It’s been a very tough week for Leo Varadkar. And it’s just got tougher. When Donald Tusk gave Leo a seemingly unlimited discretion to determine whether the UK had made a sufficient commitment on the Irish border question to permit the Brexit talks to proceed to the second stage on 14th December, it was a mixed blessing.
What seems indistinguishable from a veto is, in effect, a veto. Leo must now write in the amount on Tusk’s blank cheque and hand it over to Theresa May for signature. The heads of the other 27 member states will stand and watch as Leo takes responsibility for the terms on which the talks will in effect, move from a stage in the talks requiring unanimity to one in which Ireland will be a small voice in a process determined by qualified majority voting.
Sole responsibility for judging whether what the British are offering is enough now falls on Leo’s shoulders.
And if the British baulk at Leo’s demands and the negotiations falter or break down on the issue, that too will be Leo’s responsibility..
Last weekend’s events showed Leo exactly how quickly one can go from hero to zero. This weekend’s new “Christmas gift” of responsibility from Donald Tusk is fraught with risk as well.
Last week also Bertie Ahern, in a casual way, suggested that there was an Irish solution to a British problem. He said that trade in goods could continue over an invisible border if certain “big ticket” items became subject to some form of desk-top, computerised customs surveillance while a blind eye was turned to the great majority of day-to-day trading.
That idea has a superficial attraction. But there are problems with it. The blind eye treatment would, in effect, allow goods to move across the EU border in Ireland which could not move across the EU border with, say, Russia or Norway or through the EU’s international ports, where the might be subject to tariffs or prohibitions.
This border problem is not a one-way street either. If, in the end of the day, cheap Argentinian beef or New Zealand lamb or American GM or hormone-treated food products can be lawfully imported into the UK and into the North, how do we in the South prevent them being smuggled into our restaurants, take-aways, hotels and shops.
And if there is money to be made from doing so, is that money to be made in Crossmaglen and the so-called bandit country?
The same applies to pharmaceuticals and many other types of traded goods. Would the Republic then need a hard border?
Which brings us straight to the crux of the Irish border issue.
Is the UK, including Northern Ireland, as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove like to fantasise, now to become free to do trade deals with the US, New Zealand and Argentina without regard for the Irish border issue?
Will Northern Ireland, as part of the UK, now become free from EU state aid rules? Will it be possible for the UK to subsidise businesses and manufacturing in the North competing over an un-manned, invisible border with enterprises in the Republic where such state aids are banned under EU law.
Can these issues be resolved before December14th? They must be resolved sometime but how they are to be resolved remains a complete mystery.
Or, as I wrote here recently, must we be satisfied with some vague statement of high-level principle from the British government - like the proverbial oral agreement which is as good as the paper it’s written on?
It is in this context that the question of special arrangements for Northern Ireland or special status for the North arises.
Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodd and Ian Paisley Jr may well feel a shiver running up their ideological spines when mention is made of “special status” for the North, or of the North remaining in some analogue of the Customs Union or the Single Market, or of different economic regimes applying on the two sides of the Irish Sea.
But they too must face up to economic and political realities. Their role in supporting Theresa May’s minority government may fool them into believing that they can wish away the border issue. They can’t. And many northern businesses and farmers well know that.
The agreement between the British and Irish governments annexed to the Good Friday Agreement binds whatever sovereign government exercises jurisdiction in Northern Ireland now or in the future to exercise their sovereign power with “rigorous impartiality for all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions”.
The political and economic background and context for that agreement was Britain and Ireland’s membership of the EU. The all-Ireland economic dimension of the agreement and the invisible border were integral to the agreement. A hard border is simply a repudiation of the agreement.
While Little Englanders like Michael Gove, who memorably attacked the Good Friday Agreement as a betrayal of the North’s Britishness in his infamous Centre for Policy Studies paper in 2000 (still available on-line), may pay little heed to the effect of Brexit on the agreement or on this island, it is a solemn international treaty which neither Ireland nor the EU will permit to be undone or undermined.
It is a strange irony that a century after internal machinations of the English Tory party at the hands of FE Smith and others brought us the UVF in 1912, the Irish Volunteers in 1913, partition and the independent Irish state, the same party’s feuding and lust for power has brought us Brexit and is now handing the Taoiseach of an independent Irish state the “yea or nay” over the process of British withdrawal from another, very different union.
Could the men who faced the firing squad in the stone-breakers yard at Kilmainham 100 years ago have imagined that their deaths would bring us here?
When the dust settles and the feathers are unruffled, Ireland and Britain will have to get back to friendship and cooperation. The border cannot be permitted to develop as a widening fault-line in political geology or as a boundary between two tectonic plates drifting apart.
These problems are of the greatest complexity on one view and of the greatest simplicity on another view. Many still fondly hope that Brexit somehow will not happen. But “we are where we are”, or as I suggested to a Brexit conference during the week, that annoying cliché could be dignified by translation into a Latin maxim: “Ubi sumus, sumus”
The problem for Leo this week is that “he is where he is” – the man in the gap, with the hand of history on his shoulder.
A lot turns on how he discharges the responsibility conferred on him by Donal Tusk over the next week.