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Sense of desperation surrounding Theresa May

When Theresa May suggested `2019 can be the year when we put our differences aside and move forward together', it was difficult to avoid the sense of desperation in her words.

The British prime minister's new year message was intended for all the citizens of the UK, but she was well aware that many of her own senior colleagues in the Conservative Party had already rejected her call for a unity of purpose.

Although a vote on Mrs May's Brexit deal is due to go before the House of Commons in mid-January, all the indications are that it is already a doomed project.

A significant number of Tories from both the pro and anti EU wings of the party have made it clear that they will not support the motion, and the opposition of Labour and the ten DUP MPs means that, barring any dramatic late developments, the prime minister is heading for a defeat which will leave her struggling to retain her fading grip on power.

The farcical nature of the overall performance by the British authorities as the scheduled Brexit deadline of March 29 approaches was neatly summed up in recent days by a contract awarded to a little known company called Seaborne Freight.

Officials at the Department of Transport in London were placed under intense pressure to provide additional ferry services in the event of a no deal departure from the EU, and handed the firm almost £14m to provide a new link between Ramsgate in the south of England and Ostend in Belgium.

It quickly emerged that Seaborne Freight had never previously operated ferries, owned no ships and had no trading history, but had somehow persuaded the decision makers that it would be in a position to begin commercial sailing some 12 weeks from now.

When arguably the most anti EU member of the UK cabinet, the international trade secretary Liam Fox, said at the weekend there was a `50-50 chance' Brexit would not happen if Mrs May lost the forthcoming vote, it reinforced the impression of an administration without a credible strategy.

The scale of Mr Fox's u-turn was illustrated by his much discussed assertion barely 18 months ago that a post-Brexit free trade deal with the EU should be the `easiest in human history'.

People in Ireland, both north and south, would be hugely relieved if Mr Fox's prediction about the UK effectively abandoning Brexit turns out to be accurate, but will also be acutely aware that the appalling alternative scenario of crashing from the EU without any agreement cannot be ruled out either.

We are heading for a defining period when it must be hoped that the firm and consistent endorsement from the rest of the EU of the measured position taken by the Irish government will prove crucial.

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