30 Nov 2017

Brexit deal: Theresa May walks tightrope on Northern Ireland

One official who has observed Leo Varadkar and Theresa May in the same room noted their common ability to sustain long silences.  They are both sometimes “challenging” to engage with, the official suggested, and there was “zero chemistry” between them.

Mr Varadkar is now using this pinch point in the Brexit process as the EU decides whether to allow Brexit talks to move to Phase 2, to try to extract maximum assurance from the U.K. that it will come up with an acceptable solution to the issue of the Northern Ireland border.

Theresa May finds herself caught between two mighty forces tonight, both of them capable of bringing her premiership to an end.

If Mr Varadkar were to decide the UK wasn’t offering enough he might easily find allies amongst the EU27 to join forces with him (there’s understandable Irish irritation at the free use of the word “veto” in coverage of this saga – they would not be on their own). If Theresa May didn’t get EU27 agreement to move to Phase 2 next month then there could be an uprising in her own party calling for her to “walk away” from the talks. That, in turn, could threaten her own grip on power.

On the other flank, the DUP MPs, who prop up her minority coalition, will not tolerate any concessions which look to them like a change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. One of them, Sammy Wilson, spelled that out today in stark and threatening terms.

But Sammy Wilson wasn’t amongst the DUP figures who went into No.10 today for discussions. Talk to other senior DUP figures and you don’t sense they are on edge about where UK government policy is going on Northern Ireland and Brexit. Talking to one Cabinet Minister it sounded like the Government had very much internalised the DUP position and there was fruity language to make the point that there would be no change in Northern Ireland’s status without referenda.

The UK is offering a form of words that hardens up its commitment to avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. One Irish official told me the Taoiseach could be “crucified” if he returned to Dublin from Brussels next month without sufficient assurances. But they are also looking for an outline of the sort of deal that would make that promise a reality (feeling that they’ve seen precious little sign of such a deal in the last few months of talks).

So the talk is of how there could be a policy of “no divergence” or “maximum convergence” between the standards and regulations of the Northern Ireland and Ireland economies in key sectors (energy and agriculture).  That could be tolerated by the DUP if it was “hatted” as a bilateral post-Brexit decision not a special EU carve out for Northern Ireland.

It would fall well short of what Dublin was asking for: Northern Ireland staying inside the EU’s Customs Union and Single Market. But Dublin has to weigh that possibility of a failed December summit tipping U.K. politics towards a “walk out” and potentially towards “no deal.”

Ireland knows that could pose huge challenges for the Republic as well as for the U.K.

The clock is ticking towards a deadline of Monday when Theresa May meets Jean-Claude Juncker ahead  of a meeting of EU27 officials in Brussels on Wednesday. It could well be that every moment of the remaining time is used and there’s no agreement until over the weekend. The EU27 are pressing for any understanding reached to be in writing (trust in the UK has taken a bit of a dip in the view of some EU nations, as they believe the U.K. has tried to wriggle off public commitments in the course of the talks so far).

The piece of paper on Northern Ireland will have to allow two sides to point at it and see or sell something different. That has been the principle of the settling of another part of the Phase 1 process: the Brexit bill. This article by Alex Barker of the FT explains how those clever people at the Treasury and at the European Commission have confected a bill that comes to two different totals depending which market you are explaining it to.

The Government sensed it couldn’t get more than £20b (on top of the 2 x £10b for two years of transition) past pro-Brexit ministers. So you have two sets of identical commitments listed coming to two different cash sums.

Something similarly ambiguous will have to be confected for Northern Ireland and there aren’t many days left to do it.

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