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RTÉ's Tony Connelly on Brexit leaks: 'If you suppress a paper you've been given, you're crossing a line'

We talked to Ireland’s Brexit expert, who recently wrote a book on the topic.

Image: Daniel Leal-Olivas

BREXIT IS NOWHERE near being completed – and we’re going to be hearing about it for at least the next two years.

So one of the people we’ll be turning to to keep us up to date is RTÉ’s Europe Editor, Tony Connelly.

He’s the man in Brussels who’s tasked with getting the latest news on all things Brexit – and it was a recent tweet of his that inadvertently led to the DUP throwing a spanner in the works of a deal on the Northern Irish border.

Connelly has just published a new book on Brexit, titled Brexit and Ireland – not just a look at how things are going so far, but also a guide for people who don’t realise exactly why the whole process is so complicated and what it means for Ireland.

We talk to him about finding out the leave vote had won, what he thinks of Theresa May, and how important leaks are to his work.

‘They’re out, honey’

Asked if he remembered the night when he found out that Brexit was go, Connelly recalls how quickly things changed.

“I had stayed up till about 1am and it looked like it was going to be a remain vote. And then I woke up and my wife, who is a Danish journalist – she had a very early deadline – she called upstairs: ‘They’re out, honey’. I was like ‘what?’ This was about 5.30 in the morning and I couldn’t believe it. Then it was full tilt, all the coverage, three or four days of intense reporting.”

Connelly was approached by the publisher, Penguin Ireland, in February to write the book, and though there was a very tight deadline – it was due in June – at the time he had no idea that Brexit would be so heavily on the agenda this autumn.

But was he wary about releasing a book so early?

“It was very fortuitous that it happened that way, that the book came out and that Ireland was the big issue,” says Connelly.

“That’s why it’s been very helpful for me reporting the subject, but the book has been a useful primer for people who aren’t Irish and who are trying to figure out what this is all about, why is this an issue.”

One thing the book makes clear is that Connelly has some great contacts – he peppers the book with lots of great anecdotes. There are the awkward meetings between Irish and British government members, an email the UK’s David Davis sent about meeting with ‘Kenny’ (which did not go down well on this side of the water), and curiosity Michel Barnier had about why he had to meet the DUP and Sinn Féin separately on EU talks.

Connelly gets his hands on information the rest of us wouldn’t get – and information gets leaked to him that helps to illuminate just what sort of decisions are being made about the Brexit process.

How important are leaks to his job? “As a journalist, leaks are always part of your job and part of any negotiation process – the trouble is in this situation it’s so incredibly sensitive that people on one side might assume that people on the other side are deliberately leaking stuff to undermine them and that creates bad blood,” he says.

But he knows that leaks are important, too – and they need to be handled well.

“If we get leaks we just have to make sure they’re accurate and we have to publish them.

“It’s not really our job to worry about the fallout, but it’s a difficult call to make because you have to be aware of the wider repercussions of a leak – but if you decide to suppress a paper that you’ve been given, then you’re crossing a line. As journalists you try to operate without fear.”

In writing the book, he had to “try and build a trusting relationship with people who were involved in the only Irish [Brexit] team”.

“That took time and in a sense most of the information I got was from Irish sources and you can see it would make sense for the Irish government to want to steer the narrative a bit,” he acknowledges. “I think they could see an interest in helping me – [the book] was maybe the first draft of the history of Brexit.”

Brexit concerns

The book functions as a way of exploring the many ways Brexit will affect Ireland. It wasn’t all new to Connelly – he’d had a sense before the result of what the concerns from the Irish side were thanks to the ‘perm rep’, which is the Irish permanent representation to the EU.

“It is basically the Irish civil service in Brussels – they’d be the first port of call for Irish journalists in Brussels to get the Irish government line,” he explains.

It was through his interaction with the perm rep, going back before the referendum, that he was able to get a picture of the risks for Ireland.

