If Britain can leave with a better deal than it had when it was a member, that’s the end of the EU, writes Fergus Finlay

Why is anyone surprised that they’re surprised? The Brits I mean. They’re shocked, appalled, horrified, and even insulted. Because European leaders told Theresa May in public exactly what they’ve been telling her in private for months.

She arrives in Saltzburg, makes a speech, writes an article in a newspaper, and expects the world to fall at her feet. It’s my plan or nothing, she says. You must take Chequers or leave it. Right so, she’s told. We’ll leave it, thanks very much. And then she gives another speech saying that Britain must be treated with more respect than this.

But all that happened was that British negotiators were treated the way they treat everyone else.

I can remember two incidents very clear from several years of Anglo-Irish negotiations. One involved the leak of a set of papers. When Irish negotiators arrived in the Northern Ireland office in London the following day, the newspaper containing the leak was spread out across the table, and the first hour of the meeting was taken up with stern admonitions about the damage that had been done.

The process had been fatally undermined, we were told, by whatever irresponsible Irish official had leaked. While there was probably little doubt that the leak had come from the Irish side, it certainly wasn’t the responsibility of the people present at the meeting, who were just as horrified as their British counterparts.

But that didn’t stop the British officials present from milking it for all it was worth. It became clear that they were seeing the leak as a heaven-sent opportunity to put the Irish side on the defensive, with a view to extracting whatever concession they could.

The second incident occurred later in the same process, when agreement had almost been reached on the final text of the Downing Street Declaration. It was due to be published in early December 1993, after a year’s work, and there was a strong hope and belief in the Irish government that it could pave the way for a permanent IRA ceasefire.

A few days before the text was due to be finalised, on November 25, the British government submitted some amendments. Only they weren’t amendments — what we got was an entirely new, unrecognisable text.

It was immediately clear that it would take months of negotiation to reconcile it with anything that might have a hope of persuading paramilitaries to put down their guns.

British are past masters at trying it on, except on Brexit it didn’t work

Instead of trying to re-open negotiations, Albert Reynolds, at a bitterly tense summit meeting, essentially accused John Major of bad faith and demanded that the document be removed in its entirety. Nobody on Reynolds’ side of the table knew if it would work, but it did. He called John Major’s bluff, and it enabled the original document to be finalised and published a fortnight or so later. The rest, as they say, is history.

There was actually a third incident which might suggest a difference in approach. At the time John Major came to Dublin for that “bad faith” summit, the newspapers were full of the discovery that, despite endless denials, the British had been having secret and sustained back-channel contact with the IRA for years.

It was a revelation considerably worse than the leak that had caused the earlier row. And it was never mentioned at the meetings between the two governments. There was no recrimination, no accusation of bad faith. Because it wasn’t necessary — the revelations had put them completely on the defensive. It was perhaps the only time I ever saw them sheepish.

This is the way the British negotiate. I never worked with a British official I didn’t respect, and many of them I liked a lot. But you could never be under any illusions. British interests came first, and whatever was necessary to secure them would be tried on. They might be offended when it’s done to them, but they’re the past masters of it.

Some of their negotiators, of course — I suspect this is even truer of some involved in the Brexit issue — haven’t yet gotten used to the idea that Britain is no longer an imperial power. It is no longer the case that gunships back up the diplomacy. Britain is just another player in a chess game. And Brexit is an immensely complicated chess game.

There’s a simple enough truth at the heart of these negotiations. If Britain can leave with a better deal than it had when it was a member, that’s the end of the EU. So if Britain wants to leave, it has to be willing to pay a price.

It’s seldom enough in negotiations like this that principle is allowed to intrude. It’s the clash of interests that causes the row in the first place, and good negotiators know that the best was to solve the row is to reconcile, as best as possible, the two sets of conflicting interests.

But it’s becoming clearer by the day that apart from the enormous interest involved, there is also a fundamental principle that has to be addressed in this row. And the fundamental principle is Ireland.

This may be a unique moment in our history, but there it is. If Britain is outside the EU, there has to be a border. Somewhere, Britain has to end and the EU begin. The geographically obvious point for that to happen is Ireland.

But there are international agreements that make that impossible. We’ve dismantled the border on this island, and we’re not going to allow it to be rebuilt. And in that we have, as far as I can see, the unequivocal support of the member states of the EU. And even the British government accepts that a border would be a potentially catastrophic step towards the past.

So they’re trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. Shortly after the people of Britain voted for Brexit, I wrote here that they had in effect voted to take Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. Despite all the protestations, despite Theresa May saying no British prime minister would ever propose it, I still believe that that’s what the British people voted for, in effect. Because it simply isn’t possible, ultimately, to keep Northern Ireland in the UK and the island of Ireland in the EU without once again dividing the island.

It was Theresa May’s predecessor John Major who said — in the first major document underpinning the peace process — that his government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”. Part of what Europe is insisting on now is that the present British government continue to honour that sentiment.

If the price of Britain’s leaving the EU is the re-erection of a border on the island of Ireland that could only happen as a manifestation of an entirely selfish interest. The potential damage it could do over time could only be understood in that context, that Britain was so determined to pursue its own interest that nothing else mattered.

Because that is the case, we shouldn’t be surprised that the British prime minister was at the receiving end of some blunt and direct talk from her European colleagues. To be honest, it would be surprising — actually shocking — if she wasn’t.

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