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Analysis

Ireland backs soft Brexiters in UK cabinet battle

by Bruce Clark | 01.02.2018

At times last year, relations between Britain, Ireland and continental Europe seemed to have slipped backwards at least 100 years, or perhaps 200. Once again, Ireland was rallying its friends in Europe to counter damage it was suffering from harsh policies imposed by the bigger island. But that has suddenly changed, and we are living in the late 20th century once more. Ireland is offering to resume its role as Britain’s strongest advocate in Brussels.

Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, elaborated this point, albeit with important conditions, in a speech on January 31 at Chatham House, the heart of Britain’s foreign-affairs establishment. “Ireland will be Britain’s closest friend” in Phase II of the Brexit negotiations, he promised, while urging his hosts to make “ambitious” proposals for an EU-UK relationship which, whatever its name, would keep most benefits of the single market and customs union.

The hard-fought deal to mitigate the effects of Brexit on the inter-Irish border, negotiated amid much turmoil last December, was only a fall-back, Coveney stressed, echoing several recent statements by his boss, the Taoiseach  Leo Varadkar.  Under the new line from Dublin, it would be better for Britain to seal a partnership with the Union of such warmth and proximity that the risk of disruption on the Irish border would melt away.

Amidst all this emollience, Coveney did make the point that with or without Irish advocacy, Britain faced choices. It could not enjoy the boon of the single market while also asserting freedom to make trade deals with third parties. And in Ireland’s respectful opinion, the advantages of the latter would never outweigh the benefits of the former.

On the British and even to some extent on the Ulster Unionist side, there has also been a lowering of tone in comments about Ireland and Brexit.  Speaking to the parliamentary Brexit committee on January 24 David Davis was at pains to present the December deal (promising to protect the  inter-Irish trade relations that underpin the peace process) as a  low-key, technical matter, affecting only a few areas such as common waterways and veterinary standards.  But these days he and his colleagues all seem well aware of the common sense point that both Anglo-Irish and inter-Irish trade need to be protected.

Even Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, surprised some sceptics by saying, at a conference in Kerry, that Northern Ireland could not flourish without a prosperous south, and that closer economic relations across the island were a gain that should not be forfeited.

But in the end, none of this changes Coveney’s courteously made point about hard choices. Dublin is saying, in effect: go for soft Brexit, and we will try to get you a good one, and we will even collude with your political need to call it something different. Coveney ducked an Irish reporter’s question about whether he got along better with the doveish Philip Hammond than with other British ministers; but the fact is that he is plunging deep into the Conservative party’s internal debates and hoping to tilt the outcome.

Even the DUP has its internal debates. By no means all Foster’s party colleagues agree with her in affirming the commonality of interests between Ireland’s two parts. Some passionately share the Tory right-wingers’ belief in the very opposite of what Coveney says: in other words, they are convinced that for Britain, the freedom to make trade deals with third parties will easily outweigh all other considerations.    

Put simply, in the ongoing arguments over Europe within British Conservatism, there are now powerful Irish voices on both sides.

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    Edited by Luke Lythgoe

    2 Responses to “Ireland backs soft Brexiters in UK cabinet battle”

    • Of all the stupidest, meanest aspects of brexit, of which there are countless, the recklessness of brextremists in undermining the Good Friday Agreement & turning the clock back to the days of violence must come top. It is simply unforgiveable. And while we’re at it, throwing Gibraltar’s future into uncertainty ranks as another brexit own goal.

    • Given the degree to which the Good Friday Agreement is laced through with references to the joint EU membership of the UK and Ireland and the fact that this agreement was embedded by referendums on both sides of the border and is also registered with the UN as an international treaty, I would go so far as to say that the GFA effectually removed the right of either the UK or Ireland unilaterally to leave the single market and the customs union if not the EU itself.