The mood in Lon­don is grim and events are now spin­ning out of con­trol as Brexit looms ever closer, writes Dan O’Brien

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Front Page -

‘Leo Varadkar will have the big­gest call of his po­lit­i­cal life’

BE­FORE spend­ing much of the last week in Lon­don, I had hoped to get a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the po­lit­i­cal dy­nam­ics driv­ing the Brexit process in Bri­tain. That hope proved for­lorn. The visit’s main take­away, af­ter talk­ing to a range of peo­ple in­volved with Brexit, is that there is just as much chaos in both the main po­lit­i­cal par­ties as there ap­pears to be from afar.

While no­body I spoke to be­lieved that the terms of the di­vorce due to be voted on in West­min­ster on Tues­day will be passed, nor could any­one make a con­vinc­ing case for how events in the com­ing weeks will un­fold. The prime min­is­ter, Theresa May, has no tac­ti­cal game plan, never mind a strate­gic master­plan. The cab­i­net is di­vided. There is talk about par­lia­ment “tak­ing con­trol”, but it is even more di­vided than the cab­i­net on what course of ac­tion to take. The re­al­ity is that Bri­tain is in the rare, if not un­prece­dented, po­si­tion for a ma­ture democ­racy in that no­body is in con­trol. Brexit has be­come a run­away train.

De­spite al­most 1,000 days hav­ing passed since the Brexit ref­er­en­dum and ex­actly 75 days un­til Bri­tain is sched­uled to leave the EU, the range of pos­si­ble out­comes re­mains very wide. The most im­me­di­ate and im­por­tant is­sue — for Ire­land as well as for Bri­tain — is whether there will be a no-deal exit.

There are those who are sure that will not hap­pen, mainly on the ba­sis that only a small mi­nor­ity in the Bri­tish par­lia­ment favours such an out­come. Avoid­ing that out­come would be very much in Ire­land’s in­ter­ests, yet even a pos­i­tive out­come now comes with its own sig­nif­i­cant dan­gers.

There is no lit­tle trep­i­da­tion about how those who voted in favour of Brexit or who believe that the ref­er­en­dum re­sult must be re­spected what­ever the eco­nomic costs would re­act to any course of ac­tion that would stop de­par­ture on March 29. There is a lot of talk to the ef­fect that de­lay­ing or can­celling the de­par­ture from the EU could trig­ger an un­prece­dented back­lash.

Whether this is cor­rect or not, there is no deny­ing the depth of feel­ing for mil­lions of Bri­tons on the is­sues. Over the past week alone, there has been a height­en­ing of ten­sions, with MPs on both sides of the de­bate talk­ing of in­creased ha­rass­ment and threats.

While some in the me­dia like to see right-wing ex­trem­ists un­der ev­ery bed and think that a re­turn to 1930s’ fas­cism is al­ways just around the cor­ner, a more sober per­son I spoke to last week who has an in­sight into in­tel­li­gence mat­ters con­firmed that the se­cu­rity ser­vices are gen­uinely con­cerned about the threat of vi­o­lence and ter­ror­ist acts from ex­trem­ist el­e­ments.

Nor can the dan­ger that Ire­land gets the blame be de­nied or down­played. The back­stop de­signed to en­sure that there is never any change to bor­der ar­range­ments on this is­land is rou­tinely writ­ten of in pro-Brexit news­pa­pers as the “hated” and “de­spised” back­stop. Hos­til­ity to­wards Ire­land has in­creased. It would in­crease fur­ther if Brexit does not hap­pen on March 29. That is not a com­fort­ing thought, not least for the hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ir­ish peo­ple liv­ing in Bri­tain.

Brexit was al­ways go­ing to be a lose-lose propo­si­tion for all in­volved. But the dy­nam­ics that have taken hold are mak­ing it more so al­most by the day. The prospect of a no-deal exit in 75 days re­mains the most likely out­come in my view. And there are peo­ple closely in­volved in the Brexit process in Lon­don who are ex­tremely wor­ried that a crash-out could hap­pen.

