by Frank Schnittger
Sat Jul 29th, 2017 at 10:33:12 AM EST
Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney once famously characterised the polite Irish society approach to difficult or awkward topics as "whatever you say, say nothing" and Irish politicians have, in the main, practised that down to a fine art. Even sports coaches and players are quick to praise their opponents, lest any derogatory comments be pinned on the opposing dressing-room walls as motivational material for the battle ahead. "They think you're shite" the opposition coach would say: "Just look at what they said about you", pointing to the offending article pinned to the wall. "Now prove them wrong!".
One of the reasons Leo Varadkar stood out from a pack of fairly mediocre ministers to win the Fine Gael leadership and prime ministership was his willingness to buck the trend and come out with the occasional, usually well calibrated and orchestrated "outspoken comment" to demonstrate a fresh and open approach to politics. He would only be saying, of course, what many had been saying quietly for quite some time, but couldn't quite bring themselves to say publicly, for fear of causing offence...
Now he's gone done it again with Brexit: Defiant Varadkar tells British: we won't design Brexit border for you. Taoiseach says `if anyone should be angry, it's us.'
"What we're not going to do is to design a border for the Brexiteers because they're the ones who want a border. It's up to them to say what it is, say how it would work and first of all convince their own people, their own voters that this is actually a good idea," Mr Varadkar said.
Mr Varadkar said there was a political border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, but not an economic one.
"As far as this Government is concerned there shouldn't be an economic border. We don't want one," he said.
"It's the UK, it's Britain that has decided to leave and if they want to put forward smart solutions, technological solutions for borders of the future and all of that that's up to them.
"We're not going to be doing that work for them because we don't think there should be an economic border at all. That is our position. It is our position in negotiations with the British Government and it's the very clear position that we have when we engage with the task force that is negotiating on our behalf with the UK."
Mr Varadkar said an economic border would not be in the interests of the Republic, Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom, "and we're not going to be helping them to design some sort of border that we don't believe should exist in the first place".
Meanwhile, asked if he was frustrated with the British approach to Brexit talks, Mr Varadkar said: "If anyone should be angry, it's us, quite frankly."
"We have an agreement. We signed up to the single European Act. We joined the EC alongside the United Kingdom. We have a Good Friday Agreement and part of the Good Friday Agreement...talks about working together and continuing to do so within the context of the EU."
Now that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) holds the whip hand over the Conservative government, they have not been slow to flex their muscles. Criticising suggestions that the border could be moved into the Irish sea to facilitate customs checks at air and sea ports, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said a border at sea plan was "utter madness". Varadkar was only backing up his Foreign Minister (and leadership opponent) Hugh Coveney, who had said:
"The objectives of protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and the gains of the peace process including avoiding a hard border are shared by all sides."
Mr Coveney told RTÉ's later he didn't agree with Mr Donaldson and denied that his efforts were "damaging" the relationship between Ireland and the UK. "I am a friend of Britain. I went to university there. I have friends there. We have to be honest with each other. Enda Kenny said this is a political matter not a technical matter."
Mr Coveney said that Britain had made its democratic choice to leave and "the onus is now on them" to ensure that they don't do any damage to Ireland.
He dismissed Mr Donaldson's assertion that a technological solution was possible in relation to the border. "The border is 500k long with 400 crossing points. It won't be possible to put cameras on all of them. I don't think that's the approach to take.
While the Irish government deny that the above exchanges mark any change in policy towards Brexit, there is no denying the change of tone. The Irish government has lost patience with it's UK counterpart, and what it sees as a cavalier and unserious approach to the risks that Brexit poses to peace and prosperity on the island. They don't believe the UK government has given any serious thought or priority to the issues and are not about to do their homework for them. Being lectured by the DUP on what can and can't happen was the last straw.
The reality is that any re-erection of a hard border on the island of Ireland is political poison for the Fine Gael led Government and a political godsend for Sinn Fein. It will cause huge upset to border communities and a lot of damage to the Irish economy both North and south. There is no way an Irish government is going to take ownership of the consequences. If the DUP want Brexit as much as they say they do, then they had better be prepared to pay a price, and that price will have to include an acceptance that N. Ireland won't simply be an integral part of the UK for customs and immigration control purposes.
What the Irish government is signalling is that it will not simply green-light a Brexit agreement that includes a re-enactment of border controls on the Island. It is up to the UK government to manage DUP expectations and attitudes in that regard. The Irish Government will not risk a re-creation of sectarian tensions by declaring open war on the DUP. That would simply lead to a re-entrenchment of defensive sectarian attitudes. There is also no point in giving the DUP motivational material to put on their canvassing cards and electoral posters. The DUP would wear any Irish government criticism as a badge of honour to show off to their loyalist supporters. Whatever proposal ultimately emerges will have to be sold to the DUP as a British led one, but one that is acceptable to the Irish Government.
In this regard, the recent UK Government decision that it will look for a "transition period" of up to three years post Brexit where existing arrangement will more or less apply is an interesting one. No where in the extensive British media coverage of the issue have I seen an acknowledgement that any such extension of the A50 period would require the unanimous, not weighted majority, agreement of all EU27 members. The UK government may yet have to decide what it needs and wants more: DUP support or a Brexit extension. It won't get both if it is still talking about rebuilding border controls within the island of Ireland.