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Dec. 8, 2017, 8:35 p.m.
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There was a moment in October when relations between between the Irish and British governments dipped sharply, with tensions emerging that have been rarely seen since the peace process.
In a series of briefings in London, Simon Coveney assertively sought clarity from the British government on its thinking on the post-Brexit Border question. He rejected the suggestion technology would provide a panacea for all, and even suggested that Northern Ireland remain within the customs union.
Coveney’s intervention – which was subsequently strongly endorsed by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar – was not well received, with private criticism from Conservative ministers and less restrained public castigation from the media. The Sun summed up the sentiment thus telling Ireland’s “naive young Taoiseach” to “shut your gob and grow up”.
“The last few weeks have not been brilliant,” admitted a well-placed source on the British side.
From the Irish perspective it was “high-stakes stuff”, as a high-ranking source put it.
“Settling the Border question was always going to be a big deal. We were looking for a very serious commitment. And, yes, it was a little fraught at various junctures. Obviously we stepped on the toes of certain people, but these were high stakes.”
The tensions emerged because of a change of disposition by the Government during the course of the summer. The new Taoiseach and his Minister for Foreign Affairs took a harder, firmer, line in public with the British government than was previously the case with Enda Kenny.
In any instance the diplomatic offensive by Coveney and Varadkar seemed to achieve its goal. Irish officials pointed to the deal struck early on Friday as the product of that.
But there is no sense among either side that relations have deteriorated to any appreciable extent.
“When you are really good friends [as nations] it’s not that you do not fall out, which you do, it’s that you pick up the pieces and move on,” said the British government source.
The Irish official phrased it similarly, saying that because of the closeness of the relationship between Ireland and the UK it allows both sides to be “candid”.
While the negotiations were negotiated between the British and the EU task force led by Michel Barnier, there were also several key contacts between Varadkar and British prime minister Theresa May, most particularly a telephone call on Thursday that signalled they were close to the line.
There is consensus among Irish and British officials that the next phase of the negotiations will be very different.This has been summed up by Coveney, who has said the “UK will not have a better friend than Ireland”.
Both sets of officials believe in a common approach because of the mutuality of interest and the co-dependence in terms of trade.
Sources close to the Taoiseach have suggested he will reach out to May to reinforce that relationship. His wearing of the shamrock poppy has been used as an illustration of that strategy.
That approach could also involve regular visits to the North and to Britain that do not relate to the peace process, but involve, as one official portrayed it, “the Taoiseach engaging with society there”.