Nei­ther of the two main party lead­ers wants to be the fo­cus of the odium that would re­sult if she or he changed tack to al­low that to hap­pen. Nor is there any cer­tainty that a ref­er­en­dum would bring Bri­tain back from the brink. A Sur­va­tion poll last week asked how peo­ple would vote in a ref­er­en­dum held to­mor­row on leav­ing or stay­ing in the EU, with 51pc back­ing stay­ing and 49pc sup­port­ing leav­ing. De­spite the near end­less talk of Brexit, pub­lic opin­ion has barely changed since the ques­tion was put in the June 2016 ref­er­en­dum.

An­other much dis­cussed as­pect of the Brexit fi­asco is that the UK’s mem­ber­ship will lapse in 75 days un­less some­body changes tack. No-deal is the de­fault po­si­tion. In­er­tia, one of the most pow­er­ful and un­der­rated forces in hu­man af­fairs, usu­ally works against change. In the case of Brexit, it works in favour of the big­gest pos­si­ble change.

An­other fac­tor driv­ing Bri­tain to­wards a no-deal exit is that many politi­cians, peo­ple and or­gan­i­sa­tions sim­ply do not believe that it would be so bad, and that even in­cludes some in­ter­na­tion­ally fo­cused busi­nesses, ac­cord­ing to one very well in­formed per­son I spoke to (the ad­vanced man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor is dif­fer­ent in that it ap­pears to be uni­formly fear­ful of dis­rupted trade flows).

Though no­body can know for sure how big an eco­nomic shock would re­sult from a no-deal exit, or how long it would last, there is sub­stan­tial plan­ning for that even­tu­al­ity go­ing on in Lon­don.

What does this all mean for Ire­land?

Even if one be­lieves that the risk of no deal is low, there needs to be more plan­ning for it be­cause the short-term im­pact could be huge. The value of Ire­land’s im­ports and ex­ports as a per­cent­age of GDP was 3.3 times greater than Bri­tain’s in 2017. Put an­other way, Bri­tain is much more self-suf­fi­cient than Ire­land. As such, it is per­fectly pos­si­ble that the Ir­ish econ­omy could suf­fer a much big­ger hit than Bri­tain in the event of no deal.

Not enough work has been done here be­tween the Gov­ern­ment and those in­volved in the sup­ply and pur­chas­ing of medicines for a worst case sce­nario. On food, there is still too much com­pla­cency. Ire­land is a mas­sive net im­porter of sta­ples. The value of potato im­ports ex­ceeded ex­ports by a fac­tor of 25 in 2017. Forty times more flour prod­ucts are bought into the coun­try than shipped abroad. Be­cause al­most ev­ery­one con­sumes bread and/or po­ta­toes in any given day, the ef­fect of soar­ing prices or out­right sup­ply dis­rup­tions would be very widely felt.

Ire­land is one of the least self-suf­fi­cient coun­tries in Eu­rope when it comes to en­ergy, im­port­ing al­most all the oil, gas and coal that keeps the coun­try’s lights on. That point was made in Lon­don last week when dis­cussing Bri­tain’s en­ergy trade (it is more or less self-suf­fi­cient thanks to its North Sea fields, so nodeal plan­ners there are not con­cerned about that is­sue).

It is to be hoped that the Bri­tish will ar­rive at an out­come that avoids the worst. But hopes that sense would pre­vail in Bri­tish pol­i­tics have been dashed time and again over the 1,000 days. If in the com­ing weeks, the de­fault out­come looms larger, Leo Varadkar will have the big­gest call of his po­lit­i­cal life to make.

He took a huge risk in Novem­ber 2017 by putting the back­stop on the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.

If he has to back down to avoid a no-deal out­come and its huge con­se­quences for the peo­ple of this coun­try, that is what he should do.

TEN­SIONS: As both sides of the Brexit de­bate ar­gue their case, de­lay­ing or can­celling the UK’s de­par­ture from the EU could trig­ger an un­prece­dented back­lash

BAT­TLE: Theresa May faces de­feat over her Brexit deal

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