Ireland’s Call: Navigating Brexit by Stephen Collins review – how Dublin got Brussels on side

<span>Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

When I finished Stephen Collins’ book on how Ireland responded to Britain’s decision to leave the EU, a tale of shrewd politicking and diplomacy in Dublin, an image came to mind: a mouse whispering to an elephant, which then calmly sits on and squashes a chest-beating gorilla.

No prizes for guessing which one was the UK. Boris Johnson’s myths about Brussels dictating the shape of bananas, after all, paved Brexit, a dreamland where Britain would be king in a new jungle.

That his country still finds itself pinned under a heavy weight seven years after the referendum, and three years after Johnson’s “oven-ready” deal, is in part a result of Ireland’s success in bending Brexit to its needs.

Ireland’s Call: Navigating Brexit is a timely and occasionally eye-opening reminder of how Britain got into the mess, and why there is now pressure to seek a face-saving compromise with Brussels. Collins, a former political editor of the Irish Times, has reconstructed how Dublin played its hand and swayed the EU into full-throated support for Irish goals – a diplomatic triumph for a tiny member-state. He interviewed key players, including three Irish prime ministers: Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin, Johnson’s chief strategic adviser, Edward Lister, and Theresa May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell.

A story of ministers and civil servants, policies and memorandums, meetings and summits, technical studies and arcane trading arrangements, it is told soberly and judiciously. That sounds dry. It’s not. How could it be? The stakes were high, and melodramas convulsed the British side.

In some ways, it was an uneven match. While Britain stumbled into a referendum and its chaotic aftermath, unsure what sort of Brexit it wanted, Kenny’s Fine Gael-led government cooly went about limiting the damage to Ireland. It had prepared a policy document in 2014 two years before the referendum. Within 48 hours of the result, foreign minister Charlie Flanagan spoke to every single counterpart in the other 26-remaining member states.

That kickstarted intensive lobbying across the continent that harnessed Fine Gael’s membership of the European People’s Party, Phil Hogan, a savvy political bruiser from Kilkenny who was the European trade commissioner, and a web of contacts in Brussels. Ireland’s opposition parties backed the government, because this was seen as a national emergency.

To Dublin’s relief and delight, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (from Luxembourg), European Council president Donald Tusk (Poland) and the EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier (France) accepted the imperative to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. Dublin had multiple, legitimate reasons to want this, but framed it in terms of not reigniting the Troubles. The “peace process button” also worked with Angela Merkel, the US Congress and the Trump and Biden administrations. Collins does not interrogate whether there really was a danger to peace, or the possible opportunism in Dublin’s approach, a gap in an otherwise excellent book.

A thousand torments flowed as Theresa May, then Boris Johnson, tried to square no hard border on Ireland with no special arrangements for Northern Ireland while taking the UK out of the customs union and single market. May comes across as a tragic figure who tried to maintain the UK’s integrity with the backstop only to succumb to her own limitations, scorched earth tactics from fellow Tories, the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), and Brexit’s contradictions. According to Barwell, Keir Starmer torpedoed a final attempt to salvage a deal.

Johnson comes across as mercurial and reckless. The Northern Ireland protocol that clinched his “oven-ready” deal imposed an Irish Sea border. When unionists rebelled, he at first pretended it did not exist, then tried to wriggle out of the deal, triggering a fresh conflict with Brussels – which first Truss, and now Sunak, inherited.

There is no triumphalism in Ireland’s Call. The UK’s exit from the EU was a disaster for Ireland. Varadkar wonders if he could have done more to help May get her deal through the House of Commons.

If the protocol was a victory for Dublin, perhaps it was Pyrrhic. The DUP has paralysed power-sharing in Northern Ireland. “We didn’t want a border on the island or even in the Irish Sea,” Brian Murphy, Varadkar’s chief of staff, told Collins. “We got the best deal we could get in those terrible circumstances.”

Ireland’s Call: Navigating Brexit by Stephen Collins, is published by Red Stripe Press (£16.99).