Unsurprisingly, academic and media accounts of Northern Ireland and the British-Irish relationship have been necessarily reactive and empirical since June 2016, given the on-going and unknown outcome of the Brexit negotiations. In assessing the British-Irish relationship, the Irish government has been either praised for holding firm and playing tough about a vital interest or criticized for not using more consensual language and engaging with the DUP and the Tory government. In this new Brexit world, it seems that everyone’s a lobbyist and everyone’s a critic, writes Etain Tannam (Trinity College Dublin). The events of December 4th 2017 are a case in point.

During the meeting between Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker on December 4th, reports emerged that the text of a statement about the Irish border had been agreed between the EU and the UK government, setting out either regulatory convergence, or alignment on the island, and guaranteeing the protection of the Good Friday Agreement. It was anticipated that the Irish Prime Minister Leo Vardakar would make a statement that the Irish government was happy with the progress made, signaling that on December 14th a text would be formally agreed between the EU and the UK government that would allow the European Council on December 15th to agree to move to Phase 2 of the Brexit negotiations-trade talks.

Unfortunately, although Mr Juncker was confident that agreement would still be reached by December 14th, no such announcement was made. It was reported that the DUP had refused to support any statement that treated Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK. Given the DUP’s confidence and supply arrangement with the UK government, Theresa May could not finalise an agreement. In the immediate aftermath, a Times journalist argued that Leo Varadakar’s tone at the subsequent press conference on December 4th was not helpful and that he should have been more conciliatory, whereas others praised his assertiveness. However, given the centrality of the British-Irish relationship to stability in Northern Ireland, it is essential to analyse the motivations for each government’s strategy more academically and more objectively.

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Faisal Islam has provided one of the more conceptual analyses of the Brexit negotiations, by characterizing four sets of negotiations, including the British-Irish bargaining ‘game’, as four games of ‘Chicken’. This application of rational choice theory not only allows for a better understanding of the UK’s border proposals on December 4th, but it also helps in making predictions about the future of the British-Irish relationship and of the likelihood of moving to Phase 2 of the Brexit negotiations. According to Islam, the Irish government played tough about the border issue and calculated that not reaching a deal in December because this issue would be more damaging to the UK government than to the Irish government, as it would mean that the UK government could not proceed to trade negotiations until March, at least (and if at all). Contrary to the rhetoric, the Irish government’s perception was that ‘no deal’ for the UK government was not its real preference. Therefore, the Irish government engaged in brinkmanship and megaphone diplomacy. However, the UK government did likewise, believing that once it agreed to settle the ‘divorce bill’ to the satisfaction of the European Council and the Commission, the other 26 states would not prioritise the border issue and the negotiations would proceed, even if the Irish government objected.

In this new Brexit world, everyone’s a lobbyist and everyone’s a critic – Northern Ireland is a case in point

The above game theory application fits well with a more extensive description of British-Irish negotiations to date. There are various accounts of UK officials lobbying in EU member state capitals in the attempt to exclude resolution of the border issue as a condition for moving to trade talks. However, Irish officials too had been lobbying intensively since June 2016, first to ensure that the border issue/Good Friday Agreement were included in the list of the three main issues to be resolved before moving to Phase 2 and then, from summer 2017, to ensure that EU member states would hold firm in their commitment to the Northern Ireland issue, even if the other two issues were resolved. Irish lobbying paid off and on December 1st, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk re-affirmed emphatically that the negotiations would not move to Phase 2 (trade) unless the Northern Ireland issue was resolved. In a joint press meeting, Leo Vardakar stated ‘the EU is a family and families stick together’. Regardless of the disappointment in the late afternoon of December 4th, it seemed that the Irish government’s strategy had paid off in ensuring that it had a de facto veto over the Brexit negotiations moving to trade talks if the border issue (including the Good Friday Agreement issue) was not resolved to its satisfaction.

The success of bargaining strategies rests on full and perfect information. The Irish government’s decision to use megaphone diplomacy and engage in brinkmanship was risky as it marked a major departure from a joint British-Irish strategy, devised in the mid-1980s. It resisted the consensual language of intergovernmental cooperation and of the Good Friday Agreement and it reverted to zero-sum characterisations of Brexit and the border issue, whereby the issue was not a problem to be solved jointly in bilateral meetings before Article 50 was triggered, but was a UK problem – ‘the UK’s fault’.

The strategy worked because the Irish government was relatively confident of two things: i. It could not rely on the UK government to resolve the border issue satisfactorily unless the Irish government played ‘hardball’; ii. It could rely on its EU partners to support the Irish government’s preference in not moving to trade talks, unless the border issue was resolved.

The Irish government appears to have been correct about both assumptions. Even a week before the border announcement, there were UK media commentaries, apparently drawn from UK Cabinet ministers, that once the divorce bill was agreed, the EU would soon cave in on the border issue. The implication was that the UK government was loath to compromise on this issue and did not perceive it to be necessary to do so. Therefore, Leo Vardakar’s blunt rhetoric stepped up a pace, signalling both to the UK and to the EU that the Irish government would block moving to trade talks if the UK did not come up with satisfactory proposals.

