The former Taoiseach leader Bertie Ahern said that in conversations with Jacob Rees-Mogg about the Irish backstop, the Brexiteer admitted he had ‘no idea what the border was’.
The revelation was made to gales of laughter at the 2019 Women in Media conference at Ballybunion, County Kerry.
The Fianna Fáil leader was in a panel discussion on Brexit chaired by journalist Sarah Carey, lecturer Dr Mary C. Murphy, and Mairead McGuinness, the first vice-president of the European Parliament.
Ahern had been discussing the fuss in British politics around the backstop and talked about his visits to different Brexit committees.
‘Rees-Mogg, he’s a lovely fellow when he’s asleep,’ he said to laughter and applause.
‘And when he’s awake he is definitely a strange fish in or out of water, but the reality is he admitted to me that he had no idea what the border was.
‘I think a lot of British politicians thought the border was something up around Dundalk and Newry, that there was a gate on it and people went in and out the gate.
‘I mean the idea that it was 460km across the island and that you could criss-cross it and there were farms and houses – they just didn’t know it.’
Ahern said that the issue was being overblown by British politicians as ‘an excuse to have a go’.
The backstop, he said, is a negotiating ‘safety net’ that will never actually be needed.
‘The backstop – I think people think it’s some massive 1,000-page document or something,’ he said.
‘It’s essentially a safety net. If there’s no Brexit deal it would avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the republic.
‘That is all it is – it’s very important, but that’s all it is.’
Adding that it would also ensure no tariffs, quotas, and rules of origin being applied, he argued that there will eventually be a deal.
‘So the backstop will never be required,’ he said.
‘The backstop will never happen. And it was only there as a safety net if that did happen that you need it.
‘So I don’t see what the big deal … I think it was a negotiating position [for] if it was a doomsday, but that’s all it was.’
Turning the discussion to how you negotiate with irrational people, moderator Sarah Carey added her own reminiscences of the future Tory Brexiteers Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, from her student debating days.
‘We’d have these debating competitions between universities, and Rees-Mogg would show up looking exactly as he does today, he has not changed a single bit.’
She added how Gove, Johnson and Rees-Mogg used to fight over who would be the president of the Oxford debating union, saying ‘they’re still having the same row.
‘They haven’t changed. And the problem is – they’re in control.’
Adding that she also considered Jeremy Corbyn to be a Brexiteer, she asked: ‘How do you behave as a rational actor when the other side are not rational?’