Wobbles on the backstop and an eventual Fianna Fail- SDLP merger are new features of the countdown to the day of Brexit reckoning

As Sammy Wilson was among the first to remind us, Brexit wars have resumed again after the Christmas pause.  Theresa May has just promised no delay to the meaningful vote scheduled for the week after next. But she declined to speculate on extending Article 50 if as expected MPs finally vote down the withdrawal agreement with the Irish backstop.

According to  the Irishman who is professor of Constitutional and EU law at University College London, Ronan McCrea..   

the UK can only validly revoke its notification of its intention to leave if it has definitively decided to stay in the EU. It cannot revoke in order to pause the process.

What about a pause by EU agreement rather than unilateral UK revocation?

It is not clear that all states would agree to extend time unless they were assured that the UK government would be recommending a Remain vote.

As the clock ticks down towards Brexit day in March and with political chaos still reigning in London, politicians in Dublin are becoming understandably nervous.

On one level, Ireland has enjoyed perhaps its greatest ever diplomatic success: the entire EU has placed its negotiating weight on the line to ensure that Brexit does not result in a hardening of the Irish border. However, on the other hand the backstop that the EU pressured Theresa May to accept has provoked so far insurmountable opposition in the House of Commons thus increasing the chances of the UK crashing out of the EU with no deal.

As an Irish diplomat was quoted as telling the Bloomberg news agency, “this will either be an incredible diplomatic triumph or a strategic mistake”.

The Sunday Times’ political editor Tim Shipman believes he’s detected signs of wobbling north and south of the border.

The Commons appears so deadlocked that cabinet ministers are openly speculating that May could delay the big vote for a second time while the arm-twisting continues. The key to victory appears to be the position of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Privately, May’s aides believe they might be able to persuade nine of the DUP’s MPs to back down or abstain if they can secure a binding declaration from Brussels that the backstop is temporary.

“Most of the DUP don’t actually want no deal,” said one senior figure, “except for Sammy.” That is a reference to Sammy Wilson, the party’s Brexit spokesman, who said last week there was “no way” the DUP would back the deal.

There is also a hope that the wind might be changing in Dublin, where Leo Varadkar’s government has taken a tough line on the backstop, but which appealed last week to Brussels for emergency cash to support farmers in the event of no deal. After talks on Thursday with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, Varadkar expressed a willingness to help May.

The thinking seems to be that the UK will only be rewarded if close alignment with the EU can be guaranteed. The argument at the moment is however circular; Mrs May seems unable to deliver close alignment reconciled to a form of Brexit without the EU relaxing the terms of the backstop. Small wonder then that she is working on the weakspot of EU resolve- the  fears for the Irish economy.

These were expressed by the  Indo columnist and economist Dan O’Brien who was virtually a lone voice in Dublin as a backstop sceptic before Christmas.  

We are in a moment of great peril. The invisible infrastructure that allows life on the islands of Ireland and Britain to function as it does could shut down in just over 100 days.

There are real risks of major disruption to trade across the Irish Sea in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It is conceivable that the new trading regime, however chaotic in its initial stages, could be managed and the damage limited.

But it is just as possible, if not more so, that the Irish economy could slump and quickly slide into recession.

If the conversation is to change, alternatives will need to be put forward. Here are three.

Last September this column suggested holding a referendum in Northern Ireland on which single market and which customs union people there wanted to belong to (these choices are, alas, binary).

Another option that needs consideration is customs checks only on the Republic’s side of the border. That is because, if there is no deal, Ireland will be faced with the choice of putting up customs posts on the southern side of the border or ceasing to be a full member of the EU’s single market.

EU membership gives a non-British dimension to the governance of the North. Brexit will reinforce the nature of Britishness of governance at a time when British politics is evolving in a way that can be viewed only as threatening, if not plain dangerous, by nationalists.

Guaranteed meetings of the Intergovernmental Conference under the Good Friday Agreement on a very regular and highly visible basis could be one way of reassuring nationalists post-Brexit. A discussion of Dublin-London joint authority in some areas around rights might also be worth exploring

This is where the most fascinating story over Christmas could come in – Gerry Moriarty’s exclusive about an alliance between the SDLP and Fianna Fail leading to eventual merger or takeover.  

