Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been warned to avoid a Halloween ambush on Brexit and the British border in Ireland. The warning, in Dublin, came from three of his predecessors as head of the Irish government, two Fianna Fáil and one from Fine Gael.
The three former Taoisigh – Brian Cowen, Bertie Ahern and John Bruton – were taking part in a Brexit conference in Dublin attended by former President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barosso – now with Goldman Sachs – and former UK Attorney General Dominic Grieve. Mr Grieve, who has led the opposition to a so-called hard Brexit rebellion among fellow Tory MPs in the Commons warned against any notion of placing a Border in the Irish Sea. It would, he said be entirely counterproductive and simply will not happen, ever, he said.
Mr Grieve told the Institute of International and European Affairs conference that the UK was heading for a major political crisis in the autumn as a direct consequence of Brexit. One possible outcome of the crisis was that the British people could vote again on Brexit and “could potentially change their minds”.
But he warned against overplaying the Border issue because of the total lack of understanding in the UK about the reality of how Irish people may have to cross it to go to work, college or even to see the doctor. It was reported this week that Brexit Secretary David Davis made his first visit to the Border since taking up his post – in secrecy.
Mr Ahern, whose negotiating skills are highly regarded by friends and foes alike and whose results include the Good Friday Agreement, strongly warned Ireland against waiting until the late night “evil hour” October deadline when France and Germany could put pressure for “dangerous” compromises that would be regretted later.
Mr Ahern, who stood down as Taoiseach in 2008 under something of a domestic political cloud, after more than a decade in the job said his experience of EU summits in Brussels could – if he left it to the last minute – find himself under pressure from the EU, France and Germany to get a deal, any deal, done in a last-minute, dead of night or early morning compromise.
“That’s always how it works. I don’t think they should find themselves having a Halloween party at two o’- clock in the morning,” said Mr Ahern.
“I am not saying we’ll be abandoned but the art of politics and the strength in politics is compromise; it is not a bad thing, it is not an evil thing, it’s a good thing – that’s what happens in this game,” he said.
“I am just saying that we should be as far down that line as we can before it will ultimately come to the late night.”
Mr Ahern said that the idea of a return to any kind of border on the island of Ireland would be “a disaster” and that “you wouldn’t have to wait for violence” among border communities if one were to emerge.
“The communities on both sides of the Border with their bare hands will pull down any attempt to put anything up,” he said.
“I don’t think there is a danger,” said Mr Ahern, noting that loyalist paramilitaries were trying to “pull themselves away from violence, from criminality” and not looking for reasons to return to it.
Brian Cowen, who succeeded Mr Ahern as Taoiseach in 2008 until 2011, told the conference that “constructive ambiguity can get you so far” but there “comes a point where the concrete specifics have to be addressed.”
“We need to see some progress in concrete detail terms very soon rather than this general reassurance that there is a solution. Mr Cowen said Prime Minister Theresa May had said that no UK prime minister could ever accept Northern Ireland economically separated from the rest of the UK even though this was precisely what she originally agreed to in Brussels last December in the so-called backstop agreement.
“This level of inconsistency in terms of the approach doesn’t help to instil confidence that we can get a solution,” he said.
Former Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997 John Bruton, a former EU Ambassador to Washington who has many friends in the Conservative Party said he did not believe the UK would reverse its decision on Brexit – until it sees the queues at British ports. He said: “Britain will never abandon the idea of Brexit until it is actually Brexited.”
All three former leaders said Brexit had damaged to Irish-British relations and was an unmitigated tragedy for Ireland, Britain and Europe. None were impressed by the UK’s Brexit Secretary David Davis who tried to ascribe Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s defence of Irish interests to pressure from Sinn Fein. All suggested that Mr Davis just did not fully grasp the issue.