What does Leo really know… or, how a leak saved his skin on #Brexit?

Today’s column was written for Broadsheet and appears there as “what does Leo really know?” 

Daily Telegraph, November 9th, 2017

What did the President know and when did he know it?’ is possibly the most famous political question of the late 20th century. It was asked, in June/July 1973, by Senator Howard Baker during the US Senate’s Watergate Hearings.

Though we tend to forget it now, Baker framed the question in the hope of protecting his fellow Republican, President Nixon. But as the White House’s defence collapsed it came to sum up the depth and extent of Nixon’s personal involvement in the cover-up.

The Baker question popped back into my head last week watching the Taoiseach answering questions on the Irish policy on moving Brexit talks to phase two.

But, where Baker’s question highlighted how deeply Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate machinations, when it is applied to our own new Taoiseach it tends to expose how perilously unaware he often seems regarding what is happening in his own government.

So, what did our Taoiseach know last Wednesday about Ireland’s approach to moving UK/EU talks to phase two… well, according to the Taoiseach himself… not that much. Responding to parliamentary questions the Taoiseach said:

“I am now of the view that it is likely we will be able to say that sufficient progress has been made at the December meeting, allowing us to move on to discussions on transition and the future arrangements.”

A few minutes later he compounded the situation, adding:

“It will not be possible to resolve the Border question fully until we start to speak about the future relationship that the UK will have with the European Union”

Within hours the news agencies were carrying the story of the Taoiseach predicting a breakthrough in December, even though the next round of EU/UK talk were not due to start until the following day.

Early the following morning a colleague in Brussels sent me a terse email saying: “Only one of these statements can be right”. Attached were links to the following two news items: Reuters – irish-pm-sees-brexit-talks-moving-to-next-stage-in-dec and FT.com – EU gives UK up to 3 weeks to make Brexit bill offer

He was right. Only one could be true and people behind the scenes in both Dublin and Brussels knew it was the second one.

Not for the first time our neophyte Taoiseach had misspoken and seemed less interested in the precise detail of his own government’s policies and more focussed on self-promotion.

discussed another episode a few weeks back, but there are several other examples, including his crass comments on Irish homelessness rates and his tweeting of photos from a confidential national security committee.

While many of his errant remarks have caused confusion and disquiet, his comments on Brexit risked undermining Ireland’s strategic interest.

The real Irish position, as opposed to the Taoiseach’s briefly imagined one, has been both consistent and straight forward. It runs as follows:

The UK has not only created this problem, it has exacerbated it by coming up with an extreme Brexit definition that means leaving the single market and the customs union.

This creates enormous economic, political, security and social problems for us – so if the UK wants this Brexit process to move forward, it must make sufficient progress now in phase one of the talks and satisfy Ireland that it has genuine proposals to address our concerns.

The issue of Ireland and the Irish/Irish border is one of three key issues in the first phase of talks, the other two are the financial settlement and citizens’ rights. Sufficient progress must be made on all three before the EU/UK talks can move to phase two discussions on post Brexit UK trade arrangements.

The EU’s Guiding Principles on Ireland/Northern Ireland issues are clear:

Ensuring the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland is central to protecting the gains of the Peace Process underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. In view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required to avoid a hard border, including any physical border infrastructure. This must be achieved in a way which ensures that Ireland’s place within the Internal Market and Customs Union is unaffected.

The previous Taoiseach and Irish diplomats worked hard to insert these words into the guiding principles. There is absolutely no tactical advantage for Ireland to row back on this hard-won leverage – so why did Taoiseach Varadkar even briefly raise the possibility that we might already be prepared to nod the UK through to phase two?

Well, luckily for him, the Taoiseach may have just about managed to avoid having to answer this embarrassing question, thanks to a most adroitly timed leak of a confidential Irish briefing document to the Daily Telegraph.

Instead of the UK and Brussels press speculating on why the Irish government was sending mixed signals and sounding unsure, the Telegraph leak turned the focus back on the paucity of proposals on the Irish/Irish border coming from the British.

It is a paucity confirmed by an extraordinarily lightweight article published by the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, on the Brexit Central website under the headline: “Creative thinking can provide solutions to Northern Ireland’s Brexit challenges”. Brokenshire closes his article, saying:

“…we have agreed that the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement should be protected in full, including its constitutional arrangements… We have proposed that the UK and the EU seek to agree text for the Withdrawal Agreement that recognises the ongoing status of the Common Travel Area… None of this was ever going to be easy but I believe, with a positive attitude on all sides, it is achievable.” (My emphasis)

The passivity of the language is terrifying: “should be protected”, “seek to agree text”, not to mention the Pollyanna-esque belief that a “positive attitude on all sides” can see this through.

The Daily Telegraph leak is being interpreted by some in the British media as a hardening of Ireland’s stance on the talks. It isn’t.

The Irish stance has – right up to the Taoiseach’s comments last Wednesday – been consistent and solid. Thanks to the leak, as well as strong diplomatic firefighting, it is again solid, but we came close to the edge.

Commenting here on the Taoiseach’s mid-August strong words on Brexit, I said:

The fact that he is not doing it out of conviction or out of some deep-seated belief is irrelevant, for now, but may come back to the surface in the coming months when the depth and heft of his newly found nationalism is tested.

It resurfaced, dangerously, last Wednesday. We cannot afford another re-emergence of it anytime soon.

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