LAST week’s visit of British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Boris Johnson, to Dublin set off alarm bells about the way the Brexit negotiations may go, given the lack of grasp of the situation concerning Ireland that he exhibited at a press conference in Iveagh House with his Irish counterpart Simon Coveney.
It may have been unintentional, but what seemed like his devil-may-care attitude to the effect that Brexit would have on the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland was worrying, as he just wanted to kick the can down the road and address the question as part of the second phase of negotiations with the European Union on how Britain’s exit from the EU will be effected. However, the question of the Irish border – which will become the border between the United Kingdom and the European Union post-Brexit – is one of three issues that need to be resolved before moving on to the next round of the ‘divorce’ negotiations, the others being the rights of EU citizens now living in the UK (and vice versa) and the size of Britain’s financial settlement on departure.
Given its massive implications for the Good Friday-Belfast Agreement, it is vital that Ireland holds the line on the border issue being brought to a satisfactory conclusion in phase one of the negotiations, otherwise it will slip away down the agenda and the leverage we have at the moment will be lost. So far, our EU colleagues are standing firmly behind the Irish position, but our government needs to make sure that they will not deviate in the negotiations and also to make it clear to them privately – notwithstanding its current public position – that Ireland would be prepared to invoke a veto if the matter is not resolved before moving on to the second phase of negotiations.
The determination on moving on with the negotiations will be made at an European Council summit in Brussels on December 14th and 15th when EU task force leader Michel Barnier will report on the first phase and recommend whether or not enough progress has been made to enable them to move on to the next round. At this point in time, the chances of moving on the negotiations to the second phase look remote, judging by the lack of progress so far and because the lame duck British government seems to be in disarray, but anything can happen in politics and coming closer to the deadline for concluding the first phase of negotiations might help focus minds more.
Boris Johnson would clearly benefit from a crash course in the realities of the situation as it now stands – even his own officials were cringing at his ignorance in Dublin – as it was obvious that he and our Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, were singing off two very different hymn sheets. Ireland is officially on the side of the remaining EU countries in the Brexit negotiations, but we cannot afford to fall out with our nearest neighbours either as we will still be trading with them in the future, hopefully with the minimum amount of barriers between us, as Minister Coveney urged the British government to consider keeping Northern Ireland in the Customs Union in order to try to break the impasse in talks on the border issue.