Belfast Telegraph

Ed Curran: Dublin must move on the backstop to fend off a no-deal disaster

The island of Ireland has most to lose if no agreement can be reached with Brussels before March 29, writes Ed Curran

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (left) and Tanaiste Simon Coveney have refused to accept any changes to the withdrawal agreement
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (left) and Tanaiste Simon Coveney have refused to accept any changes to the withdrawal agreement

I do not want a border between Letterkenny and Derry any more than I want a border between Larne and Stranraer." A year ago these were the words of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, but now the prospect of a Larne-Stranraer 'border', which the backstop requires and which many unionists oppose, is ignored in Dublin.

Mr Varadkar and Tanaiste Simon Coveney, having won over Europe to the cause of an open border between north and south, now keep mum about the other border they used to be concerned about - the one down the Irish Sea.

The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is held up as the reason nothing further of any consequence can be done to alter Theresa May's withdrawal agreement. Yet the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit looms larger with each passing day.

Little wonder major Irish companies are worried. Little wonder business, agriculture and general commerce in the south - and here too in Northern Ireland - are fearing the potential pain and a probable calamity if Europe and the UK hit the buffers on March 29 with no deal.

A man from Mars descending on this island might conclude that we have all lost the run of ourselves. Everyone is so hung up on the so-called backstop that we risk hurtling towards a devastating outcome for the economy of the Republic and that of Northern Ireland also.

If the worst comes to the worst on March 29, the land which says it will not countenance a border again risks having to build one at the behest of Brussels.

In its unwillingness to even consider any compromise on the backstop, for example a time limit, Dublin risks the whole withdrawal agreement ending in a bitter and hugely costly divorce between London and Brussels, with untold consequences for this entire island.

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Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz confesses he has been thinking along these lines for several weeks now. However, when he dared to differ from the European and Irish position this week his arguments were swiftly dismissed by Mr Coveney. Not only were the Poles out of step with mainstream European opinion, but seemingly under no circumstances would the Irish Government consider any changes to the withdrawal agreement. Mr Coveney even ruled out any prospect of time limiting the backstop to five years, as the Polish minister had suggested.

Whatever the price that will be paid by Ireland, or by the other European countries and by the UK, the backstop is sacrosanct. It could be said that the whole future of Europe hangs in the balance on whether customs posts are needed on the Irish border. No matter how incredulous even bizarre the likelihood, this is where we are and no one seems willing to give way.

All of this is being contemplated in the name of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which everyone agrees must be adhered to in letter and spirit, even though our local politicians have driven a coach and horses through its main power-sharing requirement.

The Agreement has three strands. The first, that politicians in Northern Ireland should share power. That has become a nonsense as everyone knows, with no prospect of an administration at Stormont.

It could also be said that had the Irish Government - and the British - put as much effort into finding a Stormont solution as they have towards keeping an open border, Northern Ireland would be a much better place than it is currently, existing in a disgraceful political vacuum.

The second strand of the Belfast deal was north-south co-operation, and from the outset Dublin argued that an open border was not negotiable. No one - not even the DUP - disputes that requirement other than by the means it can be delivered.

All attention has centred on the second strand and little if any has been given to the third strand of the Good Friday Agreement, which focuses on east-west co-operation.

This means the closest possible political and economic liaison between the islands of Britain and Ireland.

Such co-operation is now under dire threat from the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. How the imposition of European rules, regulations and checkpoints between Northern Ireland and Britain, under the backstop, complies with the agreement to promote closer east-west co-operation is difficult to see.

As the clock ticks towards March 29, any straw in the wind is being grasped in London. The DUP, which went gung-ho into the Brexit referendum against the wishes of a majority in Northern Ireland, seems to be tempering its demands and is prepared to consider a time-limited backstop. Can Dublin really afford to ignore such an option given the consequences for Anglo-Irish trade if no deal is the outcome?

This island stands to lose more than any other part of the European Community if a way out is not found by March 29, even though Dublin knows a change in the backstop is about the only hope Theresa May has of winning at Westminster and saving her deal.

The Polish Foreign Minister has opened a debate on Dublin's tactics that should not be closed. Poles have good reason to be interested in Ireland given the tens of thousands employed north and south who contribute much to this island's economy.

The concern that Ireland is playing a dangerous hardball over the backstop may be ignored by the likes of Mr Coveney and Mr Varadkar, but come the end of March, we can only hope some compromise can be found.

Perhaps Mr Varadkar might care to remember his words of a year ago about a border between Larne and Stranraer. The Good Friday Agreement is not just about ensuring no border between north and south. It is also about bringing down and not erecting borders between this island and Britain, as regrettably the current backstop does.

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