HOLDING OUR NERVE

14 December 2018 No Comments by The Northern Standard

It is very difficult to comment with value on the evershifting morass that the handling of the Brexit process by the political institutions of Britain has become. Events change with such frequency that analysis and assessment become redundant almost as soon as they are uttered, and the changes are often so bewildering and chaotic in nature that scorn and sarcasm too easily take the place of sober commentary.

Ireland finds itself in the uncomfortable position akin to a householder listening to an ever rowdier Christmas party going on next door. We have grown to like our neighbour and are helping them all we can at the moment with a potentially mutually beneficial joint venture, but the noise and fury are becoming increasingly difficult to bear and sooner or later we are going to have to say something. But if we don’t say the right thing, our neighbour could either move out or be evicted, and this doesn’t seem the right time to have to deal with a completely new one.

This dilemma has hovered over the Irish position on the Brexit issue for some time now. When three Government Ministers were in Monaghan recently to urge preparedness for all possible Brexit outcomes, including the worst case ones, the question arose as to whether the Cabinet members themselves had been preparing for the possibility that the position of Theresa May as British Prime Minister could well become untenable as she attempted to push her deal through the unquiet ranks of her own Government and then run it through the gauntlet of the House of Commons.

At that stage, when pressure on Ms May from hardline Tory Brexiteers and the DUP saw her political obituary start to be written, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Ministers were making arduous efforts to assist her by publicly saying and doing very little that might rock further her listing ship of state. While this poker-face public diplomacy was undoubtedly being supplemented by intensive behind-the-scenes activity, it created an impression that the Government had put nearly all its chips on Ms May and had left very little in the bank to deal with her possible demise.

As events in and around Westminster in the past week have created the very real prospect of the Prime Minister being ousted, and perhaps her Government falling, as a result of the Brexit imbroglio, our own political leaders have had to drop the poker face and present themselves as suddenly ready, willing and able to handle a no-deal scenario.

In the hours before we went to press, as Ms May pulled out of a planned trip to Dublin in order to ready herself to face a confidence vote, the publicity machinery of Government was working overtime to send out the message that its Ministers were working intensively on the responses required if the Brexit deal bit the dust and a no-deal outcome loomed as the likely reality. Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said: “All Government Departments must give full priority in activating their plans for a no-deal or disorderly Brexit”, and pictures began to circulate of Ministers, including our own Heather Humphreys, in deep discussion with senior officials and advisers, like generals and chiefs of staff in their war rooms after the balloon went up.

The fact that the Government has decided not, as yet, to make the details of its planning public has drawn understandable criticism. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin wanted both himself and the Irish people at large to see the cards the Government was holding, citing evidence he felt showed “that Ireland is nowhere near ready for many of the outcomes which have become far more likely in recent days.” Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald wanted any Irish response to the faltering deal to include the holding of a referendum on a united Ireland and preparations for “constitutional transition” for the North.

While there is some degree of opportunism in both these calls, the Government will very soon have to reveal the substance of its plans to deal with an adverse Brexit outcome and, at some point in the near rather than the far future, give serious address to the united Ireland question, determining the extent of this aspiration across the island and, more crucially, what the concept of national unity actually means to the people who both espouse and repudiate it.

The unity question is for another day, we feel – not some indeterminate date in the future, but a date when the Brexit bruhaha has settled and the debate can be freed of its context and stand on its own terms.

But the date for clarity on the Government’s response to a Brexit doomsday scenario is much, much closer. Those businesses in Co Monaghan and the wider Border region who were being lately lectured by Ministers on preparedness now need substantive reassurance that the Ministers themselves have their planning done.

Some economic commentators took to the national broadcast airwaves yesterday morning to pronounce that national economic growth would continue in the aftermath of a no deal Brexit, perhaps a little lower on the percentage points scale than if there was a better Brexit outcome but still following a positive trend.

But where that expected growth would fail to transpire was not made clear by the commentators. For people in our own region, such elaboration was not needed – we are in the frontline for adverse Brexit impact and we will surely take the hit if there is not a strong Government plan in place to assist business and enterprise here to make any necessary adjustments to what in many cases are already well advanced Brexit contingencies.

Telling the people that no-deal Brexit plans are well in hand without telling us what those plans are is not an option for the Government. Businesses and communities in the Border region in particular need clarity and reassurance – they need to know that those leading the country are holding their nerve through these unpredictable and troubling days of Brexit uncertainty, remaining steadfast in their principles but also, as they have urged this part of the country repeatedly to be, prepared for the worst.

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