between the two countries which has developed in recent decades. Hopefully that will help ease the path to a soft Brexit.