A tsunami of spin in regards to the Irish border has scraped the British government into a second round of negotiations with the European Union over its departure, but at the expense of any confidence in the negotiations process.
The draft agreement was upended on Monday by a last minute ultimatum issued by the hardliners of the DUP, spooked by the premature cheering of the Dublin establishment.
In the document published on Friday, Britain conceded on the rights of EU citizens with little protest, but the section on Ireland and the border is an inoperable mass of contradictions. Clarification was badly needed, and unionists extracted six strongly pro-union declarations from the British Prime Minister Theresa May to assuage any fears of abandonment by the Tories.
Nationalists, meanwhile, saw a promise of special status for the north of Ireland, ‘leaked’ by Irish media last weekend, evaporate into a guarantee only to uphold the relatively minor cross-border bodies of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The glue for the deal was a promise that, in the event of no overall deal being reached, Britain (and the north of Ireland) would maintain “full alignment” with some elements of the European Union’s single market and customs union. But there was no indication of how, in the absence of an overall Brexit deal, such a promise could be implemented through the battered and collapsed structures of the Good Friday Agreement.
In Dublin, a new multi-million pound Department of Spin wheeled into operation with serious effect. The Tory promise of ‘no hard border’ -- still without any detail on the promised ‘frictionless’ technology -- was blared out through every medium, to cheers from establishment figures. It produced a hysterical ‘be-happy-don’t-worry’ response in both the mainstream and social media.
The result, clearly intended, is that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Fine Gael party will have extremely strong support in the event of an early general election.
Claims that Varadkar had steered the chaotic Tory government towards a ‘soft Brexit’ - some form of membership of the European Union single market - were particularly exaggerated, and could be exposed very quickly. Nobody thought to tell Theresa May, as among her careening statements was a concisely stated determination to pull out of the European Union in its entirety, and bring the north of Ireland with it.
She has now written to the people of the Six Counties in a letter that is to be delivered to every household. In it, she describes herself a British Prime Minister “who hugely values Northern Ireland’s position within our United Kingdom”. She outlines six Brexit commitments:
“First, we will always uphold and support Northern Ireland’s status as an integral part of the United Kingdom, consistent with the principle of consent.
“Second, we will fully protect and maintain Northern Ireland’s position within the single market of the United Kingdom.
“Third, there will be no new borders within the United Kingdom.
“Fourth, the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, will leave the EU customs union and the EU single market.
“Fifth, we will uphold the commitments and safeguards set out in the Belfast Agreement regarding north-south cooperation. This will continue to require cross-community support.”
Finally, she declared that people in Britain and the north of Ireland would no longer have recourse to the European Court of Justice.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams said he gave a “cautious and qualified” welcome to the agreement, but said that many questions remained unanswered.
“Brexit is the greatest threat to the economies of this island in generations,” he said in Dublin.
“Today’s communique does not set the final deal on Brexit.
“The communique sets out broad principles. These have been assessed by the Irish government as sufficient progress to allow the Brexit process to move into the next phase of negotiations on trade.
“While the communique recognises the unique and special circumstances surrounding the issue of the Irish peace process, the Good Friday Agreement and the border, it does not address key areas of concern for many citizens - especially nationalists living in the north and citizens in the border region.
“The insistence by the British that Britain and the north must leave the customs union and the single market presents a real and live danger which cannot be understated.
“This also contradicts the British Prime Minister’s claim that there will not be a hard economic border.
Mr Adams said he also had concern at the statement that the Six Counties would no longer be subject the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
He added: “While today’s communique represents some progress there are many unanswered questions around key issues and the Irish government must remain focused and vigilant.
“Sinn Fein is also very mindful that this Brexit process is a work in progress. Our experience through years of agreements with Britain is that the devil is in the detail.”
In their statement, Republican Sinn Fein said that the discussions highlighted “once more” that those living in the Six Counties are “little more than pawns in the game” for the English elite.
The Tories have a long history of playing the ‘orange card’ for their own advantage, they said, and called again for a federal solution to the Irish constitutional question, in order to protect the interests of all four provinces.
“Unionists should be aware from the experience of history, that the Westminster government will look after England first with jobs, infrastructure and investment; all other areas will be well down the pecking order,” they said.
“It is time for a mature, honest debate on how the people of all of Ireland can move forward as a sovereign unit, with the interests of the people being paramount. Time for a new and United Ireland.”