THURSDAY, March 29th, marked the first anniversary of the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by the British government to commence the formal process of its exit from the European Union. Whatever uncertainty the result of the Brexit referendum in June 2016 led to for us, it has been magnified multiple times since by the indecisiveness of the British negotiators in coming up with realistic proposals in relation to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic in the event of the feared ‘hard’ Brexit they are being encouraged to go for by the Euro-sceptics in the Tory Party.
In fact, one would have to question how serious they actually are about coming up with a realistic solution to the Irish border problem that Brexit has created, as all they have been doing since the negotiations started is the barest minimum needed to placate us. Despite assurances from the Irish government that the ’backstop’ scenario, which allows the process to move to the second phase of negotiations, with the proviso that the border question will be satisfactorily resolved before they end, one cannot but have some reservations about this happening, given that all that it has got so far is lip service.
In this regard, we have no choice but to take a leap of faith in the negotiators who are working on our behalf that the bigger interests of the European Union won’t push our concerns further down the agenda. Indeed, Fianna Fáil’s Stephen Donnelly raised a valid concern last weekend that we may have ceded what little leverage we had in these negotiations.
Some cynics seemed to be of the opinion that all Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s talk about expelling an alleged spy from the Russian Embassy in Dublin, in solidarity with the British stance in the wake of the Salisbury poisoning of a former double agent and his daughter, was a smokescreen to divert attention from the Brexit negotiations impasse on the border issue. This also begs a more serious question – for another day – about Ireland’s status as a neutral country.
However, returning to Brexit, our government seems re-assured that the ‘backstop’ solution – accepted by British Prime Minister Theresa May to agree proposals to avoid a ‘hard’ border between the Republic and the North by this summer or by next October at the latest – will protect our interests, as Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney told a gathering at an enlightening Brexit briefing in Rosscarbery last Friday. He explained that it was ‘all about incremental improvements during negotiations’ and asserted that ‘a lot of good things have been bagged and banked’ already.
Attendees at the briefing got a very clear picture of where Ireland stands in relation to Brexit, with the Tánaiste being as upbeat as he possibly could be as the negotiations move towards the end game stage during the coming six months. However, realistically, there is so much to be fearful of that could go wrong.
As he stated himself, ‘We need to not flinch. Brexit is a big deal – a big threat – but we can get through it.’ Let’s hope, for all our sakes, that his optimism will be justified in the end.