The core weakness of Taoiseach Leo Varadker’s position is that a no deal Brexit would create a hard customs border with Northern Ireland — precisely the outcome his insistence on the backstop is designed to avoid. Consequently there are increasing calls in the media for him to back down from his insistence on the backstop in order to enable the passage of the withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons.
In my view there are at least four flaws in this argument:
It is becoming increasingly clear that even removing the backstop from the agreement entirely wouldn’t guarantee its passage through the House of Commons. Hardline Brexiteers actually seem to want a no deal Brexit.
The EU has staked its entire position and credibility on avoiding a hard customs border in Ireland (which they know would be a smuggler’s paradise in any case). For Varadker to cave on this now would be like a stab in the back — undermining perhaps the most impressive display of EU solidarity in its history. Varadker would lose all credibility with his EU peers were he to let them down now.
Although there are isolated calls for compromise now, the moment Varadker concedes he and his party are consigned to electoral history. Fine Gael has never quite recovered from perceptions of being soft on patriotism by agreeing to the partition of Ireland as part of the 1922 peace settlement with Great Britain in the first place.
This caused a civil war and an enduring split in Irish politics. To cave in to British bluff and bluster would be a national humiliation and would give Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin the boost they badly need to become pre-eminent in Irish politics again.
Compromising on the backstop would be seen as a betrayal of the people of the North, who have benefited from borderless travel and trade with the Republic since the Good Friday Agreement and who voted by a large majority against Brexit in the referendum.
Many in the North (and not just nationalists) are also Irish citizens and would lose the EU dimension of that citizenship and the protections of their identity in the Good Friday Agreement if the backstop is dropped.
The bottom line: We are where we are, and there is no going back.
- This reader's opinion was originally published in the letters page of the Irish Examiner print edition on 9 August 2019.