Tuesday 15 October 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Government is stirring Border stew to bolster backstop case'

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Boris Johnson, an English nationalist, and Leo Varadkar, an Irish nationalist, are both using nationalism for electoral reasons.

Contrary to what a supine media stuffs down your throat, Johnson is no Lucifer and Varadkar is no Archangel Gabriel.

But Boris Johnson holds the higher moral ground because he wants to deliver the result of a democratic referendum.

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Conversely, Varadkar does not hold the moral high ground because the backstop case is false.

Let me take these two propositions in turn, beginning with the Irish media's delusion that Boris Johnson is a wounded buffoon when he's actually a wily and dangerous bull.

Reporting on his tough parliamentary performance after he returned jet-lagged from New York, the Irish media tried to make a meal out of a few Labour women who accused him of "inflammatory language".

Like what? Like calling legislation he didn't like a "Surrender Bill"? Sounds more like senior hurling.

Charlotte Gill in The Daily Telegraph called out that fake feminism, pointing out that Labour women like Paula Sherriff were "literally snarling" at Johnson. She credibly dismissed the charge that his "humbug" remark referred to Jo Cox.

With the clarity of not wearing green goggles I watched Johnson's performance last Wednesday and came to very different conclusions than most of the Irish media.

Although tired, and subjected to continual jeering, Johnson was relatively patient and constantly on message.

The sound and fury of a frequently hypocritical opposition could not prevent his message reaching the British people at home.

That simple message was summed up by a Tory backbencher: "Back Brexit. Back Boris."

Johnson's straightforward strategy - so different from Corbyn's dithering - is resonating with voters because the Tories are soaring ahead in the polls.

But the moral drive comes from the result of the Brexit referendum.

Last week The Daily Telegraph/ComRes poll revealed that 61pc believe that the 2016 vote should be respected whether they voted Leave or Remain.

Strengthening Johnson's message is the plausible subtext that elites are blocking the democratic will of the British people.

Far from fingering Johnson, the same poll proved the public is fed up with the filibustering tactics of his foes in parliament.

A majority of 60pc believed that parliament has already had enough time to debate Brexit and should get on with leaving the EU.

Significantly, that view included over one third (35pc) of those who voted Remain in 2016.

Like Tony Blair before him, Boris Johnson was speaking over the heads of the parliamentary opposition to the people of the United Kingdom.

As the polls proved, he was on safe ground. The majority of voters view the current parliament as out of touch and defying the decision to leave.

In sum, Boris Johnson is soaring ahead in the polls backed by a democratic demand and by the sound perception that the decision to leave the EU is being eroded by elites.

We in Ireland have elites too - political, judicial and journalistic. All of them invested as deeply in the backstop as some other elites did during the property boom - and with just as little information.

Luckily for them, their impulsive backstop investments are protected by the Irish media.

Likewise, the Irish Government only holds the moral high ground because a compliant media refused to challenge ministers about the four porkies they peddled about the backstop.

First, they said it would prevent a hard Border - but now it's ensuring an EU one.

Second, they told us an "invisible Border" was their primary concern - but they now admit that protecting the single market is their primary concern.

Third, whenever the backstop strategy causes a no-deal to loom large, their cheerleaders tell us that a no-deal will be "endurable" - endurable by the elites maybe, but not for Everyman.

More brazenly, the backstop elites tell us the Government should get no blame if the backstop ends in no-deal and a recession.

In short, they believe a brainwashed Irish people will blame the Brits. We'll not only gag ourselves with the green flag, we'll choke on it silently too.

But I believe those who peddle this delusion will find themselves bumping down hard on the potholed roads of Real Ireland after the recession bites deep.

Do they really believe no fingers will be pointed at the purveyors of fake news about the sacred backstop if it results in tens of thousands of jobs lost?

Do they seriously believe our politicians can plunge nearly five million people in the Republic into a recession without them reviewing the role of the backstop?

Do they seriously believe the public will not eventually see that the backstop stance was not about political principle but a personal stance about saving face?

Unbuttoning themselves in New York last week, both the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste spoke about the backstop in the macho language of poker players and cage fighters.

Leo Varadkar spoke about "not folding". Simon Coveney about not getting "weak-kneed".

But the last, most lethal spin promoted by the Fine Gael-led Government is continually repeating that Brexit encourages dissidents to do more of their dirty work - which to a certain twisted cast of mind could be used as justification.

The worst incident in this irresponsible strategy was exposed by Philip Ryan's story a month ago in the Sunday Independent.

The story revealed that a "senior Government source", close to Simon Coveney, suggested a terror attack in Fermanagh had helped the backstop case.

The source said: "The Brits got a bit friendlier to us after the attempt to murder PSNI officers."

Coveney should have fired the "source" and watched his own language.

But no. Last week in New York he said a no-deal Brexit would rock the Good Friday Agreement to its foundations, adding: "I do not say that lightly."

Lightly is not the point. He should not be saying things like that at all.

Last week John Bruton got into the act, decrying Boris Johnson's alleged plan to set up a "no man's land" in the vicinity of the Irish Border without checks.

Bruton: "Given that one such smuggling-financed criminal organisation attempted to murder one of his predecessors as Conservative leader, one would be forgiven for thinking that Boris Johnson has not studied the history of his party closely enough."

Read that again and ask yourself what dark lesson a dumb dissident might take from it.

Sadly, Bruton failed to live up to the best traditions of Fine Gael by putting partisan temptations aside and telling decent Border people they should work with whatever Border controls are put in place.

He should also have told the dissidents if they dared touch a Border post the Irish Government should give them what Liam Cosgrave would have given them - the modh direach. Roughly translated: the direct method.

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