We were wrong to insist on the backstop – and softening our stance is the only way to prevent ‘No Deal’
by RAY BASSETT – 23 December – The Business Post Ireland
You shall reap what you sow, the Old Testament states. Today, in the wake of the European Council meeting and the House of Commons debate, the Irish Government and people face potentially a No-Deal outcome to Brexit.
While the primary blame must lie in the ham-fisted way Theresa May has conducted the Brexit negotiations, there is no doubt but that Dublin has greatly contributed to its own misfortune with very misguided policies on Brexit. Hopefully, we will not reap too sour a harvest from this miscalculation.
The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) required Britain and Ireland to be good neighbours and partners. It was to usher in a new era of cooperation and a mutually supportive relationship. However, when Brexit came along, no matter how much we regretted that British decision, we failed miserably in our commitment to the Agreement. Essentially, we gave preference to our connections with Brussels over the GFA and, long term, may have endangered this historic compromise. Today, that British/Irish relationship is reputed to be in tatters, with British media outlets claiming that Prime Minister May “loathes” our Taoiseach and detests dealing with him.
There is, of course, much that is unattractive about some of the supporters of Brexit, but that should not have blinded our Government to following our national interest. Even apart from our Treaty obligations, there was a pragmatic need for Ireland to maintain good relations with London and, if possible, to act as a bridge between the British Government and Brussels. Our bilateral relations with Britain are of an order that is completely different to the other member States of the European Union. No other EU country has such ethnic, historic, cultural and economic connections with Britain, apart from the obvious requirements of geography. On issues relating to the North, the two Governments need to work constructively and with mutual trust.
It was hugely in our interest that the process of Brexit, no matter how regrettable it is to our Government, be achieved as smoothly and painlessly as possible. We had a diametrically opposite stake here from some of our continental partners and especially the Brussels establishment. They wanted to punish Britain and show that any country which exited the Union would be much worse off than with maintaining its former membership. Unfortunately, Ireland allowed itself to be used for that purpose. The Brussels approach was understandable, but our blind support for it was not.
The EU offered Britain a terrible deal from a British standpoint. It stands no real chance of being accepted. The fact that the British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed to these terms will be a source of amazement and research for generations to come. Ireland should not have been an enthusiastic player in bringing about this disaster.
The Irish insistence on a free boundary between the North and the Republic was completely correct and not something we can concede on. It was possible to achieve it bilaterally if Ireland and Britain, and, in particular our customs officials, were tasked with drawing up proposals.
This should have been done before the triggering of Article 50 by the British. If this was not possible then with EU permission, it should have happened after it. The two countries should have presented Brussels with a solution.
This may have required some deviation from the Brussels red line that anything on the island of Ireland “must maintain the integrity of the Union’s Legal Order”. We may have required special all-island arrangements which did not fit into current practice. I am sure that Brussels would have had great difficulty refusing any reasonable British/Irish draft scheme.
In place of cooperation, the British claim that bilateral talks were suspended, and everything was to go through Brussels. It was sad to witness officials from Brussels and London decide the future of the Irish border, with no Irish person in the room. We achieved independence so that we could have our own voice among the nations of the Earth.
Instead of bilateral cooperation, we were used to extract the maximum out of Britain, and the inoperable Backstop was introduced. The clear implication that Ireland had no problem with a border in the Irish Sea, while totally rejecting a land frontier – both are equally contrary to the spirit of the GFA – showed that there was no desire to assist the British or any genuine impulse to treat both communities in the North with parity of esteem.
The hard-line rhetoric and self-congratulatory messaging at the time was also counter-productive. The EU version of the Backstop was never a runner and had absolutely no support in the British House of Commons. Even old friends of Ireland, such as Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, opposed the Backstop in the form promoted by the Taoiseach. Retaining the Backstop for so long and in the face of inevitable failure was a bad mistake.
This is not the first time we have prioritized a desire to uncritically appease Brussels over our relations with London. We failed to support David Cameron when he opposed the appointment of the hapless Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the EU Commission, now regarded universally as a terrible mistake. We failed to push for any meaningful concession when Cameron had his renegotiation of British membership of the EU.
By acting in this way, we facilitated Brexit. With our current policy position, we are facilitating a No-Deal Brexit.
Now the only way out of the current situation is for the EU to concede on the Backstop. This would be a humiliation for the Irish Government and a poor payback for the unswerving support it gave to Brussels throughout the process, but it may be the only way out. We should have never gotten ourselves into this situation where the choice is between a ruinous No-Deal or a capitulation on the Backstop.
Our links with mainland Europe are overwhelmingly related to the multinational companies located here as part of our very successful pursuit of Foreign Direct Investment. Our Irish owned companies, especially the small to medium-sized, greatly favour investing and trading with the Anglophone world: Britain, the US, Canada, etc. It is also where the majority of our people go to work and live.
In the current international climate which is targeting aggressive corporate tax avoidance, tax shelters and tax havens, we have no guarantee that our current policy can continue to deliver on foreign direct investment as it has in the past.
We are clearly heading for a downturn internationally as the current business cycle in most developed countries moves into a down phase. Hence, the decision to throw all our eggs into the EU basket at this uncertain time is difficult to understand.
The main reason we have walked ourselves into this unfortunate crisis is our excessive europhilia. Too many of our politicians and officials have spent too much time in Brussels and around euro federalists and lost sight of our long-term national interests.
With the leaders of both main parties in Britain opposing a second referendum, which would greatly increase instability, the only two choices facing both the EU and the UK is a No-Deal or the Withdrawal Agreement which is unacceptable to the British.
Let Ireland make a generous offer to our neighbour in trouble and put a two-year time limit on the Backstop and see if that breaks the impasse. We have nothing to lose now that we are heading inexorably towards a messy No-Deal. We have passed the limit of a brinkmanship approach.
With thanks to Anthony Coughlan, Director, The National Platform EU Research and Information Centre.