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How Ireland navigated Brexit

By David Hennessy

Ireland’s Call: Navigating Brexit by Stephen Collins is a forensic study of the Brexit negotiations from an Irish perspective.

It tells the story of how Ireland responded to Britain’s decision to leave the EU with Irish political leaders and officials waging a successful diplomatic campaign to persuade the EU that whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations there could not be a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Collins, a former political editor of the Irish Times, has reconstructed how Dublin swayed the EU into supporting Irish goals.

Collins interviewed key players, including three Taoiseachs: Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin, Johnson’s chief strategic adviser, Edward Lister, and Theresa May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell.

Stephen Collins told The Irish World why he had to write Ireland’s Call.

Stephen said: “Brexit was one of the biggest political issues I covered in my career as a journalist.

“I knew the people centrally involved, or at least I was able to contact them and I thought I would talk to them while it was still fresh in their memories.

“I spoke initially to a civil servant called John Callinan who is now the secretary of the Taoiseach’s department, head of the civil service effectively.

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“He was our main negotiator. And I’ve known John over the years so I sat down with him just to go through the whole thing and decided, ‘There’s a story to be told here about how the Irish side prepared for Brexit and how they dealt with potentially an enormous challenge to them’.

“I then went on and interviewed Enda Kenny who was Taoiseach at the time of Brexit, Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin, Charlie Flanagan who was Minister of Foreign Affairs.

“I just thought it was a story that was that was really worth telling.”

Brexit altered the relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom in a profound way.

“The book is telling a story rather than expressing strong opinions.

“The British people were not properly informed as those negotiations legalizations progressed about what was going on.

“The focus of the British media, even on the BBC News which I watch most days, was always on the manoeuvrings of the Conservative Party: Who was backstabbing who? Who was going to take out Theresa May? Who was going to become prime minister?

“And missing the big picture of what does it mean for the British people if we have a particular kind of a deal with the EU, or if there’s no deal with the EU?

“One of the things I think a lot of Irish people found most disappointing about Brexit wasn’t particularly the economic consequences or necessarily the border issue, but the fact that it soured relations between the two governments after a period relations had become very good.

“I just made the point that the links between the two countries are inexplicable, regardless of Brexit.

“For instance, I was born in England.

“My parents were Irish, moved back.

“I have English cousins in London, and I have Irish cousins who have gone over and made their livelihoods in England.

“I think all of these interconnections are important.

“I think that’s what’s so disappointing about the way Brexit unfolded and became a really sour issue and soured relations between the two countries.

“And to be fair to Sunak, he is trying to repair that damage.

“He has set out to re-establish friendly relations. Hopefully that will continue.”

While Britain stumbled into a referendum and its chaotic aftermath, unsure what sort of Brexit it wanted, Kenny’s Fine Gael-led government went about limiting the damage to Ireland. It had prepared a policy document in 2014 two years before the referendum. Within 48 hours of the result, foreign minister Charlie Flanagan had spoken to every single counterpart in the other 26-remaining member states.

To Dublin’s relief, the EU accepted the imperative to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

“They (the Irish) deserve credit for preparing in advance. The British didn’t prepare, they almost stumbled into the referendum and during the referendum campaign, Cameron wouldn’t allow his civil servants to prepare for the eventuality of a no vote on the basis that it would leak out and be regarded as defeatist.

“Once the decision was taken, in my opinion the British thrashed around for an awful long time not knowing what they actually wanted to do, not knowing what Brexit meant.

“Whereas on the Irish side, they had three priorities really.

“One was that we were going to stay in the EU.

“Secondly, they wanted to protect the Common Travel Area with the UK.

“But thirdly, and this became the crunch issue, they wanted to ensure that there wouldn’t be a hard border on the island of Ireland.

“I think the first six, nine months were absolutely crucial in terms of getting the EU to sign up to the Irish position on the border.

“I think it was quite a remarkable achievement that when the EU came up with its preconditions for what would be involved in the divorce settlement before they could talk about the future relationship, the Irish border was one of the three core issues.

“I think that was the crucial achievement.

“I remember talking to Phil Hogan at the time and Phil was saying the way the EU works, the text is absolutely all important.

“If your priority is down on paper, then it’s going to stay there.

“If it’s not down on paper, people might give you verbal assurances that don’t stack up necessarily in the longer run.

“So getting that in the first set of negotiations was absolutely vital and from then on the Irish border was at the core of the EU negotiating strategy.

“And I think that was an incredible achievement from an Irish point of view.”

Northern Ireland remains the issue several years on from the referendum and Britain leaving the EU.

“It remains the issue right down to the current issue about the protocol, which is dragging on and on.

“It’s looking a bit more hopeful now in the sense that the bad blood seems to have gone. Rishi Sunak is not grandstanding about the issue, but it hasn’t been solved.

“I was talking to an EU official who’s actually written a book about Brexit from the Brussels side.

“He was saying that Brexit is now a British problem, it’s not an EU problem.

“They have moved on and are not minded to change their approach at all unless they see a willingness to compromise on the British side.

“So we’ll see where it goes over the next couple of months.

“But Sunak is in a political position not quite the same as Theresa May, but he has a hardcore of Brexiteers who could rebel if he tries to move too fast, so we just have to wait and see.

