Simon Coveney’s appointment to the Foreign Affairs portfolio has coincided with a marked tonal shift in Irish Government pronouncements on Brexit. While the overarching message is consistent, there is a newfound conviction in its delivery. eolas analyses his statements in recent months.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, under the Varadkar Government, has hit the ground running in his efforts to ensure that Irish interests remain central to Brexit negotiations. Parachuted into the position previously occupied by Charlie Flanagan, Minister Coveney has adopted an observably strident attitude when addressing the interwoven issues of Brexit and the border. This is somewhat of a departure from the tact of the previous Cabinet under Enda Kenny in which much diplomatic efforts appeared to be conducted in a subtle manner. The newfound empowerment has manifested itself on several occasions.
Within his first week in office, the Minister met with EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier and concluded: “There is no doubt that Ireland’s interests are the EU’s interests”. Crucial to the EU27’s position is the protection of the Good Friday Agreement, avoiding a hard border and maintaining the Common Travel Area.
Following a “friendly”, but also a “frank and blunt” conversation with the British Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, Coveney detailed: “I left him with no illusion about the challenges around Irish specific issues on Brexit.”
Prior to the release of the British position paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland, Simon Coveney dismissed the viability of a technology solution. Speaking at a meeting of EU foreign affairs counterparts, he stated: “We do not want to pretend we can solve the problems of the border on the island of Ireland through technical solutions like cameras and pre-registration and so on. That is not going to work.”
In late July, The Times reported that Coveney informed his European colleagues that Ireland could not accept the return of a hard border post-Brexit. “Any barrier or border on the island of Ireland, in my view, risks undermining a very hard-won peace process… we want to keep the free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods.”
However, while some British elements, and most vocally the DUP, interpreted this as a proposed relocation of the border to the Irish Sea, Coveney swiftly sought to clarify the Irish position. Reiterating former Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s consistent assertion that the border is a political rather than a technical matter, he added: “There is no proposal that the border would be in the Irish Sea. What we are saying is there is an onus on the UK to come up with imaginative solutions.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar consolidated his Foreign Affairs Minister’s comments the following day, outlining that the Irish Government would not be designing a border on behalf of Brexiteers. He stated: “Let them forward their proposals as to how they think a border should operate and we’ll ask them if they really think this is such a good idea…It is the British and the Brexiteers who are leaving, so if anyone should be angry it’s us quite frankly.”
Reasserting Ireland’s position as a constituent component of the EU negotiating team (the Government liaises with Barnier’s team on a daily basis), after the publication of the British position paper, Coveney gave a cautious welcome to the statements on the border, though emphasised that delivery remains complex. Particularly he welcomed the apparent recognition that technology was not a panacea for the border challenge.
“There are still significant questions that are unanswered in terms of how we are going to manage and maintain as close as possible to the status quo on the island of Ireland in terms of free movement of goods and services in the future and ensuring that we maintain an invisible border.”
Ireland, Coveney maintains, will be “stubborn” in defending its interests and unwilling to be used as a “pawn” in the wider negotiating process.
The border remains one of the crucial sticking points that needs to be resolved before the UK and the EU can negotiate a new trade deal. One interpretation of the Irish shift towards newfound assertiveness is a self-realisation of the relatively strong position the Government now finds itself in. If Britain is to succeed in extending the negotiating process beyond the initial two years, the Irish veto will have to be placated and consent granted. The ability to wield this power would enable the Irish Government to disrupt Britain’s entire Brexit strategy and therefore sets a collision course with the DUP which refuses to acknowledge the extent to which the border problem endures.