Daniel McConnell.

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Ireland waits to see if UK has finally decided

With Tony Blair and Jacob Rees-Mogg bafflingly on the same page, what happens next with Brexit may be hard for Ireland to stomach, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

Ireland waits to see if UK has finally decided

With Tony Blair and Jacob Rees-Mogg bafflingly on the same page, what happens next with Brexit may be hard for Ireland to stomach, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

It was mid-afternoon on Tuesday in the Dáil when news of a deal being reached in Brussels on the Irish backstop was first raised.

“The Taoiseach may not be aware of it, but in the last five minutes, news has broken that a text has been agreed between UK and EU negotiators. It was agreed last night at 9pm and, as such, the Taoiseach is probably aware of it. Apropos the response to Deputy Burton’s earlier question, the Taoiseach might comment on that. The text was agreed last night at 9pm,” said Micheál Martin, the Fianna Fáil leader.

“Has that just broken now?” chirped in Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald.

“There are often things in the media that are reported,” said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in response to being seemingly caught off guard.

“Obviously, I have been here for the last two hours and I have not spoken to my officials or been able to speak to them in that time.”

As soon as he could, Varadkar high-tailed it back to Government Buildings to be briefed by his officials.

He would be joined by Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee, chief of staff Brian Murphy, and other key personnel.

There they received the 15 or so pages of text, of the 500-plus page document, relating to the Irish backstop, the border, and the future relationship between Britain and the EU.

Under the draft, the backstop will apply to the entire UK and see Britain remain in a customs union with the EU if no solutions to avoid a hard border are found.

However, the withdrawal agreement will have additional measures for Northern Ireland to ensure there is no hard border.

Speaking to me late on Tuesday night, senior Government sources said the Taoiseach and his team were happy with the final draft text.

The sources insisted the Government “got what it needed” in the draft Brexit text agreed in Brussels to avoid the return of a hard border. They said they were content that the agreed text of the backstop respected the Irish position that no border on the island of Ireland would exist post-Brexit.

Officially the Government was making no comment, but sources said the Irish concerns are protected. “It’s what we need, there are still some moving parts and we need to see how this lands in London,” said one. “But we have seen things unravel before.”

This caution was reflected in the actions yesterday morning in Dublin.

Ministers were in lockdown ahead of, during, and after a two-hour Cabinet meeting.

“No can do today, we have been told to stay quiet,” said one minister.

“Lockdown,” came the response from another.

The air of caution was reflected in the refusal of Coveney, our main Brexit man, to stop and address the media on his way in to Government Buildings.

The sense from Dublin’s point of view was that it was time to allow British Prime Minister Theresa May space to get the paper through her deeply fragile cabinet and then the deeply divided House of Commons.

In the Dáil, Varadkar told TDs he did not want to speak publicly on the detail of the draft agreement, stressing that the process was at a sensitive stage.

“We do have a very important and very sensitive cabinet meeting that will happen in London and I don’t want to say anything here today that might up-end that cabinet meeting or make things any more difficult than they are already for the prime minister,” he said.

“Should the UK cabinet be in the position this afternoon to say it’s content with the text, it is proposed that the commission taskforce would be in a position perhaps tonight to publish the text with the possibility or probability of an EU Council meeting around the 25th of November.”

Varadkar then said he would be seeking to put the deal to a vote in the Dáil, in order to bolster the mandate he has to deliver on the commitments made.

To his credit, despite criticism last week by Sinn Féin of him losing his nerve, Varadkar has shown a steady and consistent hand so far, as has his Tánaiste, who has performed admirably.

While they have succeeded in protecting Irish interests as much as possible through the EU27 bloc, we remain in chaos given it will be the Commons which will determine whether this is a runner or not.

Soundings from Westminster throughout the day illustrated how deep the opposition, not only the extreme right but also on the left, is to what May’s team has agreed on Brexit.

While the opposition from the DUP and the likes of Boris Johnson was not unexpected, when Scottish Tories and many within Labour started hitting out at it, the future of the deal looked most uncertain.

It certainly has been an incongruous sight to see former Labour prime minister Tony Blair and arch Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg in agreement that the proposed deal is unworkable and doomed to fail.

Blair, for his part, in a major speech in London, called for a second referendum in a bid to end the heightened air of uncertainty and chaos which engulfed the UK, reflected in the hit on sterling.

“Brexit in name but tied still to Europe in reality” will disappoint those on both sides, he said. “Whatever the people voted for, they didn’t vote for this.”

Blair continued: “I know it is said a new vote of the people will also divide. But a reconsideration in the light of all we now know, accepted by all as the final word, especially if accompanied by a new willingness on the part of Europe’s leadership and Britain’s to deal with the reasons for the Brexit decision, is the only hope of unity in the future.”

The UK cabinet meeting, which was due to be three hours long, went on much longer than that and a subsequent press conference was cancelled — a clear sign that it was not merely rubber-stamped by her ministers as some had projected.

The big fear for Ireland is that the deal as agreed is simply too toxic to pass the House of Commons and any deal that would be palatable for MPs would be unfathomable for Ireland.

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