“When I started the book, I kind of assumed that the whole thing was solved, that Boris Johnson had signed up to the protocol.

“Okay, there might have been teething problems but I thought by the time that I got to the end of the book, the problems would have phased out, but of course, it’s still there.”

Stephen started work on this book before there was any talk about Britain breaking the agreement ‘in a limited and specific way’- but this is something on one could foresee.

“No one did foresee that at all.

“When I started, it would have been early 2021.

“At that stage, the issue was rumbling a bit but I still thought that the agreement between Johnson and Varadkar at Wirral had really paved the way for the final settlement.

“When the UK left the EU at the end of 2020: That was it, there might be a bit of a tidying up operation but I didn’t envisage any big issues.

“I certainly didn’t imagine that Johnson and Liz Truss would then do everything they could to try and overturn the agreement that they signed.

“This is the paradox, Boris Johnson did the deal at Wirral to avoid a no deal Brexit and then called it an oven ready deal and he won the election on the basis of it.

“And then over a year later, he’s trying to overturn the agreement he signed.

“But it’s still there.

“I think there may be some modifications around the edges but I don’t see any major change in it.

“Northern Ireland actually has the best of both worlds. It’s effectively in the EU economic zone, it’s also in the UK economic zone and I think it can do very well if it exploits that.

“I think the protocol issue itself can be solved between the EU and the UK.

“I think the UK needs a settlement.

“There is a problem at an Irish level because the protocol and the DUP’s opposition to it is part of the reasons they are refusing to implement the power sharing deal in Northern Ireland.

“So I think there’s two separate things here: There is a Northern Irish issue. How can they get power sharing up and running again?

“And how can we get the protocol solved?

“I think the protocol can be solved but I don’t think that will necessarily result in the parties, the DUP agreeing to a new power sharing arrangement.

“If I had to predict the future, I think the protocol issue will be solved.

“I wouldn’t be as confident that Northern Ireland and power sharing would be resumed anytime soon.”

Theresa May comes across as something of a tragic figure in the book, inheriting a difficult situation and struggling to clean it up.

“I felt sorry for May.

“The Irish knew what they wanted once Brexit happened.

“They didn’t want Brexit to happen but once it happened, they knew what their priorities were, the British side didn’t.

“They didn’t know, they had no plan and May initially started off by appeasing the more right wing elements of the Tory party by saying, ‘The UK will be leaving the single market and the Customs Union’.

“And it was only as time went on and she called her disastrous election in 2017 that she realised that if she did that, there would probably be no deal at all.

“And she wrestled with the reality of how to cope with the situation because the Brexiteers took Boris’ notion of having his cake and eating it.

“The Brexiteers felt, I think they still feel, that they can have all the entitlements of being members of the EU while leaving it.

“And it took May a while to face up to the fact that if you’re leaving, you’re leaving and you’ve got to work out how you’re going to have a new relationship and it’s not going to be as good as the one you had when you were in the EU.

“And now we have the absurd situation that British exports from Britain to the EU have to conform with customs regulations and red tape which I think led to a big drop in trade between Britain and the EU.

“But the British haven’t been imposing those restrictions in reverse, so the notion that this was going to be really damaging for Irish exports to the UK has so far not proved at all, because there’s no limitation.

“So stuff coming in to Ireland has to conform to all sorts of detailed regulations, whereas Irish exports to the UK can continue as they did before Brexit because I think mainly because there could be shortages on the shelves, stuff might not be coming through.

“The British government has enough problems at the moment dealing with inflation and strikes without having a whole new layer of problems on top.

“So the view of the EU is that the UK will probably will never get around, or certainly not for the foreseeable future, get around to imposing the customs checks.

“So the UK’s got the worst of all worlds in that situation.”

Would Stephen feel sorry for the British people who probably voted in good faith and assumed that there was a plan when clearly there wasn’t? “Absolutely.

“Brexit became kind of a flag waving issue almost as if it was a football match.

“You weren’t a proper English person if you were in favour of the EU.

“It was portrayed in a very simplistic fashion for all the lies that were told, basically, that ordinary people would be better off if they left the EU.

“On any reasonable assessment, that was never going to be the case.

“You could argue maybe in 20, 30 years’ time but even that, I think, is pretty far fetched.

“So I would feel sorry for ordinary people in the UK, who are bearing the brunt of this because I know that there are obviously other issues- COVID, the war in Ukraine, and supply chains and all of that- But I think Brexit has undoubtedly been a huge contributing factor to the fact that the British economy is now doing so badly.

“And ordinary people are the ones who are bearing the brunt of it.”

“They (the leave campaign) certainly told massive lies about what the implications were going to be because almost all serious economists were willing to point out the damage that would be done.

“But the thing about referendums is emotion takes over.

“And people vote for all sorts of reasons.

“If they’re just feeling disgruntled with the government, they’ll vote to leave the EU. It might have nothing to do with the EU itself.

“So it’s a mood thing.

“And I think a fairly unscrupulous bunch of people from Farage to Boris Johnson capitalised on that mood to get a result that’s doing the UK a lot of damage.”

Ireland’s Call by Stephen Collins (Red Stripe Press).

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