Friday 23 August 2019

Johnson devoid of a decent punchline when it comes to figuring out how the chicken crosses Border with North


Tánaiste Simon Coveney and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a previous meeting.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a previous meeting.
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

When Boris Johnson was foreign secretary there was an unwritten rule in Dublin that said: "Ignore him."

Key ministers knew not to respond to his every utterance, no matter how provocative, insulting or off the wall.

So when Johnson compared the Irish Border to crossing between London boroughs there was no sudden indignation or outrage from Leo Varadkar or Simon Coveney.

Instead they stayed behind closed doors and waited until Downing Street publicly dismissed his misguided musing.

But 'Bojo' can't be ignored any more. His elevation to prime minister is deeply troubling for Ireland.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern speculated earlier this week that Johnson might look to widen his appeal beyond Brexit once he became Conservative Party leader.

But if anything he has doubled down in spectacular fashion.

So far he has stuck faithfully to his campaigning language.

"We are going to get Brexit done on October 31, and we are going to take advantage of all the opportunities it will bring in a new spirit of 'can do'," he declared. "Like some slumbering giant, we are going to rise and ping off the guy-ropes of self-doubt and negativity."

It was hard not to snigger. We are destined to live in a world of slogans - but those slogans have the potential to become reality. For the past three years, the Irish media has reported on how Theresa May was making some of the biggest decisions in British history. Realising that May was its best hope of a sensible withdrawal agreement, the Irish Government invested huge capital in her survival.

Simon Coveney: Change of tack toward UK’s new PM. Picture: Kyran O'Brien
Simon Coveney: Change of tack toward UK’s new PM. Picture: Kyran O'Brien

Time and again it went out of its way not to say or do anything that would hand Johnson and his band of Brexiteers the initiative. The result is that we have a deal negotiated by May but rejected by Johnson who is now in the ascendancy.

The diplomatic bridge that needs to be built between Varadkar and Johnson is mammoth.

And the initial exchanges are not good. Johnson has effectively committed to negotiating a whole new withdrawal agreement, minus the backstop.

The Taoiseach responded by saying he's "not in the real world".

Luckily politicians are great at ignoring past snipes and just getting on with it.

To be fair, for all our 'shock' about Johnson's jibes at Ireland, we are not necessarily so innocent ourselves.

He may well have questioned why the Taoiseach isn't called Murphy "like the rest of them". But I assure you that a number of Irish ministers have referred to him in as uncomplimentary terms behind closed doors too. We don't seem to have a problem with that because it reflects our biases.

Earlier this week, Coveney publicly described the incoming prime minister as "a very intelligent man".

That's a change of tack from the time when Johnson was foreign secretary. The view of him in the Department of Foreign Affairs was closer to "amiable buffoon".

His visit to Iveagh House on St Stephen's Green in November 2017 was assessed as pretty disastrous.

He bounced in making jokes about drinking Guinness in Nigeria and then ended up in a head-to-head with the Tánaiste during a press conference.

The media moment was even held ahead of their bilateral meeting so that the two politicians could deflect tough questions by saying "we'll be talking about that".

But Johnson said the British government's view "is you can only really crack the problem" of the Border in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations.

That wasn't the official position of the UK government at the time - but it is now.

People who were inside the room as Coveney and Johnson talked say it got worse behind closed doors.

Johnson was friendly and engaging but struggled to grasp the detail. There's no doubt he's a clever man so it's not the detail was beyond him - it was more that he didn't really care.

For him, Ireland has always been a boil on Brexit that needs to be frozen off, burnt off, cut off, whatever. Just get it off the agenda.

It is the job of the Irish Government to make sure it remains centre stage.

Johnson loves a good joke but this is all very serious now.

And he really doesn't seem to have a good punchline for the question of our times: 'How does the chicken cross the Border?'

Irish Independent

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