In his address to the two houses of Ireland’s parliament in Dublin, Michel Barnier used words that seemed full of understanding and diplomacy.
He spoke about how important it was to the EU that there was ongoing peace in Northern Ireland, and a Brexit deal that was to everyone’s satisfaction: Dublin and London and the EU.
Mr Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, emphasised that Brexit issues that affected Ireland were a high priority for the EU. It all sounded reasonable and generous. But there was a hint of menace in his speech, and seemingly aimed at London.
For example, he said: “We have a duty to speak the truth. The UK’s departure from the EU will have consequences. Customs controls are part of EU border management.”
Was this a speaking of hard truths, as it sounded, to his Dublin audience? Or was it in fact a warning to the UK?
That if Britain chooses a hard Brexit, the EU will insist on a hard border, knowing that nationalist Ireland will accept no such thing on the Irish land border. And as everyone who knows the first thing about Northern Ireland realises, if London faces enraged nationalists it will do anything to placate it – even if that means annoying unionists.
In other words, was Mr Barnier in fact obliquely flagging up the only alternative to a hard land border – a hard border on the Irish Sea?
And when he said that “in this negotiation Ireland’s interest will be the Union’s interest” he seemed to be encouraging Dublin to side with the EU over the UK. The Republic has already given the impression it will do that.
A united Ireland is not going to come easily or quickly, whatever some excitable people might think post Brexit. Of course Dublin has a loyalty to the EU but it will be playing a foolish game if it keeps siding blindly with Brussels rather than helping London with some of its requests.
That would be to head back towards a De Valera relationship with Britain, which would hurt the Republic very much more than it does the UK. And it will hardly make for happy cross-border relations.