by Frank Schnittger
Sun Nov 26th, 2017 at 10:29:32 PM EST
Michael Collins in London during treaty negotiations in October 1921. Collins, the first and last Irish politician to sign up to a hard border. Photograph: Hulton Archive
I wrote last week that a Crunch time is coming soon... in the Brexit negotiations. Well that crunch time may just have become a whole lot crunchier. A domestic political scandal may cause the Irish Fine Gael minority government to lose a vote of confidence this week resulting in a snap general election as soon as Dec 19th., just after the crunch meeting of the European Council to decide whether the Brexit talks can move on to stage two.
Should a general election be called, Varadker will lose any flexibility he may have had in determining whether "sufficient progress" has been made in Phase one of the talks on the Irish/UK border to allow the Brexit talks move on to phase two. He might as well hand the reins of Government on to Fianna Fail/Sinn Fein if he doesn't hold the line on this issue.
Theresa May may be concerned about losing power if she losses the support of arch Brexiteers or Remainiers within her party, or indeed the support of the DUP, but Varadker's problems are much more acute: His Government is only sustained in office by Fianna Fail abstention and they can cut his lifeline at any time. Neither Fianna Fail nor Sinn Fein will tolerate any softening of the Government's line against a hard border, so an election cannot but result in a hardening of the Irish Government's opposition to UK government double speak on the issue.
The details of the domestic scandal need not concern us overly here. They concern an alleged attempt to smear a whistle blower within the Gardai (Irish police) in order to undermine his credibility before a judicial tribunal of enquiry into his allegations against the Gardai. It turns out that the then Minister for Justice was informed of "an aggressive legal strategy" to question the whistle blower's motivation and credibility before the enquiry one year before she said she was so informed.
However the same e-mail which informed her of this was couched in very ambiguous terms and said she had no function in the matter: It was a matter for the tribunal. So it is perhaps understandable that she forgot about an email which was for information only and not actionable by her. The same scandal has already brought about the resignation of the Head of the Police service, a previous minister for Justice, and led, indirectly, to the retirement of previous Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, from office, so the opposition scent blood.
But it is the political context that may be more important. With Gerry Adams' retirement from the leadership of Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein may have become a whole lot more electable in many people's eyes, threatening Fianna Fail's position as the main opposition party. This could be Fianna Fail leader, Micheál Martin's last chance of achieving office: He is the sole survivor of the disastrous Fianna Fail led government that led Ireland into the financial crisis and banking bail-out and is on his last political life as leader of the opposition.
However an election now could not come at a worse time for the country at a whole. Winter elections are rare in Ireland because darkness descends at 4.30 PM and leaves no time for daylight after work door to door canvassing by party activists which has been the mainstay of the electoral process in Ireland for generations. Householders may be reluctant to open their doors to canvassers they do not know after dark and in very adverse weather conditions.
In addition the Brexit negotiations are entering a crucial phase as far as Ireland is concerned, and Ministers should otherwise be engaged in a non-stop diplomatic offensive to ensure Ireland is not isolated or marginalised in the talks process. Whoever is deemed responsible for causing the election could face a considerable backlash from a disgruntled electorate worried about Brexit and unhappy at an election being called now.
Chris Johns, a Welshman who has worked most of his life in senior roles in financial services in England and Ireland and who is now living in Ireland has an interesting piece entitled Ignorance of Irish history means Brexit talks will not end well about British delusions about the EU in general, and Ireland in particular:
An awareness of Irish history - even a nodding acquaintance - would help British politicians appreciate what happened to Collins, the first and last Irish politician to sign up to a hard border. The idea that Leo Varadkar, or anybody else in this State, would under any circumstances sign up to another hard border displays so much ignorance, so much arrogance, so much stupidity that I am left wondering about all those stereotypes of my fellow Brits - stereotypes that I have wearily tried to reject and counter over the past 30 years.
Despite being perhaps the main war of Independence hero Michael Collins was shot and killed by anti-Treaty forces (the pre-cursors of Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail) in the ensuing civil war after signing a Treaty with the British that sanctioned the partition of Ireland...
But we should be clear: Relations between Dublin and London have not been so strained for years
The Spectator this week described mounting anger within the British government over Ireland's position, quoting one cabinet minister warning that Varadkar was "playing with fire".
And the BBC's political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, reported a conspiracy theory doing the rounds in Whitehall and Westminster. According to the theory, Ireland and the EU are over-egging their fears about the Border so they can use the issue later in the negotiations to Britain's disadvantage.
The analysis of Ireland's position may be misleading and the surprise unjustified, but the anger in London is real because the stakes are so high. If the EU does not agree to move to the second phase of negotiations next month, the consequences for May could be enormous.
"What the hell does your government think it's doing?" a former Conservative minister asked me this week. "Do they not know the pressure she'll come under to just walk away?"
And that is the delicate tight-rope walking act which the Irish government must perform: Ensure there is no return to a hard border between Ireland and N. Ireland, and at the same time avoid pushing the UK over the cliff of a no deal Brexit which will involve not only a hard border but economically disastrous swingeing tariffs on trade between Ireland and the UK.
But Irish political concerns are perhaps the opposite to those posited by Laura Kuenssberg above: The border is an existential issue for any Irish government and it is the UK who may be trying to use that issue as a means of weakening the EU's united negotiating position in phase two of the Brexit negotiations. There is no way the Canada style trade agreement the EU may be willing to offer the UK could prevent the emergence of a hard border between Ireland and N. Ireland and if the EU doesn't want to be blamed for causing that outcome, it had better put that issue to bed in phase 1 of the talks.
The deeper long term strategic concern is that should Brexit end up causing the return of a hard border there will be considerable pressure on future Irish governments to restore free movement across the border by joining the UK outside the EU. The not-so-secret hope and agenda of Brexiteers has always been to encourage the break-up of the EU by fomenting division within the EU and "pealing off" it's most peripheral members - in this case Ireland. Nigel Farage has been quite open in advocating "Irexit" as an almost inevitable precursor of the break-up of the EU as a whole.
So what may be an existential issue for any Irish government now could end up becoming an existential issue for the EU as a whole. Never before has it been more important for Ireland and the EU to stay united on resisting the re-imposition of a hard border in Ireland, come what may. And if this leads to an economically disastrous "no deal" Brexit, then so be it.