Talk of a Brexit “border down the Irish Sea played all wrong with unionists” and fed problems about Northern Ireland’s special trade status, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has warned.
n a lengthy assessment of Brexit, six years on from the UK vote in June 2016 to quit the EU, Mr Ahern said the EU-UK and Irish-UK relationships were now “poor” and characterised by “a toxic atmosphere.”
The man, who was Taoiseach for 11 years and attended EU meetings for over 20 years, also said the UK concluding a deal in 2020 with the European Union “at 5.30pm on a Christmas Eve” was already a bad omen.
“In 40 years of negotiations, that is something I never tried,” he told an online audience attending a seminar hosted by the Institute of International European Affairs.
Mr Ahern said that Boris Johnson was “clever and shrewd” and had shown the ability to succeed in his career. “But as a negotiator, I don’t think he has any interest in negotiations,” the former Taoiseach told the seminar host and former EU Commission secretary general, David O’Sullivan.
He said if there was a real will to get down to talks, the gaps were capable of being bridged. But moves to dismantle the bulk of clauses in the Northern Ireland Protocol, governing the North’s special trade status, made this very difficult.
Mr Ahern said if Britain persisted with the plans to do this, then a move towards an EU-UK trade war was inevitable. That would pose serious problem for the Republic of Ireland also as it raised the real prospect of checks on exports into the EU single market.
“But I’m an optimist by nature and I’m a negotiator by profession. And I don’t think we have to hit that doomsday situation,” the former Taoiseach added.
Mr Ahern said if a way was found to deal with Northern unionists’ concerns about ending checks on goods coming from Britain – and definitely not being moved beyond the North – then an overall solution was possible. “Their concerns are not insurmountable, and in some cases, not unreasonable,” he commented. But he added that “as long as Boris Johnson remained in political trouble” it remained unclear if this would be enough.
The former Taoiseach said talk about an “Irish Sea border” fed into talk of change to the North’s constitutional position and what should be separate talk about a border poll.