There was outrage in Ireland this week as British negotiators backed away from commitments on the Irish border reached in a deal with the European Union on the terms of its departure.
There was also a growing recognition in Dublin and Brussels that the British had made hopelessly contradictory promises - to leave the EU single market and the customs unions, while maintaining the existing Border arrangements.
Despite misgivings, however, the EU has given the go-ahead for the second and conclusive stage of the negotiations, when it is now hoped that the detail of a British commitment to “no hard border” in Ireland might emerge.
Earlier this week, Theresa May’s aides told her senior ministers that the key concession to “regulatory alignment” used to seal last week’s Brexit deal was “meaningless” and “not binding”, and only included to get Ireland to approve it.
Britain’s Brexit Minister David Davis (pictured) described it as a “statement of intent” rather than an enforceable agreement. Leading Tory Iain Duncan Smith, wrote that the deal was an “indicative text”, whose only purpose was to get to the next phase of discussions.
Britain’s Direct Ruler in the north of Ireland James Brokenshire also cast doubt on the preliminary deal, arguing that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.
Amid Irish frustration as the deal fell apart, Davis sought to calm nerves by repeating the long-standing Tory promise of a “frictionless, invisible” border between the two jurisdictions in Ireland. He was referring to British proposals, never published, for discrete electronic surveillance and spot-check patrols, rather than the more obviously inflammatory ‘hard border’ of installed Crown Force checkpoints and spy towers.
“What I actually said.. was we want to protect the peace process,” said Davis. “We want to protect Ireland from the impact of Brexit for them, and I said this was a statement of intent which was much more than just legally enforceable.
“Of course it’s legally enforceable under the withdrawal agreement but even if that didn’t happen for some reason, if something went wrong, we would still be seeking to provide a frictionless invisible border with Ireland.”
Irish nerves exploded on social media after Sky News anchorman Adam Boulton was seen to be patronising to Tanaiste Simon Coveney over the Dublin government’s lack of negotiating skills, and he poured salt in the wounds when he tweeted: “you Irish need to get over yourselves”.
Despite initial claims by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that the deal was “politically bulletproof” and had “achieved everything we set out to achieve”, there was an awareness that Irish negotiators had achieved much less than initially expected, and promises made were not binding commitments.
It also became clear that a promise to “maintain full alignment” of regulations was made only in relation to largely unimplemented elements of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, while hopes that Ireland had negotiated to keep Britain inside the EU’s Customs Union and Single Market, were seen to be government spin.
The Fine Gael leadership stood accused of concentrating too much on the perception and imagery of the deal back in Ireland. However, the main criticism fell on the 26 County Department of Foreign Affairs, which leaked several documents and was easily outwitted by the mendacity of the Tories and the practised brinkmanship of the DUP.
On Monday the European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas confirmed that the deal is “not legally binding” until it is incorporated in a formal Withdrawal Agreement, expected in the autumn of 2018. Mr Schinas said that last week’s deal was regarded in Brussels as “a deal between gentlemen”.
After some tense exchanges this week, Mr Varadkar insisted he is still happy with it. “I’ve no need to interpret or spin in. It’s pretty clear to me,” he declared.
He said that he is trying to resolve the issue and ensure that the north of Ireland can retain the “peace and freedom of movement” it has had for the past 20 years.
But after a mini-rebellion by Tory backbenchers at Westminster on Thursday, there is a new element of uncertainty in the mix. British Prime Minister Theresa May lost a vote and has been forced to give the parliament a “meaningful” vote on the final EU withdrawal deal. It means MPs and ‘Lords’ will be given a final say over the implementation of the withdrawal agreement.
May’s political mandate was seen to have been further diminished by the vote, which she lost by four votes, despite the support of the DUP.
MORE TO COME
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams this week expressed sterner concerns about the agreement which he said left many “unanswered questions” about the border region and those living in the north.
“The Irish government must remain focussed and vigilant,” he said.
Sinn Fein Brexit spokesman David Cullinane said the “heavy lifting” in the negotiations between the UK and EU had yet to come.
“Friday’s report is simply where the negotiations stand at the moment - it is not a ‘cast-iron guarantee’ as stated by the taoiseach but simply a set of measures that both sides have agreed to at this stage in the talks in order to move the process forward,” he said.
He said that the protection of the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, along with no return of a border on the island of Ireland, must remain red lines issues in the forthcoming round of talks.
“While the joint report signalled some progress, it is in the second round of talks that flesh will be put on the bones of this ‘gentleman’s agreement’.
“The Irish government must ensure that the North stays in the customs union, single market, and the EU legal framework.
“These are essential in order to ensure that there is no return to a border on the island of Ireland, and that the rights of Irish citizens as EU citizens in the North are protected.”
He said it was also essential that Irish citizens are able to exercise their rights as EU citizens in the North, not just when they travel south or to other EU countries.
“And despite what the Taoiseach says, ‘full alignment’ in certain sectors covered by the Good Friday Agreement such as health, education, energy and transport, will not be enough to avoid a border,” he said.
“If Britain decides to stay within the EU tariff regime, all well and good, but if it decides to deviate from it then we need legal protections to ensure that the north stays within it. This is now the hard part.”