These are dangerous days. What happens inside the next year, perhaps the next few months will go to shape the lives of Irish people north and south.
An unsettling feature in the recent Brexit negotiations has been the word “compromise”. The journalist Stephen Collins (no relation) used it in the Irish Times, and Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, appears to be taking a tough stand while at the same time leaving the door open to, yep, compromise.
Coveney first. He’s reported as saying that if “significant progress” is not made in terms of the British border in Ireland, the southern government “will ask some serious questions”. I’ve got two problems with that.
What’s this talk of “significant progress”? The phrase is about as precise as saying “a quare bit”.
The second problem is that we were led to believe that the backstop – where, if all else failed, there would be no inhibiting border in Ireland – was a commitment given by Theresa May at a December 2017 meeting. Are we now to accept that the commitment hasn’t been given, and that all we’re looking for is “significant progress” in June? There’s a heavy smell in the air, and it reeks of stalling tactics.
Then there’s Stephen Collins: “The backstop is really important. It will be a test of political skill on the part of the EU and the British to find an acceptable formula but may also require a Government in Dublin to settle for a compromise that could be portrayed as a climb-down from the tough line it has taken to date”.
You cannot be serious, Stephen. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the UK and the EU agree last December that all else failing, the backstop – a frictionless border – would be kept in place? Wby this talk of compromise when the matter has been agreed already?
Maybe the devil is in the detail of how it was agreed. In writing? In legal terms? I’m told by an informed source that the only British commitment to the backstop is a letter by Theresa May. Innocent soul that I am, I thought that’d anchor the UK to follow through and deliver the backstop, if all else failed. But mature reflection suggests that this kind of tactic, where you have a letter but not a legal document, is a recipe for disaster. We’ve had false promises before from our neighbour in the next island. Add to that Coveney’s apparent softening with talk about ‘significant progress’ being enough to go on with until October, and you can see the slippage that could set in.
Doing or trying to do things at the last minute is not a good idea. It’s particularly not a good idea if you’re presented as the sole obstacle in a deal between the EU and the UK, with only you and your boring old border the only thing preventing the rest of us going home for our tea. In those circumstances, do you think Coveney or Varadkar would have the cojones to tell the UK and, if necessary, the EU to stuff their tea, a back-stop promised should be a back-stop delivered?
So far we’ve been very lucky: the EU has stood four-square behind the south of Ireland. What is now required of the southern government is that they take the letter from Auntie Britannia and insist that it get translated into a legally-binding, international document.
It’s an unfortunate fact but Lord Palmerston got it right in the nineteenth century: “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests”. The sooner Varadkar/ Coveney and their 26 EU chums digest those words, and maybe add to them that Britain didn’t get the monicker “Perfidious Albion” because its word was its bond, the more likely we are to emerge from the Brexit meat-grinder with just a few flesh wounds.