Wednesday 19 December 2018

Brexit giving cover as Fine Gael and Sinn Fein make eyes

Harris cartoon.
Harris cartoon.
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

We are still dealing with the aftermath of two blizzards, one natural, one political. We are coping a bit better with Storm Emma than the Brexit blizzard.

Let me start with a light-hearted riff on Storm Emma and our chronic inability to cope with snow.

This was brought home to me when the Coen brothers' classic film Fargo was first shown in the IMC Dun Laoghaire.

As always I went to the afternoon showing, full of pensioners and retired public servants, for a bit of peace and quiet.

All was quiet as the heavily pregnant police chief, played by Frances McDormand, gave her husband breakfast in bed, packed her pistol and went out to face a Minnesota morning in deep winter.

But the hush was broken as she shovelled snow, and fitted snowchains on her SUV without a bother.

As she drove off to deal with the bad guys, the admiring silence gave way to an animated discussion all over the cinema about the snow, the weather, how well she coped, and whether their spouses had jump leads in their cars.

Clearly we are good at forecasting a blizzard. But whether we are good with coping with a few inches of snow is moot.


We are doing no better in dealing with the Brexit blizzard.

This will be news to you as most of the media settle down to another bout of Brexit bashing.

But the sour response to Theresa May's rejection of the EU's proposal last week denies reality.

No British prime minister could accept two customs regimes in the UK. It would be like letting South Kerry opt out of the EU and deal in a currency called Raes.

As Micheal Lehane of RTE mordantly observed, the reaction meant more ratcheting up of the Government's rhetoric.

Contrary to what his media cheerleaders claim, Leo Varadkar's sole policy consists of bashing Brexit, which comes across as bashing Brits and unionists.

He is backed by most of the media cheerleaders who seem to think their tired, daily fulminations against Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are avidly read by these two boot boys.

But neither Leo Varadkar, nor our pundits, have an adequate policy that addresses the need for peace on the island.

The first step of any responsible Irish Government should have been to take a tough line with the Brits and a soft line with the DUP - whose short-sighted policy partly arises from fear of Sinn Fein.

That would mean taking a firm diplomatic line with the British government but avoiding any green rhetoric that would alienate Northern Protestants, none of whom want a hard border.

In sum, while civilly disagreeing with the DUP on Brexit, it was vital to keep back channels open to that party - not least because a climate of goodwill would create flexibility about any final arrangement.

Such a pluralist policy, which is also a Wolfe Tone republican policy, marks out Micheal Martin's response to the crisis.

For standing up for the republican pluralism that inspired the Good Friday Agreement, he has been subjected to a sustained barrage of criticism by Sinn Fein in the Dail.

That was to be expected. What could not be expected was that the leader of Fine Gael would facilitate these attacks and support them with constant dog whistling.

Martin has never opposed the Taoiseach taking a tough line with the British government - but he has regularly and rightly taken him to task for the breakdown of formerly civil relations with the DUP.

Brexit and the border problem is basically a bureaucratic problem. Like the Irish language, it has been weaponised by Sinn Fein and those who call its shots from the shadows.

The Taoiseach has actively facilitated the Sinn Fein line by dog whistling in a way no Fine Gael Taoiseach has done before.

First, he gave the Northern portfolio to Simon Coveney who, as I correctly predicted, waved the green flag and lost the political capital built up by Charlie Flanagan.

But last Christmas he himself became a prisoner of Coveney's green flag policy when he said Northern nationalists would never be "abandoned" again.

This was the start of a carefully modulated campaign to move Fine Gael and Sinn Fein closer together, a campaign carried on almost weekly in the Dail, but seldom reported, except by sharper reporters like Micheal Lehane of RTE.

The full chronicle of the Taoiseach's and Simon Coveney's dog whistling is too long for this column, but in sum it meant that every time Micheal Martin reminded them to talk to unionists he got a glib reply that suited Sinn Fein.

Let me give some examples. On February 6, David Cullinane of Sinn Fein tried to smear Micheal Martin as a unionist. Martin responded by pointing out that Sinn Fein was one of the greatest barriers to Irish unity.

Instead of the Taoiseach supporting Martin and telling Sinn Fein to get stuffed, his dismissive reply tried to do the reverse, telling Martin, "today is not the day to be asserting our unionism or nationalism. I do not think any good purpose would be served by giving anyone any cause to take offence".

Look closely at this green gibberish. Who in Dail Eireann is a unionist? Did he mean Micheal Martin?

Does the Taoiseach think that Martin's policy of standing up to Sinn Fein and keeping lines open to Northern Protestants makes Martin a unionist, when in fact it makes him a real republican?

Second, on February 15, Pearse Doherty of Sinn Fein attacked Martin for the crime of pointing out the Fine Gael government had no contact with unionists.

Instead of keeping a decent distance from Sinn Fein, Coveney enthusiastically supported Doherty, saying Martin "did not understand what was going on".

Pretty rich coming from the first Minister for Foreign Affairs who is not on speaking terms with the major party of Northern Protestants.

The only sign of the old, decent Fine Gael was when Regina Doherty, on the Week in Politics, disagreed with Coveney's remark.

Martin understands all too well what is going on. Leo Varadkar is playing full-on footsie with Sinn Fein - although he must know that Sinn Fein is using Brexit, like it uses the Irish language, as a baton to beat up on Northern Prods.

Behind their cosmetic digs at each other, Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald have been making eyes at each other, using Brexit as chaperone.

Last Tuesday, at a meeting of Sinn Fein in Newry, Mary Lou McDonald patronisingly praised Fine Gael for following the Sinn Fein "message".

"To be fair to them, so far they have heard that message and so far we have managed to keep them on that path; we have to sustain that into the future."

The following day in Dail Eireann, the Taoiseach returned her compliment.

"And I do want to recognise the constructive and measured approach by your party to the Brexit issue in recent months."

That's a pure porker. If Sinn Fein was interested in Brexit per se they would take their seats in Westminster. They have another agenda.

Sunday Independent

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