A few months after the UK’s vote to leave the EU, the then Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, gave a speech to policy makers in which he described the Brexit talks as: “[the] most important negotiations in our history as an independent state”.
On any objective view, the draft Withdrawal Agreement is a triumphant conclusion to those negotiations, and a vindication of the big strategic calls which both Enda Kenny and his successor, Leo Varadkar, have made on the conditions for agreeing an exit deal and transition period for the UK.
But political dysfunction in London still poses risks to both the Irish economy and to political stability on the island. Even if the UK implements the deal in good faith, the Irish government faces the future without a committed, engaged partner on Northern Ireland, and needing to find ways to reassure unionists, not least on how Dublin can help Northern Ireland effectively implement a consultative role on future EU laws without stoking unionist fears to boiling point should the backstop ever be triggered.
Given the risks, the mood in Ireland, not just in government circles but across the country, is of profound relief. The feeling that it could have been so much worse reaches far beyond those who routinely follow the news. The UK might have succeeded in pushing the Irish border issue into the future, even while potential successors to Mrs May are competing to denounce a long-term customs union with the EU. European partners might not have shown such solidarity to Ireland – though some in government circles are still crossing their fingers until we see if the EU’s commitment survives even a short-term ‘no deal’ test. Or the Irish might have had to choose between the political safeguards for the Irish border and wider East-West trade links.
In fact, the Irish government have secured all of their principal negotiating aims. Tactically, the Taoiseach and the Foreign Minister and Tánaiste (deputy Prime Minister) Simon Coveney are conscious of the need to avoid triumphalism and to reach out to Unionists and other Northern Ireland parties. Varadkar began to do that today – though the main Unionist parties declined his offer. But the mood is jubilant.
Why is the deal so good for Ireland?
There are three successes. Firstly, a political gain. The comprehensive, ‘all-weather’ Northern Ireland backstop which the Irish government sought has been achieved. If a future deal does not deliver ‘frictionless’ trade between the UK and the EU then, if all else fails, Northern Ireland will stay in the EU customs union (fully applying the Union customs code) and effectively in the single market for goods, sufficient to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. That takes some of the heat off demands for a ‘border poll’, which would inevitably be accompanied by political instability in the North, perhaps even violence.
Detailed preparations for Irish unity would be a huge, energy consuming effort for the Irish government. Divisive too. Just as Ireland completes its transition to a liberal, tolerant society (as big majorities of voters now see it), unification would risk drawing them back into zero-sum questions of identity, integrating a more socially conservative population. Quietly, many Irish voters however unfairly, see the North as a distorted reflection of their own recent past – socially repressive, authoritarian, uncompromising – and therefore a potential threat to cementing Ireland’s place as a liberal beacon in Europe and the world, which is deeply attractive to many of the voters fine Gael want to target. Varadkar is the first Irish Taoiseach to talk unselfconsciously about ‘Ireland’ and ‘Northern Ireland’, reflecting that reality.
That doesn’t mean that the Irish government don’t want unity, or wont prepare for it seriously. But they want to be in control of the process, and for Fine Gael to do so from a position of domestic credibility as defenders of Irish priorities, north and south. The backstop success gives Varadkar that breathing space, and essentially a fresh mandate to lead that work.
There’s a domestic political gain, too. Varadkar has shown that the Irish government are the most effective defenders of Irish citizens in the North, undermining the claims of both the main opposition Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. Varadkar’s Fine Gael party would hate to have to choose between losing office and coalition with Sinn Féin after the next election. They are now in a stronger position to avoid that risk.
Secondly, an economic gain. The UK’s successful push to stay in a customs union until a future deal is negotiated, with the option of simply extending the standstill transition period (in which nothing changes in the UK’s implementation of EU law), keeps East-West trade links open as now. These are vital to Ireland’s economy. Key sectors, such as agri-food, depend on direct sales to the UK market. The land bridge to the Continent through the UK is also vital for Irish exports and imports. Ireland is one of the world’s biggest hosts of pharmaceutical companies. But manufacture in Ireland of time-sensitive medicines would be impractical on a large-scale if they could not be exported to France and Germany on predictable timescales, free of customs queues at Dover.
Thirdly, Ireland’s strategic choice to go with the EU wholeheartedly, as against its UK ties, has been vindicated by the support from the rest of the 27. It was a choice which Ireland hoped never to have to make, much as the UK, until Brexit and Trump, sought to be a bridge across the Atlantic, leveraging each relationship to get more from the other. Ireland made its choice, and has helped reinvigorate the EU’s reputation as a very good home for smaller states, after the battering of the Eurozone crisis.
The longer-term challenges are momentous
The gains are mirrored, however, by three big challenges in the new strategic landscape.
To secure stability in Northern Ireland longer-term, the Irish government will need to rebuild confidence among unionists, who have described the backstop in near apocalyptic terms, for them akin to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which brought 100,000 unionist protesters onto the streets of Belfast. Let’s take one example. If the backstop is ever triggered, Northern Ireland will be subject to single market and customs rules made in Brussels, over which the ‘parent’ state, the UK, will have had no say, and certainly no vote. The withdrawal agreement recognises the genuine democratic deficit this would create and makes provision for Northern Ireland to be consulted on future EU legislation, including trade deals.
Ireland has a delicate role to play here. the Irish government will need to be available for the Belfast institutions (if they are sitting) to consult, but will have to avoid the optics of, for example, non-unionist parties talking to Dublin regularly about upcoming legislation while unionists refuse to act through any other than formal channels, preferably with UK government representatives in the room. It is just such an imbalance of access to government in the DUP confidence and supply agreement which has increased suspicions among nationalists in the north that the DUP “wants” a hard border. Some mechanism through the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement structures could also be useful, and Dublin may have to reassure other EU partners, particularly in Paris, that consultation is not simply a Trojan horse for UK Ministries to undermine the autonomy of the EU’s decision-making.
That calls for a renewed partnership UK-Ireland partnership both over helping manage instability in the North and future EU legislation. Senior Irish officials are used to having commensurate access at the highest levels of the British system, and of serious engagement. Will that be on offer? Even if the will is there in London, when will there be enough ministerial and official bandwidth to devote time to Ireland again? And how easy will it be to overcome suspicions about the cynical use of Northern Ireland to advance UK-wide interests with the EU, which the Brexit talks have stoked?
Finally, having made its choice for the EU, Ireland will find itself without UK cover in Brussels when painful proposals on tax, financial services, and trade come back again under the next Commission. British willingness to challenge protectionist measure will be missed as will, despite all Ireland’s frustrations with politics in London, UKRep’s excellence in playing the Brussels game. Can new alliances be as effective? will a price eventually be extracted – literally, as far as tax receipts go – for EU solidarity with Ireland over Brexit? Is there, however distantly, a path back into the EU for the UK, and should that now, quietly, become a strategic aim of Irish diplomacy?
The withdrawal agreement is a triumph for Irish strategic prioritisation, willingness to take diplomatic risks, and focus across government. The same qualities will need to be sustained long-term to face the even greater challenges ahead.