To its advocates, this conjures up the bold vision pre-figuring Irish unity, of a Fianna Fail taoiseach with a direct democratic mandate to represent the interests of the 40% or so of EU citizens in the North to the British government, a development which despite the continuation of formal British sovereignty would become a form of joint authority in the North, through the structures of the  GFA strengthened by the fallout from Brexit.  Short of a crash-out no deal, it is hard to see how the North can be retained as a basically separate economic entity from the Republic,  backstop or no backstop, DUP pact or no DUP pact.

Fianna Fail direct involvement in the North would increase the Dail’s leverage on the issue of a border poll and the “concurrent” referendum in the south, rather than leaving the momentum for a poll entirely to a northern numbers game as at present. We could expect to hear more of southern opinion on the matter, even to the extent of it becoming a bone of contention between the two main parties.  Direct northern involvement may not be altogether welcome, as southern voters have generally welcomed a broadly bipartisan approach to the North, keeping it at a certain distance and favouring unity only with the degree of  broad unionist acquiescence Brexit is unlikely to encourage.

So would such a merger produce a new pan- nationalist front or would Fine Gael differentiate in one direction and Sinn Fein another?

If partnership or merger is to go through, Fianna Fail and the SDLP will not have much time to get their act together. But the complications are not all on one side.  FF will be more preoccupied by the possibility of a sprung election at home.

In the North itself, a Fianna Fail role would have some appeal as a nationalist alternative less tainted by the responsibility for the thirty year long IRA campaign. But it’s very doubtful that it would expand the total nationalist vote more than it would split it.

To have much of an impact on Stormont politics, a rejuvenated SDLP would have to become an instrument of the main Dail parties to pressurise Sinn Fein to return to an Assembly with the promise of political reform led by the two governments.  Reform should be headed by ending the abuse of the petition of concern to allow for the enactment of key issues such as a language act and same sex marriage.

A fresh Stormont election would surely be required  for the Assembly to resume.   Indeed, 2019 could be a year of repeated electoral tests.  On top of the scheduled council elections for May, a second Brexit referendum, a Westminster election or conceivably both can’t be ruled out, nor indeed can elections for the European parliament if Brexit is delayed or cancelled. On top of that, pending a referendum in the Republic, Northern votes for the Irish presidency by post could follow later.

For Westminster, although a more evenly split nationalist vote might gift FST and perhaps South Down to the DUP, it surely goes without saying that any nationalist seats regained from Sinn Fein would be taken up at Westminster. Sinn Fein are unlikely to give their seats without a struggle, complicating their bid to be seen as a respectable coalition partner in the Republic. A pact with Fianna Fail on fighting Assembly seats would only be a gesture of peace for the sake of SF’ s southern strategy. They hardly need one to consolidate their position in the North where Fianna Fail by whatever name as  the interlopers would have it all to prove.

The problem with these scenarios is that they are being received with much scepticism, not least over the fate of “social democratic and labour ” element of the northern party at the hands of the traditional populism of the southern party.

Over party structures and even Brexit, northern autonomy may seem more attractive after all.

A full merger with a single southern party violates the old John Hume principle of even handedness as between both main parties in order to maintain maximum SDLP leverage. This matters much less today , now that the SDLP’s leading role  has been eclipsed by Sinn Fein. Even so, with the years of Fianna Fail  single party rule long past, coalition government for long the norm and with Fine Gael at least the equal party of government, more flexible and conditional alignments with the southern parties might be the better bet for the SDLP. To discuss openly what such an alliance between Fianna Fail and the SDLP would actually be about, would be a good start.

If cross border politics are to evolve,  it could be that even a much weakened SDLP has as much to offer Fianna Fail by way of developing a northern mandate, as a resurgent Fianna Fail has to offer moderate northern nationalists on a potential road to unity.  A merger would at least create tests of their resolve on this existential issue.  But the risks of disillusionment apply to both sides. And the possibility however remote of  developing a cross community centre ground in the North would most likely recede, with unionism ever more in retreat  unless it significantly moderated its defensive  posture, and showing there is no easy route to a united Ireland by consent.