Ireland plays its cards shrewdly

by Bruce Clark | 21.11.2017

Leo Varadkar denies being in a hurry to unite Ireland politically. But Ireland’s prime minister is playing a clever game to keep it united economically.

After quietly making sure that fellow Europeans have his back covered, Varadkar has confronted the UK with the near-untenability of its declared position over Ireland and demanded a change. The case he makes is simple and unanswerable, and to many people across Ireland, no more than basic common sense.

It has also got up the noses of Britain’s pro-Brexit press. The Sun lashed out in an editorial on Saturday calling the Taoiseach a “Brexit buffoon” and telling him to “shut his gob” and “grow up”. If Theresa May had any sense, she would publicly distance herself from the tabloid’s inflammatory remarks.

Since January, the UK has been committed to leaving the EU’s customs union and single market. That has dire implications for Ireland. If Northern Ireland remains under the same commercial regime as Great Britain, border controls between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic will have to be reinforced. However, that would be politically provocative, almost impossible to police, and damaging to the economic interests of both parts of Ireland.

Logically, that damage can only be averted in two ways: either the UK relents and decides, after all, to remain close to the EU trading system; or Northern Ireland is hived off and to some extent stays inside that system, even if that means moving somewhat further away from Britain.

Varadkar is now indicating that he will block Britain’s progression to the next phase of the Brexit talks unless there is an explicit guarantee of how exactly a hard inter-Irish border will be avoided. This guarantee would have to go much further than the technical fixes which were floated in a British government paper in August which has been dismissed as magical thinking.

Yesterday his position received a warm endorsement from Michel Barnier. The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator insisted that Northern Ireland already had, in certain respects, a special status because of its deep economic relationship with the Republic, of which the all-Ireland electricity market was an example. So Britain could hardly claim that a special deal for Northern Ireland would weaken UK sovereignty.

The problem, of course, for May is that she relies on votes from the Democratic Unionist Party which believes almost the opposite. If it came to a choice, the DUP would prefer a reinforced inter-Irish border, regardless of the havoc it might wreak, than any weakening of Northern Ireland’s link with Britain.

Under DUP pressure, May’s ministers have had to state several times that there is no question of watering down the UK’s integrity by weakening Britain’s ties to Northern Ireland. To which Irish officials would retort that they are not, in this context, raising issues of sovereignty. Instead they are merely insisting on the avoidance of any obstacle to the all-Ireland economic cooperation which is one of the building blocks of the 1998 peace agreement.

Faced with pressure from Dublin, London can retort that the whole question of Ireland’s border will be vastly simplified if the second phase of the Brexit talks is allowed to move ahead swiftly and then leads to a close trading arrangement between the EU and its erstwhile member. If all UK-EU trade is seamless, then inter-Irish trade will be seamless.

But Varadkar believes he cannot leave that to chance, especially as May’s positions on the customs union and single market make it most unlikely that future UK/EU trade can be seamless. The Irish government will never again enjoy as much leverage as it has now.

That leverage does, ultimately, have limits. If at some point all the other EU members wanted to move ahead to Phase Two, then Ireland could hardly stand against them. But thus far the Taoiseach has shown a shrewd sense of where Ireland’s interests lie and how far he can go in pursuing them.

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    Edited by Hugo Dixon