In single interviews it’s entirely appropriate for the presenter to play the devil’s advocate role. But in a long and pressing interview this morning on Radio 4’s Today programme with Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney, John Humphrys showed I believe a basic lack of understanding of the EU/Irish position of the backstop which partly explains why it’s such a conundrum. I’m pretty sure it was more ignorance than tactic. All Humphrys could do to fill the time was to keep repeating the UK position, that “you surely can’t expect us to divide our country” etc., and playing down the significance of the commitment the UK has already signed up to, on the grounds that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” At his best Humphrys finds a clever point to undermine the case he’s challenging. In this case, the only one I can think of is to ask: “ So there’s a straightforward clash between traditional British ideas of sovereignty and the Good Friday Agreement ( even though the GFA states that the sovereignty of both states is unaffected)? It’s unsolvable isn’t it?“ and force Coveney to face the dilemma or seem intransigent.
Coveney’s case for the backstop rested on the perceived need to protect the rights of Irish /EU citizens in the North which the GFA explicitly introduced. The trouble is, nobody contemplated that either party would ever leave the EU at the time of the Agreement. The citizenship provisions seemed little more than warm- hearted recognition of the two identities and the right to hold either passport, or both. All familiar stuff. But now to their horror, English MPs and others – not only hardline Brexiteers and probably including Theresa May – are discovering that the right to opt for “British, Irish or both” citizenships has created a Trojan horse. That would explain the increasingly strident and simplistic rejection of the backstop, which has been meat and drink in the Irish debate ever since the referendum and partly accounts for Brexiteer accusations of ulterior motives from Varadkar and co. The Daily Telegraph suggests today that on the essentials the Irish are unlikely to budge.
Since the June European Council, UK sources say that Dublin has become visibly more “constructive” in the talks process, even – according to a report in the Financial Times – letting it be known that it would support an “all-UK” customs union in the backstop agreement.
Unfortunately, this is where Irish trade interests and the European Union’s desire to defend the integrity of the single market start to conflict. The EU has now refused to grant this to the British side, raising the risks of a hard ‘no deal’ Brexit.
Ultimately, given Ireland’s desire to remain firmly aligned with the EU for the future, there are clear limits to how much Dublin can influence the talks process in the UK’s favour, even if they wanted to.
It was noteworthy that the day after that story appeared mooting a compromise on the backstop, Mr Varadkar was in Brussels standing next to the European Council president, toeing the party line repeating EU backstop orthodoxies. That is where things are likely to stay.
Goodness knows what Theresa May can tell EU leaders tonight that would move things along.
The basic analysis of the Irish position stemming from GFA is laid out here by the veteran Irish diplomat Noel Dorr. In negotiations, never underestimate the blind spots in your opponent’s eyes .Brexit has greatly inflated the importance of the citizenship provisions in a way the British side failed to anticipate even the government agreed to the backstop. Added to this I learn that in the negotiations, the dilemmas has never been laid out fully as a political problem. They had all better face them now. The EU’s immediate solution is to offer more time. But May seems keener on forcing the pace even though the greater pressure is on her. And indeed, would more time make much difference in either Brussels or Westminster? By buying more time to seal the final deal after next March, would the backstop really wither on the vine or be reactivated if the UK struck some trade deal the EU didn’t like?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London