It was conspiracy theory central in the Dáil on Wednesday. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was on the receiving end of a battering from opposition leaders Micheál Martin, Mary Lou McDonald, and Brendan Howlin over events at last week’s EU Council meeting.
As you might remember, it was reported that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron piled the pressure on Varadkar to cough up an explanation as to how he intends protecting the single market in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
In Brussels, amid the febrile atmosphere, Merkel raised the issue of the Irish border, noting the difficulties of protecting the Belfast Agreement in a no-deal situation, according to sources familiar with the notes of the meeting. As a result, it was agreed that plans on how to deal with the Irish border in the event of a no-deal Brexit were to be discussed urgently between the European Commission and Irish Government officials.
Crucially, reports of such concerns emanated not from the Irish media but from the British and European press, so a divergence of opinion was emerging.
In a situation eerily reminiscent of former taoiseach Brian Cowen’s denials of an IMF bailout in 2010, only to be found out, the protestations from the Irish Government are beginning to ring hollow.
Only after those reports about the Merkel pressure emerged did Varadkar and his ministers even concede that “early and tentative” discussions have begun with the EU about how to ready for a no-deal.
You see, Varadkar, Tánaiste Simon Coveney, and the rest of their Government have always officially maintained that no plan exists on how the border (the integrity of the EU single market) would be protected on the island of Ireland should Britain crash out.
‘No way, hell no, definitely not,’ has always been the response. While confirming that talks have commenced, but in the vaguest and most unspecific terms, Varadkar appeared to revert back to the well-trodden script, saying that any talk of preparations for a hard border returning is akin to “conspiracy theory”.
“In regard to Deputy Micheál Martin’s questions, the deputy sought some particular date and information in regard to preparedness, as he did yesterday, also,” said Varadkar.
I asked my officials to check that out and we will provide it for him, if it exists. I do not know if it does exist, but if that data does exist, we will provide it to the deputy. In fairness, I cannot do so if it does not exist.
“With the greatest respect to the deputy, I do not think he can accuse people of partisanship when he engages in it himself regularly. Whatever standard one seeks is the standard one should set. There are plenty of examples of partisanship from Fianna Fáil, and Deputy Martin as leader. I do not need to provide examples, because the deputy will be able to find them without much research. In terms of the conspiracy theory, the conspiracy theory seems to be that we have a secret plan for a hard border between north and south that we are not sharing with people. That is a conspiracy theory. It is not true. We have no secret plan,” insisted the Taoiseach.
“In regard to the talks and discussions with the European Commission on no-deal planning, or on what we would do to avoid a hard border and protect the single market and the customs union, in the event of a no-deal, as I said at the weekend, they have been rough, they have been preliminary, and they are really only going to start when we end up in a no-deal scenario. There are no documents that I have seen, if they do exist. They happen at official level and I am not party to them. I have given no specific instructions to officials,” he said.
Martin was not buying it: “I am not talking about conspiracy theories. It is a long-standing practice for government to instruct its officials when it is in discussions on an issue.”
The Merkel revelation, which first appeared in the Financial Times, has certainly placed strain on Government denials that no planning has been undertaken to plan for the worst of worst scenarios.
As one senior civil servant told me recently, “we plan for all scenarios, no exceptions”. Such a statement was backed up by a conversation I had with a minister the other night.
The minister said:
Of course there is a plan. There is a massive game going on; we just can’t talk about it, for obvious reasons. We just have to hold the line for now: this is a critical time.
So, on one hand, we have the Taoiseach and Tánaiste shouting down any suggestion that there is planning to ensure the border between the EU and Britain would be protected in the case of a no-deal, and, on the other, we have statements to the contrary.
Politically, the Government can say little else, for fear that it gives ammunition to those in Britain who are perfectly happy with a no-deal, crash-out Brexit. Fine Gael does not want to go down in history as the party that reintroduced a hard border on the island of Ireland, so even if it is barely credible, they are sticking to their line.
But, as Cowen and his now deceased finance minister, Brian Lenihan, learned to their cost, deceiving the public can blow up in your face and rob you of any credibility. I liken it to another episode. When the euro currency was under severe strain in 2012 and 2013, rumours abounded that plans were being readied to reprint the punt.
Questions were asked, queries were made, and denials aplenty came back at us, only for the story to be confirmed a year later that, actually, very detailed plans were readied, in case they were needed.
To our faces, our queries were rejected as piffle by officials and politicians, because the plan was so top secret.
So, while the Taoiseach can decry questions and queries about plans to restore the border and label them as mere conspiracy theories, such refutations are becoming increasingly unconvincing. Especially when many of his own ministers are openly saying there is a plan for that very scenario. While there may be legitimate reasons for seeking to hold the line, the risks are high, as history taught Fianna Fáil in 2011: The public doesn’t take kindly to being lied to so brazenly.