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Dublin: 8 °C Saturday 11 July, 2020

Ireland's Brexit expert 'wouldn't rule out the possibility of more trouble' with the DUP

The journalist told us more about the day when his tweet led to the DUP scuppering a new plan on a soft border with Northern Ireland and the EU.

The DUP's leader Arlene Foster
The DUP's leader Arlene Foster
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

WHEN TONY CONNELLY, RTÉ’s Europe Editor, tweeted about a draft agreement between Britain, Ireland and the EU on the Northern Irish border, he knew his information was solid.

But what he didn’t realise was that this tweet, and his subsequent article, would lead to the DUP putting a major spanner in the works.

Theresa May was having lunch with Jean Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, to discuss that very deal during the first phase of Brexit talks when she stopped to call Arlene Foster, the DUP leader.

Foster was not happy.

That phone call showed May that the DUP did not want the deal, as they saw it, to go ahead.

Earlier that day, Connelly and RTÉ had felt they were secure in sharing the information he had received from sources. Reflecting on what happened, Connelly can see why the DUP acted the way it did.

“We were very careful in the way we wrote the story but I think the DUP were so neurotic at that stage about the whole process, the moment they saw RTÉ running a story then they obviously felt that’s it: Dublin is claiming victory.”

The DUP now felt betrayed, and that the Irish government was victorious. And that may have repercussions for the future.

“There is bad blood now between Varadkar and Coveney and the DUP so I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of more trouble,” he said. With the Brexit divorce process to take years (it just moved onto the second phase of talks on the 15 December), and the DUP propping up May’s Tory government, this is significant.

Tale of a tweet

The tweet came on a day when May was meeting with Jean Claude Juncker about future arrangements about the Irish border after Brexit. While the pair were in talks, the tweet was sent – and it basically set out the details of a draft agreement in which it was said there would be no “regulatory divergence” on the island of Ireland in relation to the single market and customs union after Brexit.

In other words: a soft border.

But the key word that seems to have drawn the DUP’s ire was ‘concede’. And with the DUP effectively propping up Theresa May’s Tory government, the party was able to immediately scupper talks by taking a stand against the agreement.

Connelly brought us back to the day itself, when he ended up becoming a central figure in one of Europe’s biggest news stories.

After Donald Tusk set a deadline of 4 December for the British government to come up with solutions on the border and citizens’ rights, Connelly was “really trying to find out what was going on”.

There were talks going on between Britain and the EU and the Irish.

“It was very, very hard to get information because it was so sensitive,” recalled Connelly.

It was “impossible to get any good sense of where this was going”. The new Tánaiste Simon Coveney appeared on Morning Ireland on the Monday morning, and he “sounded quite downbeat”.

Connelly kept pushing his sources for more information.

Finally, they came through. “One source said they had seen the text [on the agreement] over the weekend and was able to convey to me what was in the key Irish paragraph,” he said.

So we would always need a second source for a story like that. I got the paragraph and texted it to a source in a different part of the sausage machine. They said it’s pretty much correct, but updated now – regulatory divergence has been revised up to ‘continuing regulatory alignment’.

It was decided the story was good to go. The RTÉ story was put out at 11.15am, 15 minutes after the Irish government had been contacted by Juncker saying the agreement was squared between Britain, Ireland and the EU.

“So at that stage nobody knew the difference between those ideas – I couldn’t see a huge difference. We felt confident then to put out the story on the website and I tweeted the first line and four minutes later tweeted the second line,” said Connelly.

“The trouble is the way it was conveyed to me by the source was this was quite a concession to the UK.”

This was particularly important following the leaked paper in November where the reaction to the idea of Northern Ireland being in a single market customs union “was so violent”, said Connelly.

The UK side “did seem like they really were talking conceding on this point”.

“But the trouble is when that tweet went out it was just about the time the DUP were in London trying to find out what was going on in the text,” said Connelly. “And when they saw the tweet they assumed it was the Irish government briefing in a triumphant way and the Irish government was victorious. That threw everything in the air and they threw the spanner.”

Does he think that things would have been different without his story?

“I think they could have rejected it anyway because they never were on board with either phrase. I was being blamed for scuppering the talks,” he said.

I knew how good my sources were – I knew the background of this inside out, I had been working on it for such a long time. I had been very careful saying this language was in a draft text.

What about how it was handled by British PM Theresa May?

“I think in a sense Theresa May faced them down – that was the way it was presented. They weren’t happy with the new text, I think Theresa May said I have to do this it’s in the national interest; we have no choice here. I think she faced them down once – it makes it difficult to make them hold them to ransom next time.”

Connelly even ended up having to face down accusations that the leak was Irish government propaganda, with the Guardian’s Brexit correspondent Lisa O’Carroll saying that his leak didn’t come from within the Irish government.

In an interview afterwards, Connelly said that reports said that what spooked the DUP was his report on RTÉ news on the text.

“First of all, RTÉ protects its sources very carefully and we do not reveal sources, but I am comfortable in saying that this was not a leak by any means from the Irish government, this came from two other non-Irish sources,” he added.

The DUP, not being in the room with Theresa May and Jean Claude Juncker, must have felt it was only getting the full story online. It was a case of those reporting the news becoming the news – but also how closely political parties pay attention to what’s going on on social media and in online reporting.

And with more talks to come, it’s perhaps an example of, when it comes to Brexit, the next few years are going to be a very interesting ride.

Read: DUP’s Sammy Wilson in scathing attack on ‘cynical, aggressive and green’ Varadkar and Coveney>

Read: DUP ‘pleased’ with Brexit deal but says ‘more work needs to be done’ on border issue>

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