The Republic of Ireland is making “a very big mistake in backing team EU” in the UK’s Brexit negotiations and is “now in a diplomatic cul-de-sac”, according to a former Irish Ambassador and senior advisor to successive Irish Prime Ministers.
“Ireland has more at stake than any other EU country – we should be working closely with Britain to achieve the best possible Brexit outcome,” said Ray Bassett, who retired as Ambassador to Canada in 2016, having spent much of his career at the top of Ireland’s civil service.
“The EU cares more about the integrity of its own legal order – which is all about creating a super-state – than the economic interests of a small, peripheral state like Ireland,” Bassett told The Sunday Telegraph.
“Ireland made a very big mistake throwing its lot in completely with the EU,” he said. “We need to sit down directly with the British and come to an arrangement [regarding the Irish border] – and if that means breaking a few EU rules, let’s do that”.
Fears Brexit could see a “hard border” re-imposed between Northern Ireland and the Republic, encouraging sectarian violence, have over-shadowed the UK’s Brexit negotiations since Article 50 was triggered in April 2017.
Irish border by numbers Customs posts are “inevitable” if the UK leaves the EU’s single market and customs union, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said last week. He echoed EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier, who insistedphysical border checks are “unavoidable” under such circumstances.
Bassett, who played a leading role in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, and was a personal advisor to Former Prime Ministers including Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, openly questioned the EU’s motives.
“Trying to negotiate the border before the UK’s broader trade agreement with the EU was agreed never made any sense,” he said. “But the EU was using Ireland to pressurize Britain, trying to extract a good financial settlement”.
Insisting the border issue “can solved through a combination of customs pre-clearance and technology”, Bassett accused Barnier of “using border sensitivities” to get “as much leverage over the UK as possible”.
Citing a UK government paper published last year, he supported Britain’s suggestion that 80pc of all cross-border trade, which is agricultural or local, be exempt. “We should have built on that,” Bassett said.
“But Barnier was trying to get as much money out of the UK as he could”.
Pointing to “our mutual trade, which is massive for Ireland” and “the half million Irish-born living in Britain”, Bassett said “we should be part of no agenda that seeks to punish the UK – the interests of Brussels, Paris and Berlin do not coincide with Ireland”.
Acknowledging “a degree of satisfaction among some that Ireland has power over the UK”, Bassett is “disturbed by signs of renewed Anglophobia” following the Brexit vote.
“The whole idea of government, particularly the professional civil service, is to detach yourself from emotions and to decide what’s best for your country – and we have such a common interest that anything that damages Britain damages us”.
“At the outset, we should have signaled our distress at the possibility of Brexit and said Ireland needs a special arrangement with Britain,” said Bassett.
“Instead we set out to be the hardest of the hard to show we are pro-EU – and that was so much against our interests”.
The Irish government has “gone into a diplomatic cul-de-sac” over the border, said Bassett. “The UK is leaving the customs union and that means the EU will demand customs posts – but it will be very difficult for the Irish government to put up customs posts if the UK says ‘no we’re not doing it’”.
EU rules “are not immutable laws of physics – they are man-made, designed to create a single unitary state in the longer-run, and they can be renegotiated”.
Accusing the Irish Civil Service of “group-think when it comes to the EU”, Bassett revealed he has been “shunned” by former colleagues.
“If people want to badmouth me in diplomatic circles it’s a small price to pay,” he said. “I have a huge stake in this country, with my children and grandchildren, and will say what I think is right.”