“Then once the referendum happened, I had a basic knowledge of what the problems were,” he says.

The big one was the North and the Good Friday Agreement and the border. I had to start almost from scratch again to make sure I was getting all the sectors covered as possible.

It was a lot of “pure plodding journalism” in putting the book together – picking up the phone and calling fishing organisations, the Irish Farmers’ Association, universities, and those in the aviation and mobile phone sectors for example.

He wanted to get a sense of what was really going on behind the scenes in Ireland, the contingency planning done by the Irish civil service, and a  better sense of what the risks were.

“The idea was to make it as human as possible,” he says. So the book contains the real-life stories of people who are most worried and likely to be affected by Brexit – like farmers.

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“People were willing to talk because people were scared and not sure of what was going to happen,” he says. “Because of my contacts in Brussels I could also tell the story of what the Irish government was preparing from an EU level. I had to work a lot of contacts to get that behind-the-scenes stuff. It wasn’t just Irish officials but British officials, officials in the EU council and others, [that] was a tougher thing because it’s sensitive and they were not quite so willing to spell out graphically what was happening. But I was able to put together a portrait of all the meetings that happened and the general orientation of the response to it.”


The closer the referendum got, the deeper he had to go into the implications of a leave vote for Britain and Ireland.

“Even looking at implications for Britain, I thought they would be mad to do it from an economic view of the reasons they are pushing Brexit don’t seem to justify a huge economic and political and diplomatic upheaval,” says Connelly. “But then when I met people in Brussels who had been over to the UK for the weekend, and they’d say they met people who were going to vote leave, and that there was a weird mood over there.”

Despite the deal that David Cameron had struck with Europe the previous February – which included concessions on migrants and welfare benefits – Connelly says he knew that there was an “innate euroscepticism” in the British public, and that they wouldn’t necessarily accept this new deal to stay in Europe.

“I think the Irish system was alert to the danger of a leave vote,” says Connelly, but most Irish people ”just assumed it’d be close”. But there were signs.

“From early November there was the leak of a paper from the taskforce which I got and I think the Telegraph and the Financial Times got it. It was 8 November so that was a paper from the Michel Barnier taskforce where they said for the first time probably the best way to avoid a hard border would be no regulatory divergence, no divergence from the rules of the internal market and the Customs Union.

“The first time that concept took shape was in November and obviously the British were highly vexed over this,” recalls Connelly. “There was very strong criticism and complaints that this was an ambush by the Irish and would effectively mean Northern Ireland staying the customs market and the rest of the UK leaving.”

As for Ireland’s approach in it all, he thinks that when Taoiseach Enda Kenny was replaced by Varadkar, the tone changed. “His personal style is a lot different but the Irish strategy hadn’t really changed at all,” he said.

In particular, he mentions Enda Kenny’s “very tough” speech  to the Institute of International and European Affairs in February of this year.

“It was very tough, it was very uncompromising,” says Connelly. “So the relationship between Enda and David Cameron was very, very warm one – it’s totally different between Kenny and Theresa May, it wasn’t quite as warm, she is a different person – it was a bit more pragmatic and professional and Leo Varadkar and Theresa May, that is a different chemistry altogether.”

As for British politics, Connelly says that coming into the autumn he thinks “people were looking in horror at what was going on in the Conservative party”.

The mood in Europe is that they want things sorted, and fast. “From the EU side they just want this to be sorted – it’s just sucking up so much political oxygen,” says Connelly. “They get fed up with what’s going on but I think at this stage they probably feel Theresa May is weak and stable. There’s obviously no appetite in the Conservative Party for a leadership move at this point.”

As for the months and years ahead, Connelly doesn’t see any acceleration in the Brexit process. But one thing is for sure – he’ll be the person to follow if we want to know what’s really going on behind the scenes.

Read: EU leaders agree to move onto phase two of Brexit talks, but warn of tough talks ahead>

Read: Varadkar says he has ‘absolute confidence and trust’ in British government>

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