22 Nov 2017

Brexit and the question of Ireland

Jeremy Corbyn made a rare PMQs foray into Brexit focusing in his first question on Ireland.

The PM said the government had provided policy ideas for handling the border issue in its papers over the summer. She didn’t mention that these met with some ridicule in Brussels.

Ireland remains a neuralgic issue as Britain tries to close the Brexit Phase 1 talks and move to getting a transition and the outline of a final new trade agreement.

One Cabinet minister told me that the government was still working on a form of words to give the Irish Taoiseach enough to go home with after the December European Council. The worry, the minister said, wasn’t Ireland pressing its case too hard but countries (he specifically mentioned France) who don’t particularly want the UK to have the stabilising help of an early(ish) agreement on transition and who might try to “hide their own commercial interests behind the shield of Ireland.”

Some in Dublin detect a little more flexibility (emphasis on “little”) in elements of the DUP than are obvious in the leadership. But they detect no attempts yet by the British government to move the DUP one inch towards anything like the sort of plans emerging from Dublin.

One UK Cabinet minister insisted that the sort of carve outs for Northern Ireland being talked about by Dublin and Brussels, effectively staying in the customs union and the single market while the rest of the UK leaves, amounted to a substantial constitutional change in the status of Northern Ireland without going through any of the democratic requirements (a referendum north and south of the border) required by the Good Friday Agreement.

Brussels and Dublin are pointing out the vast array of special arrangements already in place emphasising the uniqueness of the north/south relationship in the island or Ireland and insist their proposals are in this spirit.

And as I wait for the Budget to start, a vignette from an MP I spoke to yesterday.

The Tory backbencher told me she had recently taken a delegation of vets from her constituency to the galleries above the Commons chamber to watch proceedings. On the way in she apologised for the “odd smell” that “always seems to be here.”

“Oh, that’s mice urine,” the vets chorused. “It’s unmistakable,” they said.

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