Richard North, 21/12/2018  

It was well past midnight yesterday when I first looked at the Irish contingency action plan - then only just published. And already it has the feeling of old news, having scarcely left an impact on the UK political scene.

Looking in detail at the 131 pages, though, it is not surprising that the plan has left so slight a mark. Despite its well-earned reputation for its robust handling of Brexit, the Irish government has produced a rather limp document, lacking in detail and evading contentious issues such as the management of the land border with Northern Ireland.

Even the ever-loyal Irish Times has been less than enthusiastic, headlining its report from Simon Carswell: "Government must produce more detailed no-deal Brexit plans". Although this is a quote attributed to Ibec, the Irish equivalent of the CBI, it is easy to discern the newspaper's line as it gives pride of place to Fergal O'Brien, the group's director of policy and public affairs.

The main criticism, however, is directed at London, as O'Brien declares that: "Reckless time-wasting by the UK government is now forcing businesses to activate costly 'no deal' contingency plans". "A comprehensive Brexit deal has been agreed and signed off by the UK Cabinet", he says, adding: "If the UK government is unable to ratify it, it should defer or cancel Brexit".

In like vein, O'Brien continues: "Adjusting to a radically new trading relationship with the UK at the end of March is not possible and not realistic. Acute trade bottlenecks would be created overnight. Jobs and businesses would be immediately on the line".

And, making his concerns abundantly clear, he states unequivocally that: "Companies are preparing insofar as they can, but the economy is simply not in a position to deal with such an unprecedented and profound shock. An extended transition period would be required, including in the case of 'no deal'".

But while the group then sets out some specific support measures it would like to see, including measures to reduce the impact of the UK dropping out of the EU's VAT system, it is less emphatic about the lack of detail offered by the Irish government.

If we actually look at the report, and turn to the crucial section on agri-food and fisheries, we are told that a "key priority" in this area is "to minimise disruption to Irish exports and imports to and from the UK and to ensure the current ease of access to the Single Market is maintained".

Yet, in a startlingly thin section, it tells us absolutely nothing about measures that will be taken to minimise the disruption, other than stating the intent to spend €7 million "for the recruitment of additional staff and the provision of ICT hardware and software to carry out the greatly increased volumes of import controls and export certification arising from Brexit".

Quite evidently, that does rather more than hint at the imposition of border controls, but that is as far as the report goes.

Bearing in mind that this is supposed to be dealing with the fallout from a "no deal" Brexit, in the main body, the document actually addresses what it calls a "central case scenario". This assumes that the Withdrawal Agreement will be ratified, along with the approval of the Political Declaration. This, it says, "remains a valid basis for future planning and action to deal with Brexit".

The plan nevertheless, acknowledges the possibility of a "no deal" Brexit. This, it says, "would require an immediate focus on crisis management and possible temporary solutions (political, economic, administrative, legislative and communication), which would be rapidly implemented until the necessary longer-term adjustments are in place".

In avoiding the detail though, the plan resorts to generic waffle. "For Ireland", it declares, "a 'no deal' Brexit would potentially involve severe macroeconomic, trade and sectoral impacts. Grappling with the enormous range of impacts both in the immediate short term and in the longer term will involve difficult and significant choices of a practical, strategic and political nature".

Almost laughably, what it comes down to is that a "no deal" Brexit "would be an exceptional economic event which would be met with exceptional measures to support the continued operation of the Irish economy and our international trading links".

Without putting too fine a point on it, I think we could have guessed that, without having to wade through 131 pages of text. But as to the actual " exceptional measures" that will be taken, there is not a clue, other than that the response "would be executed in close co-operation with our EU partners, other Member States and the EU institutions".

Obviously, this studied vagueness has to be a matter of considered policy, but it put Irish premier Leo Varadkar in something of a difficult position when he faced reporters to discuss the plan.

Despite the minimal detail in his plan stating otherwise, he "insisted" that the Irish government is not making any preparations for a hard border, "despite EU warnings that checks on animals and food will be necessary if a disorderly Brexit occurs".

The Irish Independent thus notes that Ireland's contingency plans for a no-deal scenario restate the Government’s commitment to maintain an open border – but give no detail on how this would be possible if the UK crashes out of the EU. All Mr Varadkar could do was to admit that "real difficulties" lie ahead if the UK parliament does not approve the Withdrawal Agreement.

Although it is very difficult to identify anything specific in the way of measures that will be taken, the DUP's Nigel Dodds is taking a somewhat tendentious line. Picking up on the statement from Mr Varadkar, he asserts that, because the Irish government is not "preparing" for a hard border – even though it is – there is no need for what Dodds calls "the backup trap".

As always, though, the devil is in the detail. What Varadkar is saying is that if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, it would still be aligned to EU customs and regulations as things currently stand. Problems would then only arise if the UK decided to make changes.

You get a sense of his caution by his diffident phrasing as he explained to reporters: "In the event of a no deal Brexit - I am nearly always loathe (sic) to speculate on because it is speculation, and a lot of it raises more questions than I can give answers. If the UK crashed out of the European Union at the end of March they would still be aligned on customs and regulations".

If the UK did "change their customs and regulations", "that's where it could get difficult", he added, then stating:
But that is something obviously we are going to have to talk to them about in a no-deal scenario. There is a real understanding across the EU that this isn't a typical border, that this is a border that goes through villages, goes through farms, goes through businesses and of course is a border that people fought and killed other people over.
Only then do we get a flash of insight as to why we are being treated to this level of vagueness. "To speak of planning for a return of a border with Northern Ireland could easily make that happen", Varadkar warns. Thus, he says:
We are not preparing for a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We have made no preparations whatsoever for physical infrastructure or anything like that. We certainly do not want it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It takes nothing at all to work out that the Irish really do not want a "no deal", but they are very much in the hands of the UK government on this. And until or unless they are confronted with the actuality, Leo Varadkar is evidently determined to keep his powder dry. That is about the only clarity we are getting.

Of course, there is nothing to stop mischievous commentators misrepresenting this caution – as indeed Dodds is doing. And we've had an interesting intervention from the UK government , which has said it will not impose additional checks on imports of animals and animal products on day one of a "no-deal" Brexit.

The government is saying that it would take a "risk-based approach" to import checks and to do otherwise would be "disproportionate" to the risk posed. But it also warns that the position is "time-limited" and could change.

Even then, the government is sailing close to the wind, as the basic level of inspection for animals and products of animal origin is not set on the basis of risk assessment. The UK, therefore, could thus find itself falling foul of WTO non-discrimination rules, if it adopts a softer approach to EU produce than it does for goods from the rest of the world.

Furthermore, while the UK is in a position unilaterally to determine its inspection frequencies (subject to WTO rules), we have already seen the Commission instruct Member States that "All relevant EU legislation on imported goods and exported goods will apply as of the withdrawal date".

On that basis, there is very little that we can infer from the Irish contingency plan, when the government is politically committed to vagueness. The "no deal" scenario is primarily a matter for the UK government to address. Only if it happens will other authorities be able to set out their detailed responses.

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