Varadkar’s backstop gamble could cost Ireland dearly

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

‘The government has relished wearing the green jersey on Brexit and standing up to the British with the help of the European Union — and been aware of the political benefits of doing so,’ thundered Pat Leahy in the Irish Times last week. ‘But now the pitfalls begin to emerge from the fog.’

Leo Varadkar gambled on the British government either cancelling Brexit or getting roped in by the backstop to accept Brexit in name only. The Taoiseach lost that gamble — and his strategy now lies in tatters.

Since mid-2017, when Varadkar took office, teaming up with Brussels to take a maximalist, ultra-legalistic approach to the Irish border, his domestic commentariat has overwhelmingly backed him. The opportunity to exploit Theresa May’s reliance on the DUP, with tiny Ireland making life difficult for the mighty Brits, was just too tempting to miss.

There was a cynical belief, in the political saloons of both Dublin and Brussels, that if fears about a return to the Troubles were whipped up enough, the biggest expression of democracy in British history could be thwarted. That, or the Brits might be goaded into staying in the customs union — diverting billions each year to Brussels, as UK consumers and businesses kept paying the EU’s common external tariff on non-EU imports.

But with Boris Johnson heading for Downing Street, there’s a growing realisation that no deal could actually happen — and that it would be terrible for Ireland. Half the Republic’s beef, timber and construction material exports are sold in the UK, and over two-thirds of goods exporters use Britain as a ‘land bridge’ — crossing the Irish Sea, then travelling by road to eastern UK ports, heading for the EU and global markets.

With default EU intransigence, however, and Johnson on a ‘do or die’ mission to take Britain out of the EU on 31 October ‘come what may’, the ‘crash-out’ Brexit which the Irish fear is now on the cards.

‘Reality intrudes on the government’s Brexit game plan,’ read the headline on Pat Leahy’s article last week. Leahy is political editor of the Irish Times — until now, the standard bearer of Irish backstop resolve. Yet Ireland’s most important newspaper now says Varadkar should get off his Brexit high horse.

‘If a concession on the backstop materialises — perhaps a time-limiting protocol; a legal codicil which specifies a review in the absence of agreement; something, anything to give [Johnson] an opportunity to bring the withdrawal agreement back to the House of Commons, there will be intense pressure on the Irish government to accept it,’ wrote Leahy. ‘After all, isn’t the possibility of border checks in a few years’ time better than the certainty of checks on 31 October?’

Eoghan Harris is another veteran commentator of immense significance who is now breaking ranks, pointing out — however unpatriotic it sounds — that in this great stand-off with the Brit oppressors, Ireland may have to upset the EU a little by giving some ground.

‘Like Dr Frankenstein, Varadkar’s backstop has created the Boris Johnson monster who may politically destroy his creator,’ wrote Harris, a few days after Leahy’s seminal piece. ‘But our politicians and media were too busy sneering at the suicidal Brits to notice that it was our beloved backstop that was driving them over the cliffs — and that we were shackled to them.’

The demise of May, and the ensuing Tory leadership contest, has been a welcome break from Anglo-Irish mutual recrimination about the post-Brexit border. With exquisite timing, England’s victory in the Cricket World Cup reminds us just how culturally and psychologically entwined our two countries are. ‘Congratulations Eoin Morgan and England,’ Varadkar tweeted as an Irishman lifted the trophy at Lords. ‘A proud day for all of us’.

Yet once Johnson takes office, the countdown to October begins and the backstop will be back — looming again as the main obstacle to any withdrawal agreement. The reality is, though, that today’s largely invisible land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic already copes with different currencies and variations in VAT and other taxes. Yes, there is rural smuggling — but UK and Irish authorities have long shared intelligence to keep contraband trade in check.

The same invisible Irish land border coping with differing taxes can clearly handle minor post-Brexit differences in trading standards. Such variations would be even more marginal if the UK and EU got beyond this confected backstop nonsense and finally negotiated a free-trade agreement.

Yes, new infrastructure on the Irish border would inflame sectarian violence, but no new infrastructure is needed — as countless customs experts have confirmed. The amount of cross-border trade — 1.4 per cent of the Republic’s goods exports — can be managed using trusted trader schemes, derogations for small firms and ‘behind the border’ origin and destination checks. That’s always been true — and claims to the contrary are designed only to stop Britain leaving.

It’s the backstop that threatens the Good Friday Agreement, changing the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without public consent. That precious accord requires both London and Dublin ‘to come together to promote bilateral co-operation at all levels on all matters of mutual interest’.

Mutual interest now requires Varadkar and Johnson to negotiate directly to get both the Northern Ireland Assembly and the North-South Council up and running again. Above all, they should make a joint declaration on logistical plans to deal with the border — which, if presented as a solemn bilateral undertaking, Brussels would find hard to resist.

‘Surely the backstop has backfired because May couldn’t get it through the British parliament?’ Irish radio host Matt Cooper asked the foreign minister Simon Coveney last week, in a forensic pounding. ‘The objections to the backstop itself could create the very situation you want to avoid — the restoration of a hard border.’

Brexit is ‘a British problem’, and a no deal outcome ‘would be a British choice’, Coveney replied, his stock response. ‘I won’t change the Irish position on the back of a threat,’ he told Cooper.

‘Then how about changing position on the back of the reality you face?’ Cooper replied.

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