Secondly, the Irish government was correct to assume it would retain EU support for its position and that the UK’s ‘divide and conquer’ strategy would fail. The Irish government enjoyed goodwill from the Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, who was a key player in the Peace Process in the 1990s as well as from key EU states whose leaders were pleased by Irish recovery from recession and management of the economic crisis. Of course, conversely, the UK government’s political stock was quickly dissipating in the face of the UK government’s hardline Brexiteer language, the UK government’s fragility and its apparent ineptitude. On both counts, the Irish government made the correct calculation and the UK government miscalculated.

the Irish government made the correct calculation and the UK government miscalculated

Thus, by lunch-time on December 4th, there were signs that the Irish game of Chicken had paid off in stage one. Indeed, the failure to announce that satisfactory progress had been made was not because of the Irish government’s miscalculation of the Tory government or of the EU’s behaviour, but the UK and Irish governments’ miscalculation of the DUP’s reaction. The DUP too, according to Islam, is playing Chicken and stated firmly that it would not accept regulatory divergence. If the British-Irish policy in the 1990s is anything to go by, then the UK government will hold firm against unionist attempts to scupper a significant agreement and the DUP will be forced to compromise. However, the new UK Brexit political context and government weakness have cast doubt on such a coercive policy.

A key calculation in examining DUP behaviour is that if there is another UK election, they could well lose their position of influence. In addition, the DUP’s interests are served by the continuation of the Good Friday Agreement. The DUP has a majority in the devolved Assembly and if the Good Friday Agreement collapses because of a failure to deal with the border issue, the DUP will lose power in Northern Ireland and Irish unification will increasingly be on the agenda. Therefore there is an incentive for the DUP to compromise. The Irish government’s calculation was that Theresa May would not risk failing to achieve a trade deal with the EU and that the correct packaging of UK-EU border plans would allow the DUP to accept them, while not losing face. It is possible that this scenario is realistic, the reasons for the DUP’s apparently sudden reaction on December 4th are not clear, but it was reported that Theresa May had rushed through the draft text on December 4th, possibly deliberately without communicating effectively with the DUP, so further communication with the DUP may suffice. It was also reported that the DUP had been in constant contact over the past week, so suddenly got cold feet yesterday. Even so, tweaking of the text and cosseting of the DUP may help reach an agreement, if Theresa May does not resign.

Thus, by explaining the motivations for the behaviour of key actors and the calculations and miscalculations they make, game theory highlights the underlying logic of the Brexit border negotiations and helps to predict the final outcome. According to the above analysis, the Irish government’s choice to play Chicken was founded on accurate information about UK and EU member state preferences and the UK’s choice to play Chicken was based on misinformation about EU preferences and miscalculation about the intensity and effectiveness of Irish governmental preferences and lobbying.

The prediction is that the UK government, (again if Theresa May remains in power), having seen the failure of its strategy to sideline the border issue and the success of the Irish government’s strategy in persuading the EU to prioritise it, will consult with the DUP and agree a text that meets with Irish governmental and DUP approval, by December 14th. It is in the DUP’s, the Irish government’s, the EU’s and Theresa May’s interest to do so. At a minimum, the UK government and the EU will agree general principles about Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement that will replicate the language of the Good Friday Agreement, enshrine cross-border cooperation under the Agreement and through the devolution arrangements of the Good Friday Agreement, provide for a common regulatory regime for all key economic sectors, but may use different terminology. The wording that is suitable to DUP sensitivities will facilitate agreement and the terms, ‘single status’, ‘single market’ or ‘customs union’ will not be used. Instead, Northern Ireland’s special history and geography as part of the UK will be emphasised, as will the Good Friday Agreement.

At a maximum, Theresa May could propose that the UK as a whole enters into a regulatory alignment arrangement with the EU so that Northern Ireland is not being treated differently from the rest of the UK. Much will be made of listening to the DUP between now and December 14th and the DUP leadership will emphasise too how it influenced the final arrangement for the benefit of Northern Ireland, but also for its constituents.

All games are risky and Chicken is the most high-risk of all

According to this optimistic scenario, the specific factors that led to the Irish government’s hard-line diplomacy and the game of Chicken played by both governments will diminish during Phase 2 of the negotiations and the British-Irish relationship will remove to reciprocity and cooperation.

All games are risky and Chicken is the most high-risk of all. If the border issue is not satisfactorily resolved for the Irish government, for unionists and for nationalists in Northern Ireland, the strategies pursued will be criticized and the failure to use consensual bilateral diplomacy and avail of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference to iron out issues, before Article 50 was triggered, will be highlighted. However, Brexit has created a volatile and unpredictable environment, where no one has the benefit of perfect information or hindsight. The above analysis has shown the motivations for the strategies pursued by British and Irish governments, as well as highlighting the risks attached. On December 14th, we will know whether those risks were worth it.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Brexit blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

Etain Tannam is Assistant Professor in International Peace Studies, Trinity College Dublin.

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