Willie Kealy: ‘We still can’t bet that Brexit will actually happen’
EU’s no-nonsense approach has earned our trust, but means Theresa May is running out of options, writes Willie Kealy
The notoriously corrupt Tammany hall mayor, “Boss” Croker, used to define someone who was loyal as one who “when bought, stays bought”. By that standard, the loyalist DUP MPs who were “bought” by Theresa May with a billion pounds of British taxpayers’ money are anything but loyal.
Nothing Mrs May can say will convince some people about her deal with the EU, but there are those in her own party who would have felt safe voting against her proposal, had it been tabled last Tuesday, only because of a very vague belief, or perhaps merely the hope, that there was still enough time to send the prime minister back to Brussels to try to get some changes to her deal. But the EU leadership was implacable and made it clear there would be no renegotiation.
And this no-nonsense approach has earned the trust of the Irish people, according to the findings of today’s Sunday Independent/Kantar Millardbrown poll. Of those polled, 65pc believe the EU is firmly in our corner in these negotiations, while only 12pc disagree. But there may be an element of resignation in this attitude, because 77pc of those polled believe it is the EU that has control of our economic destiny anyway, with only 6pc disagreeing.
But we are not complaining. An astonishingly high 83pc believe that the EU has been to our benefit since we joined in 1973 – only 5pc disagree. And even though there was some grumbling about Europe during the crash, 76pc think the EU has treated us well since then (just 9pc disagree), so it is unlikely there is fertile ground here for anyone to suggest Ireland should follow Britain out of the Community.
Despite the cool reception from the other 27 EU leaders, Mrs May set off on a mission designed mainly to give the impression she would get “assurances” and “clarifications” that the difficult backstop would not be a trap to ensnare the UK in the EU forever, or a way of treating Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK.
She was undoubtedly hoping that there would be enough of a fudge, maybe in the accompanying political declaration, if not in the agreement itself, and little enough time left, so that sufficient MPs would change their minds when she takes the agreement back to the Commons on January 21. It hasn’t worked so far, but she insists it is still worth chasing further “assurances” and “discussions”.
As long as the UK is still a member of the EU, no new trade deal can be negotiated, so it is not possible, this side of Brexit, to spell out the terms of the replacement for the backstop. Of course there have been assurances that nobody wants to see the backstop actually come into effect and even if it did, it would only be very temporary; and negotiations on the replacement trade deal will hopefully be concluded in 2021. But even at that, it is hard to see what provisions could ensure that Northern Ireland is not treated differently – not less well, in fact, better – than the rest of the UK, if a hard border is to be avoided.
So it seems there is no way of persuading the DUP to back the May deal. Which leaves only two alternatives – a no-deal Brexit or another referendum. The consequences of Brexit without a deal for the British economy would be disastrous. Today’s poll shows that most Irish people are convinced that whatever the outcome, there will be no winners. Neither the EU nor the UK will be able to declare themselves winners, say 35pc of those polled, though 25pc see the EU coming out ahead, while only 10pc see the UK getting most benefit – 12pc see it as a draw.
A no-deal Brexit would be rough for us in the Republic too, and, of course, no deal would mean no backstop, and thus the reintroduction of a hard border. Notwithstanding the groundswell of opinion against a no-deal Brexit, we have to be realistic and allow for the fact that it could happen if only by default in the absence of any other solution. Which is why a number of governments, Ireland and the UK included, have finally started making some contingency plans for this possibility.
Another referendum is something which Mrs May and probably a majority of her party oppose at present. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is being coy about where he stands, suggesting that only a general election, which even the most rabid Tory Brexiteers don’t want, and which he sees as making him prime minister, can solve the problem. But his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has firmly backed asking the people again in the absence of the May proposals succeeding or an election.
The not unreasonable question now being asked by the new Remain campaign, inelegantly titled ‘Bollocks to Brexit’, is how long the mandate of the last referendum has to be allowed to stand – two years, 10 years, a 100 years? The divide seems to be between younger voters who want a new referendum, and older voters who do not. And since the last vote two-and-a-half years ago, nearly two million extra young people have reached voting age.
Exactly a year ago, I wrote the following in these pages: “Cheer up. Brexit might never happen. There is at least as good a chance that we should be asking about ‘if’ Brexit happens, as much as we are about ‘when’ Brexit happens.”
Keeping in mind that nobody knows anything – still – I think I will leave my money on that each-way bet for the foreseeable future.