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Tom Kelly: PM’s priorities are where his votes are, and it’s not Northern Ireland

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson

By Tom Kelly

Whatever you say, say nothing when you talk about you know what. For if you know who should hear ya, you know what you'd get.

Those lyrics kept repeating in my head after the summit between An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar and British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Nobody was saying much about anything.

And the chorus wasn't much better. Take the words of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, on the meeting: " I am not going into the details of the negotiations." Then Micheal Martin. Leader of Fianna Fail: " The less said in public, the better!" And the Taoiseach, in rare harmony, said: "I won't be going into detail as it's sensitive. When in discussions, the less said, the better."

Of course, they are talking about Brexit deadlines, deals and the divorce that dare not speak its name.

In fairness, the mood music around the Merseyside summit was good. It would not have lasted three hours had it not been reasonably constructive.

The Taoiseach and Prime Minister appeared to have a good rapport.

Personal relationships are important at times of crisis.

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Sometimes An Taoiseach is easily flattered and Mr Johnson is well known for his powers of seduction - so the optics come with a heavy qualification. The key is whether both parties feel the same way the morning after the night before.

The format of the day was unusual. Meetings occurred between the British and Irish teams, then reduced down to handful of key advisors and both Prime Ministers. This was followed by a brisk walk and some 'couple' time for the two leaders.

Much can be lost in translation from such a format. Understandings and undertakings may become blurred. Could it all be a charm offensive to prepare for the blame game? Maybe, but I think not. Johnson needs a deal. As does Leo. And so does Northern Ireland.

The morning after and the goodwill seems to have prevailed all the way to Brussels for the meeting between Brexit Secretary, Steve Barclay, and EU Chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.

The semi news block out is necessary. All too often, careless talk, sniping briefings and megaphone diplomacy has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

This is not the time to allow the futures of two neighbouring countries, who have joint stewardship of the problem child - Northern Ireland - to have their negotiations dissected and pulled apart by Twitter trolls, jumped up bovver boys, madcap lefties and right wing loonies.

There will be nervousness within the DUP ranks. Further pragmatism may be required.

They should face up to this because such pragmatism will not change the constitutional position of NI within the UK.

It will demonstrate maturity and it delivers on the joint Executive Letter of August 2016, signed by Arlene Foster and the late Martin McGuinness and their stated desire for a soft landing for NI post Brexit.

Being mature, leading from the front and not bowing to the lowest common denominator in loyalism would do much to restore the cross-community credibility the DUP lost during the past 1,000 days.

Johnson's electoral success depends on delivering a Brexit which is recognised as such by voters in Britain. If there is a ranking order for his priorities, it is wherever his votes are. They are not in Northern Ireland, as the Tories hardly register on the Richter scale.

The alignment of some in the DUP to the Brexit Party is like hitching a lift on a Catherine wheel, momentarily exciting, all sparks, only to fizzle out like a damp squib.

Farage never looks like a man who wants a full-time political job. Post Brexit, his party will disintegrate, as did its predecessor, UKIP.

Sinn Fein's leadership has been unusually quiet. Mary Lou gave a cautious welcome to the news there was positive vibes coming from the Anglo-Irish summit.

When a Brexit deal didn't look at all possible, some in Sinn Fein hoped a crash out of the EU would lead to the type of chaos which would anger nationalist voters. Thus giving a timely lift to a party languishing in the polls in the Republic.

The campaign to have a border poll will also stall if Johnson's government can pull off the elusive deal.

However, the idea of a bespoke NI referendum on the customs union or back stop is a real possibility. That said, every election in Northern Ireland is a quasi border poll.

The Tories will never concede on a border poll whilst in hoc to the DUP. The momentum has, for the time being, left any prospect for a border poll years away. Unionists should take comfort in that, too.

Deal or no deal - Sinn Fein probably thought they could still make electoral advantage from either outcome.

If, and its a huge if, a no-deal Brexit is avoided, Sinn Fein will come under huge pressure to go back into the Assembly and restore the Executive. The question is, will they?

In the meantime, remember 'For the less you say, the less you hear and if anyone asks who told you, then Please don't mention me'!

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