The last week has seen many spats and comments from Irish, British and European politicians on Brexit, trade and the Irish Border question. Theresa May travels to Brussels for a crunch meeting with Jean Claude Juncker tomorrow so negotiations and emotions should reach fever pitch over the next two weeks, after the relative phoney war of the Autumn.
The dynamics between parties and individuals is complex, fluid and dynamic. I’ve tried to summarize the position some of the groups involved below in terms of what they really want to happen in the coming weeks, red lines and relative power. It’s a contentious topic and certainly up for debate so feel free to comment or correct below;
Theresa May and the mainstream Conservatives;
2017 has been her annus horribilis. She started the year in a position of relative strength with Labour in disarray and massively trailing in the polls. Her Lancashire speech was met with muted praise by many in the British media. However, it’s all been downhill since including losing her majority in the General Election in June. This led to a supply and confidence agreement with the DUP which has massively impacted her negotiating leverage since.
At this point she would settle for concluding Phase 1 without her government collapsing or a heave from the Brexiteer side of the party led by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or Jacob Rees-Mogg. To avoid this, she’ll have to do enough to satisfy both which will be difficult. The explicit backing of the Irish veto by Donald Tusk last week was a further blow and it will be almost impossible to keep everyone happy.
Pro – Brexit Conservatives;
While there is not a uniform position held by all those who favoured Brexit there are some clear demands that resonate with most of these members. They are already massively dismayed by the approximate 50 billion pound divorce bill. The fact that there wasn’t a heave against Theresa May then shows the fear they have now that it could lead to an election. They are not as pushed on what happens to the Irish border as long as progress to the next round of talks isn’t delayed further. The No Deal threat/demand has been mentioned but is still seen as the nuclear option. To be honest, they haven’t been able to impose their aims as much as I had feared back in July.
The Irish Government;
The Irish Government is in a position of strength since the unequivocal backing of Donald Tusk and the European Union last Friday. Their position seemed to be quite clear in that they would veto progress to the next round unless they have concrete guarantees from the British government that there would be no physical infrastructure on the Irish border. Their ultimate desire is that the UK remains in the Single Market. This now seems impossible but there is the potential that Northern Ireland will become a special designated zone.
Taking a hard-line publicly will also win votes. I think the Irish people have been quite riled up over the last few weeks. On the domestic front, there is no potential to be heavily criticised for being aggressive, this position does not to be defended on two fronts. Fine Gael do need a good PR story after what happened with Frances Fitzgerald and the upped ante of these talks is a welcome distraction as I wrote here.
Democratic Unionist Party;
Their position is possibly the most complex. Like the Irish government, they also want no physical infrastructure on the Irish border. They realize that this could potentially lead to backlash from the Nationalist community that could energize their voting habits and increase the nationalist turnout at Westminster elections, as well as any future Northern Ireland Assembly elections.
However, they have also said that any concessions or proposals by the Conservative party that leads divergence between the British mainland and Northern Ireland would force them to end the supply and confidence agreement. On paper, this also gives them a veto. In reality, if they did this Labour are currently polling ahead and a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour government would be a disaster for the DUP, on top of them losing their kingmaker position.
Jeremy Corbyn and Labour;
This is a very challenging position to describe and one really open for debate. Corbyn was heavily criticised for not campaigning hard enough for the UK to remain in the European Union prior to the Brexit referendum. For most of his political career, her has been a euro sceptic. I believe the government collapsing is their main aim today. The problem for them, is that they have no real way of making this happen. This is not to say that the government will not fall, I have outlined above how it could occur. If they did suddenly win a snap election, I don’t think they would try and reverse Brexit but would look for the softest version of Brexit possible, though probably falling short of complete free movement of people and goods.
The European Union;
I think at this stage they are quite happy with how things have proceeded. The initial shock and horror at the disarray of the British negotiating team has given way to a realisation that they hold most of the aces and are negotiating from a position of relative power. I was surprised at the level of backing given to Ireland on Friday though I suspect some of this was posturing and behind closed doors Leo Varadkar was encouraged to avoid using his veto. Their red line is that the United Kingdom will not have the same level of access to the single market with the free, uninhibited movement of people throughout the European Union.
I think Sinn Fein’s position is worth analysing. With the Northern Ireland assembly not currently sitting, Sinn Fein are not directly involved in negotiations. That being said, they represent the nationalist community in Northern Ireland as expressed through both the Westminster and previous Northern Ireland Assembly elections. I don’t think they would like to see Brexit reversed tomorrow. Brexit has helped propel talks of a United Ireland in the mainstream conscious of the Irish people in way I haven’t seen in my (admittedly relatively short) lifetime.
Equally, I do not believe they would want a disastrous Brexit either as they may suffer a backlash over not going back into government in the North. To be fair they have been outright in their calls for Northern Ireland to remain in the European Union from day one. This is unlikely but divergences between the British mainland and Northern Ireland would be publicly and privately welcomed, particularly if the DUP did follow through on their threat to pull down the government.