Belfast Telegraph

View from Dublin: How Brexit's bringing out the worst in politics

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson

By Richard Curran

Political crises bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. What is it about Brexit that when it comes to the British political classes, Brexit's unique brand of toxicity only serves to bring out the worst?

This was never more evident than in the House of Commons last week when British Prime Minister Theresa May dumped the backstop as government policy and decided to do a U-turn on the need for a legally binding safety net to ensure there is no hard border in Ireland.

The British government is now truly in unique territory where ministers are saying the backstop must go, having agreed as a government, to introduce it in a major international agreement signed by their Prime Minister.

It might have some credibility if a different British government or different prime minister was advocating this new position for pragmatic reasons.

But Theresa May remains in place.

There have been so many Brexit phrases in the last two-and-a-half years which have meant different things to different people. When Theresa May began to yield to reality in the negotiations by softening her position, some in Westminster described it as the 'Brexit betrayal'.

When an EU Commission spokesman said there would be a hard border in a no-deal scenario, it was seen here as a 'Brexit backstab'. But the most unnerving and slippery phrase used about Brexit came from Boris Johnson when he was interviewed in Dublin by Bryan Dobson. He was asked why he signed up to the backstop in December 2017, given that he actually sees it as unnecessary and unacceptable.

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Johnson said he saw the backstop at the time as a "convenient fiction" - something which simply allowed the talks to progress.

Former Brexit secretary David Davis at the time said he saw it as a "statement of intent" rather than something that was legally enforceable.

These are the very reasons why the Irish Government was right to push for a backstop in the first place. How could any sovereign government trust the word of someone who signs up to something in writing only to say they simply saw it as a convenient fiction?

Theresa May saw it through as far as a vote defeat in the House of Commons but has now abandoned it. The backstop may well be politically dead, as far as getting it through the House of Commons goes, but how could the Irish Government or Brussels negotiate with such a failed British government leader.

Unfortunately, the prime minister's decision to put the stubbornness of a minority in her political party against the interests of her country, has brought the whole process closer to a no-deal scenario in which everybody loses. The suggested alternatives to the backstop include:

A TRUSTED TRADER SCHEME - which will help with large-scale businesses but will still require regular physical checks of goods. It would be a smuggler's charter without regular actual checks.

MUTUAL RECOGNITION OF RULES WITH THE EU - This simply won't work because it implies the EU would recognise UK rules while the UK reserves the right to introduce its own rules. It makes no sense unless there is a formal agreement not to change rules.

TECHNOLOGICAL SOLUTIONS - These remain something of an illusive fantasy.

TIME LIMIT ON THE BACKSTOP OR UNILATERAL EXIT FROM IT - this means it is not a backstop at all, just an extension of the transition period. The path through this mess which doesn't end up with a no-deal exit is becoming harder to identify. A second referendum looks more distant after this week.

It is quite possible that a second referendum in the short-term would bring about a similar leave result anyway. An acceptable deal that protects the status quo along the border is disappearing.

The ratcheting up of rhetoric around the border issue has got so bad, there is an expectation all along the border that any kind of infrastructure built there in the future will be blown up.

People would now be surprised if it wasn't. This contributes to making it a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The pressure on the Irish Government to back down on the backstop is already substantial. It will build and build even if the British government secures an extension to the March 29 deadline. Dublin is very much in the Tories' sights.

The British government will target the Irish Government constantly until the cracks appear.

It really is time for businesses to batten down the hatches and prepare for the worst.

Belfast Telegraph