Expert View

May maintains Irish muddle to the very end

by David Hannay | 13.01.2019

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

As Theresa May’s government struggles to avoid a major defeat of its Brexit deal in the Commons on Tuesday, the contortions over the Irish backstop grow ever more complex and unrealistic. Having made a pretty comprehensive hash of the Irish dimension throughout the Brexit negotiations, the government seems determined to keep this record up to the very end.

How else can one interpret the acceptance of an amendment moved by a Conservative backbencher, Hugo Swire, which purports to give the UK sole control over what happens at the end of the transitional period in December 2020: to switch to either the Irish backstop or the prolongation for up to two years of the transitional period as it stands? The amendment also pretends that our Parliament can then unilaterally exit from the backstop after one year.

But the choice in 2020 between the Irish backstop and extension of the transitional period is not ours alone. It has to be negotiated and agreed by the UK and the EU. And exiting unilaterally from the Irish backstop would be no more consistent with the UK’s international obligations under the Withdrawal Treaty than it was when, last November, the attorney-general said it could not be done legally.

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And then you have the foreign secretary saying that the government is still seeking “legally binding” reassurances about the Irish backstop from the EU. That’s despite the fact the other 27 EU countries have said frequently and consistently that such legally binding reassurances are not on offer and that they are not prepared to contemplate any renegotiation of the Irish backstop set out in the Withdrawal Treaty. That agreement will become law, both here in the UK and across the EU, if Theresa May gets her way and has her deal approved by Parliament. Does Jeremy Hunt know something we have missed? Doubtful.

Meanwhile the BBC’s EU correspondent reports from Brussels that a joint letter from the presidents of the European Council and of the Commission will offer reassurances ahead of Tuesday’s vote. Well, that may be so. But no letter, even one from as august a couple of presidents as those, can override or supplant what is in the Withdrawal Treaty.

No wonder the DUP, who are the target of all this manoeuvring, do not seem to be much impressed. Why should they be? One can criticise the way they are seeking to exercise leverage over the government in this negotiation. One can even suspect that they are acting as a recruiting sergeant for support of a United Ireland. But, within the terms of their own logic, the government’s desperate wriggling simply does not cut it.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

3 Responses to “May maintains Irish muddle to the very end”

  • This is complete drivel written by a monumentally ignorant person with no understanding of the Political situation in Northern Ireland whatsoever.

    If you don’t retract this article, you are making a serious mistake.

    The conclusions don’t make Any sense whatsoever.

  • Dear Anon,
    Please could you articulate your concern here? I, like possibly many other readers, don’t understand your comments. If you’ve got a good strong argument here we’d like to hear it.