Alex Massie

The government’s deeply cunning Brexit plan comes unstuck

The government's deeply cunning Brexit plan comes unstuck
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So, Frances Fitzgerald, the Tánaiste, has resigned. It now looks as though Leo Varadkar’s minority Irish government will not face a vote of no-confidence that it would likely have lost and, consequently, there will be no Irish election before Christmas. That’s a matter of considerable relief in Dublin but also in London. 

Irish political scandals are often esoteric but this, frankly, was no time for an election and that recognition, above all else, compelled Fitzgerald’s departure. In other circumstances she – and Fine Gael – might have fought this to the final furlong. But these are not ordinary times in Dublin. It seems entirely probable, as matters stand, that relations between Dublin and London will chill to their coldest temperature in a generation. As I wrote last week, the Irish are determined to protect their view of the Irish national interest even if this risks delaying or derailing progress on other Brexit-related matters. 

Bafflingly, some pro-Brexit voices in this country, hellbent on delivering a Brexit that, they believe, is in the national interest still seem puzzled that other countries might also act in defence of their own interest. Befuddlement then gives way to peevish irritation; how dare these people behave like this? 

Now as it happens I cannot see how the Irish can get what they want unless the UK government is prepared to redefine the kind of Brexit it seeks. Since it has no intention of doing so – indeed, cannot – the Irish are likely to be disappointed. Their disappointment is as nothing compared to the fantasies displayed by some Brexiteers, however. The emerging line – as trumpeted by Kate Hoey yesterday – seems to be that since the UK doesn’t want a 'hard border' with the Republic, responsibility for creating any such frontier will rest with Ireland, not the United Kingdom. If the EU wants a frontier then the EU can have it. And pay for it. This, to put it in Irish terms, is a cute hoor of an argument. 

It can hardly be said too frequently that Brexit requires a hard border. If that were not the case, there’d be less need to leave the single market and the customs union. You may think this desirable; you can’t honestly claim it’s just an unfortunate consequence of Brexit for which those championing Brexit have no responsibility. It was, after all, their idea. 

Meanwhile, the suspicion the British government knows the square-root of heehaw about Ireland gathers pace. Here, for instance, is Harry Cole (late of this parish), writing in the Sun:

'The British government were deeply worried the threat of an insurgent Sinn Fein at the ballot box was forcing Mr Varadkar’s government to take the hardest possible line against Britain. Ministers believed this fear of the political wing of the IRA prompted the newbie Irish PM’s outspoken war of words on Theresa May.'

If this is what ministers truly think – and it seems to have been the line for some time now – then you might as well give up hope and move swiftly on to despair. This analysis (sic) would fail a Ladybird-level examination on Irish politics. There were ways of avoiding this. Ministers could, with only a little work, have talked to an Irish person – almost any Irish person – at some point in the last 18 months. If that seems too difficult, they could have settled for reading one of the more respectable Irish newspapers. 

For the benefit of slow learners, Fine Gael have vanishingly little to fear from Sinn Fein. In both a figurative and literal sense, there is almost no constituency in which they compete for support. Indeed, to the extent an increase in support for Sinn Fein complicates life for Fianna Fail – the party even UK government ministers may remember has been Fine Gael’s traditional rival for almost a century – that complication benefits Fine Gael. 

It is true that the Fitzgerald saga came to a head partly on account of Sinn Fein pressure. But that pressure was not exerted on Fine Gael, it was placed on Fianna Fail. And since the government depends, in a confidence-and-supply fashion, on Fianna Fail’s support that pressure had an impact on Fianna Fail which in turn had an impact on the government. This too is not very difficult to understand. 

Nor is it difficult to perceive that neither the Fitzgerald problem nor the question of Sinn Fein fighting for Fianna Fail votes necessarily have very much to do with Brexit. On the contrary, when it comes to Brexit the fact of the matter is that there is a striking and unusual level of consensus across the Irish political spectrum. There is little appreciable difference between the views of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the remnants of the Irish Labour party on this matter. Even Sinn Fein are not so far from the mainstream as they sometimes are on other issues. It is hard to mount an 'insurgency' campaign against the government when, in broad terms, the government agrees with you. 

You might think UK government ministers would be capable of appreciating this. And yet the briefing record suggests otherwise. Which leaves you to wonder what they’re doing. You think they can’t possibly be this deluded and there must, therefore, be some deeply cunning plan behind it all. Then you pause and think for a moment and come to the conclusion that, actually, yes it is entirely possible they really are this deluded, this ignorant and this out of their depth. 

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticsbrexitirelanduk politics