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Time for Dublin to consider a tactical retreat on Brexit

Varadkar and Coveney have sought credit for success but they are equally exposed to failure

On Tuesday afternoon, as the British government staggered towards another Brexit humiliation, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar urged Fianna Fáil and Irish Labour to press their Westminster sister parties, the Liberal Democrats and British Labour, to support the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement.

Speaking in the Dáil, Varadkar said rejection of the agreement would lead to a no-deal Brexit that “nobody would benefit from”.

This can only be seen a desperate attempt to spread blame for such an outcome.

The Liberal Democrats have only two more seats than the DUP, while the Labour leadership barely listens to its own MPs on Brexit.


Neither party can be seen to be swayed by political siblings in Ireland, a country that has portrayed itself as the UK's hardball opponent in negotiations.

Last week, Varadkar said Sinn Féin should use its seven votes in Westminster to avoid a no-deal outcome. Despite this being something Sinn Féin could actually do, the Taoiseach’s remarks were viewed as teasing or early electioneering. How much shallower was his plea to other Dáil parties who can only continue to hold his coat?

Constant proclamations

It might seem unfair to attach any blame for Brexit to Irish politicians. However, to the extent that Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney have sought credit for success, they are equally exposed to failure. Constant proclamations of Irish influence and EU solidarity over the withdrawal process create ownership of the result – disaster included.

The mistake Dublin appears to have made is in not sufficiently distinguishing between a weak British position and a weak British government.

Having London over a barrel, both in the structure of the negotiations and in the UK’s need for a future EU partnership, might create a temptation to drive a hard bargain. However, a strong British government was always going to be necessary to deliver its side of the bargain.

That is why UK prime minister Theresa May called a general election in June 2017. She knew it would take far more than her working majority of 16 to get any likely EU offer through parliament.

When the election returned the Conservatives as a minority government, dependent on the DUP, the window of what was possible narrowed dramatically and obviously.

Yet Varadkar, who became Taoiseach one week later, quickly moved the Republic to a more assertive Brexit position, which he and Coveney have stuck to ever since.

Now they seem almost trapped by the contradiction, unable to assist a pathetic opponent. There was a brief moment last month after the agreement was published when it might have been sold to the Commons as a British victory, if only a form of words could have been found to de-dramatise the backstop exit mechanism.

Although May is a hopeless communicator and her ministers were a bag of cats, they made an attempt to do so – only to be shot down by the Taoiseach and Coveney in uncompromising terms.

A permanent backstop was a deal-breaker and the agreement had ensured it, they declared.

Varadkar told the Dáil just prior to publication that he was open to “creative language” on the exit mechanism but this evaporated as soon as Sinn Féin teased him about “losing his nerve”.

Huge victory

Losing face also seems to be an issue. The agreement is a huge victory for the Republic on the border that counts – that is, the border with Wales. An all-UK backstop in the customs union, forming a baseline for the future EU relationship, promises Ireland relatively open trade with and through Britain. Admittedly, this is hard to celebrate when the alleged purpose of the backstop is an open border with Northern Ireland. But the Irish Government could have quietly banked its victory and offered London soothing words. Instead, Dublin crowed and May was left to sell the deal alone, bringing matters to a predictably nail-biting conclusion.

What is the point of an insurance policy that sets the house on fire?

The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste are not responsible for creating the backstop demand – the EU agreed its Brexit negotiating strategy one month before both men assumed office.

It took until January this year to establish that Westminster will have a meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement – until then, in theory, May could have tried pushing it through by executive authority.

So there was a six-month period from last June when Varadkar and Coveney inherited a complex process and had a case for squeezing their end of it hard as they could.

Throughout this year, however, as the backstop became more controversial, it should have been accepted that the case was unravelling.

A supposed guarantee of peace and prosperity for Northern Ireland has become a threat to stability and trade across Britain and Ireland. What is the point of an insurance policy that sets the house on fire?

It now seems certain May will lose next week’s Commons vote and passing the withdrawal agreement will require a second attempt. If Dublin wants a deal, that is when it must see sense in a tactical retreat.