Theresa May needs Ireland on side to survive this shambles

Commenting in The Conversation, Professor Feargal Cochrane, of the University's School of Politics and International Relations, said: 'Yesterday’s non-deal between the UK government and the EU was a shambles on many levels.

‘This is so even by the standards of the Brexit talks, where rank amateurism on the UK side has been the standard operating procedure since they began.

‘The first formal meeting, where Brexit Secretary David Davis turned up without any papers to face President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and his team with thick dossiers of notes in neatly arranged binders, set the tone for what was to follow.

‘The joint press conference yesterday between Juncker and UK Prime Minister Theresa May was awkward –they had finally been ready to break some positive news and instead had to bite their lips and try for a soft landing of this diplomatic train wreck.

‘In fact, it makes an excellent case study of how not to negotiate that I would use with my MA students if it wasn’t quite so lacking in complexity. Start with a weak leader and a divided party, have a confused set of core objectives, agree to a text that you are not in a position to deliver on – reach an agreement with your main opponents and raise their expectations that you are primed to conclude a deal on those terms –then abandon your position at the last minute, leaving your negotiating partners dangling.

‘Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s comment that he was ‘disappointed and surprised’ that a draft text agreed by Dublin had not been signed off by the UK and EU was dripping with the sort of under-statement that would have graced the lips of the most urbane of British diplomats. The only outcome from this sort of negotiating ‘style’, is that you eventually come back to the negotiating table weakened and end up with an outcome based on less favourable terms than were available before.

‘However, Theresa May has had worse days than yesterday – that’s how bad it is for her. By contrast it looked like DUP leader Arlene Foster had a much stronger day. Her party flexed its muscles and torpedoed the deal, unable to control its collective gagging reflex over the ‘continued regulatory alignment’ phrase at the heart of this aborted attempt at constructive ambiguity.

‘To the DUP, this sounded very much as if Northern Ireland was being awarded an opt-out on Brexit that aligned it with the Irish Republic, which they have been clear for some weeks was totally unacceptable from their perspective as they want to leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK.

‘Between now and the resumption of talks on Wednesday, May and her officials will no doubt be spending some time trying to calm DUP fears about exactly what ‘continued regulatory alignment’ means. However, any backing away now from the interpretations already provided on this to Dublin and Brussels would be politically impossible for them to accept –even if they wanted to.

‘So what have we learned from this sorry episode? One key message to be drawn, is that notwithstanding the DUP winning yesterday’s battle, it is Ireland that is winning the war. The DUP is experiencing a temporary period of influence over the current minority government. However, even with a good wind that will not last forever – and with every gaffe-strewn week that passes, the current government’s grip on power looks increasingly tenuous.

‘The Irish Republic, for so long the minor partner in its relationship with the UK, is experiencing an unparalleled phase of influence in Anglo-Irish relations and it looks set to remain in a dominant position in the months and years ahead –certainly until March 2019 assuming the UK continues to pursue a negotiated deal with the EU and tries to have it ratified by the other 27 States. That eventual deal will shape the political and economic future of the UK (perhaps whether there even continues to be a UK) for the next 25-50 years.

‘The Irish Republic effectively has a veto on any deal that the UK wishes to make with the EU. While this veto has its limits –e.g. a non-deal outcome would be economically disastrous for Ireland, so any black-balling from Dublin in the final analysis is far from a cost-free option for them.

‘Notwithstanding that caveat, who does the UK need as an ally to ensure it gets the best settlement that it can? That would be Ireland –not the DUP, and that inescapable fact will shape what happens between now and 2019 and conceivably into the transition period beyond that.

‘Arlene Foster and her Party might care to ponder that going forward, irrespective of whether or not the DUP tail can continue to wag the Tory government dog in the short term.’

Professor Feargal Cochrane

Feargal Cochrane is vice chair of the Political Studies Association and professor of International Conflict Analysis at the University of Kent. He is director of the Conflict Analysis Research Centre and deputy head of the School of Politics and International Relations at Kent. His current research is examining the impact of Brexit on the peace process in Northern Ireland and its devolved institutions.