Acknowledging the ‘huge challenges’ ahead for all of us in ensuring that the post-Brexit landscape does not adversely affect our relationships with Northern Ireland, with the rest of the UK, or with our EU partners, Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan told the gathering at the Irish Law Awards earlier this month how heartening he found the results of a Red C poll which showed that 92% of those surveyed agreed that Ireland should remain as part of the European Union.
This is in contrast to the British public which seems split down the middle about it, now that the harsh realities of the Brexit vote of two years ago this month are beginning to dawn on a lot of them. When British Prime Minister Theresa May made soundings over the past fortnight about the UK now wanting to stay in the EU Customs Union for a longer period of time after Brexit, it seemed too good to be true and that proved to be the case, as the ‘hard Brexiteers’ in her Cabinet were aghast at the very thought of it; they want nothing less than their government taking back full control of British laws and borders.
Would it that it was that simple: Her hand is being forced by the EU negotiators who have, quite rightly, put the onus on the British government to frame a compromise to head off the possibility of a hard border post-Brexit between the Republic and Northern Ireland that would potentially undermine the Good Friday Agreement and the fragile peace process it brought about.
Theresa May has to walk a political tightrope on this issue in order not to displease the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland which is helping to keep her Conservative Party-led minority government in power in Westminster. The hardliners in her Cabinet do not seem to give a toss about the whole Irish situation and glibly opine that it’s the EU’s problem, however their Prime Minister is acutely aware that something has to give on her side about the Irish border situation if there is to be a deal on an orderly departure for Britain from the EU and any prospect of subsequent trade agreements between the two sides.
Minds are now firmly focussed on making meaningful progress ahead of the crucial EU summit the last weekend of June and the British government is currently working on a White Paper to clarify all of the matters surrounding the Brexit negotiations and to try to get past the current impasse. While acknowledging Theresa May’s work to broker some form of compromise regarding a new type of Customs Union arrangement, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar commented after a meeting of EU leaders in Bulgaria last week that, if the so-called ‘Irish backstop’ is not part of the withdrawal agreement, ‘then there will be no withdrawal agreement.’
Her running with the hares and chasing with the hounds is not going to solve anything in this regard and there is no doubt that she is between a rock and a hard place with the hardliners in her party the greatest obstacle to constructive compromise. Of course, Mrs May brought all of this upon herself with her costly gamble of having called a snap general election last year and then becoming beholden to the DUP to keep her in power; a nightmare scenario that would have been difficult to imagine in advance, but is now the harsh reality.
Nobody is denying the UK’s right to leave the EU as per the will of its people, but it has to be done in a responsible manner without leaving carnage behind and with a view towards harmonious relations, especially in the area of trade, in the future. Credit to Theresa May for trying to achieve this through constructive engagement, but every time a breakthrough seems imminent, her efforts are thwarted by hardliners who cannot seem to see beyond their noses.
We can only hope that the British government’s White Paper on Brexit, due next month, will shed some light on where it stands for real and finally indicate whether or not the current negotiations have any hope of being successfully concluded to everybody’s satisfaction. It seems like a big ask, but it has reached such a crucial stage that minds on all sides – especially those of the hardline Brexiteers – need to be concentrated on the task at hand and the realities involved.