Saturday 15 December 2018

Eoghan Harris: Time the media took a hard look at the Brexit fudge

Eoghan Harris 25/03/18
Eoghan Harris 25/03/18
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Two questions this week. How did a mesmerised media miss the Taoiseach's major mistake on Brexit? Why does one of the "hooded men" see so clearly?

Let me start with the media. Last Thursday in Brussels Leo Varadkar announced an October backstop for the Brexit negotiations.

Most of the media should have immediately pointed out Leo Varadkar's volte-face and the huge hole in his revised strategy.

Revised, because his strategy outlined last year was to avoid the border being mixed with other issues at the last minute.

How did the media miss the fact that waiting until October means we lose most of our leverage?

Why no serious scrutiny of the October backstop fudge on RTE News that night, nor indeed in most of the newspapers last Friday morning?

The lone dissenter was Stephen Donnelly of Fianna Fail, who deftly demolished the Brexit backstop strategy on Morning Ireland.

The Taoiseach, in Luxembourg, dismissed Donnelly's detailed dissection as "just politics".

Since we have a parliamentary democracy, not a dictatorship, what else could it be but politics - and pretty grim politics, too, as Donnelly demonstrated.

He began by pointing out that an October backstop or deadline undermined the Irish Government's own strategy.

Until now, the whole point of the Government's two-phase approach to the Brexit talks was to ensure that some core issues, including that of the border, were put to bed before agreeing transition and moving on to trade.

The transition has now been agreed. The talks are moving on to trade. But there is still zero agreement about the border.

From which flows Stephen Donnelly's cold conclusion: Ireland has lost most of its leverage by agreeing to an October backstop.

Maybe the media heavy gang will wake up this weekend. But why was all the deep digging left to Donnelly last Thursday?

The short answer is that like Tennyson's The Lotos-Eaters, Leo Varadkar's media lotus-eaters have fallen into a happy haze.

Had they been alert they would have registered three major signs last week that something was badly wrong with the Government's green flag, green jersey, policy.

Last Tuesday, in the Dail, Simon Coveney responded tetchily to Stephen Donnelly's perfectly reasonable probes about the Brexit talks.

Like the Taoiseach, Coveney suffers from the green jersey delusion that Fianna Fail must endorse every move the Government makes on Brexit.

This makes a mockery of parliamentary democracy. It would reduce the Dail to a rubber stamp for government policy.

Even if the Government mostly got things right there is no reason for the Opposition not to point out any minor flaws.

But when the Government is making a major strategic mistake, the Opposition has a duty to ignore green jersey bluster and get stuck in.

Leo Varadkar is asking Fianna Fail not to just wear an Irish green jersey but a Leinster blue jersey in the sense that it does not benefit the whole island but goes down well with the Dublin media class.

Most media pundits do not follow Dail debates. If they did they would realise that Varadkar and Coveney are often out of their depth.

Conversely, Micheal Martin's contributions have been consistently cogent and commanding with a forensic grip on facts.

The further away from the Dail, the fainter the media focus. Tony Connelly did not dismiss Fianna Fail concerns in response to Keelin Shanley's question. But he voiced no concern about the implications of the October backstop.

Strikingly, political correspondents who do the hard daily graft down in the Dail are far less likely to fall for any form of Brexit bluster by Varadkar & Co.

Micheal Lehane of RTE, who keeps tabs on the Dail, noticeably kept his distance when reviewing Leaders' Questions last Wednesday.

Maybe the lazier lotus- eaters in the media missed the doubts raised in the Dail debates. But how did they miss Dan O'Brien's stark critique of the Government's Brexit strategy in the Irish Independent last Thursday?

First, O'Brien was brave enough to stress a hard truth that most of our tribal media have hidden behind a screen of anti-DUP bigotry. Northern Ireland exports four times more to Britain than to the Republic.

From a rational unionist (not just DUP) perspective, any border in the Irish sea would be a trade disaster.

Second, he stressed that we would be delusional to believe we could persuade the UK to treat Northern Ireland as separate from the UK's arrangements.

Theresa May would almost certainly go to the country rather than accept such a breach in the constitutional integrity of the UK.

She would have to, not just because the DUP would depart, but because it would open the door to similar demands by Scotland.

O'Brien concluded that while there was a slight chance the Irish Government might browbeat Theresa May into breaking up the UK, he found it highly unlikely.

"More likely is a breakdown of talks and a hard border. If that happens the Government's position will have amounted to a miscalculation of historic proportions."

Why have the Irish media failed to focus on these fudges? As always, the national question is never far away. Like the Irish Government, the media put on a green jersey, beat up on the DUP, and assumed the Brits would back down.

Let me make a hard prediction. The British will never back down if the alternative is to break up the United Kingdom.

And if we force Theresa May to go to the country, there is no guarantee we will get a compliant Corbyn.

Like ourselves, the British do not like to be browbeaten. We could just as easily end up with a ringing endorsement of the Brexiteers. You are warned.


Normally I have no time for nationalist victim-mongering of the sort that remembers the Birmingham Six but glosses over the 21 victims of the Birmingham bombing.

But I support the Irish Government's challenge to the European Court ruling last week rejecting the claim by the 14 Hooded Men that they were tortured.

Paddy Joe McClean is one of them. He disproves the Provo claim they had no choice but violence.

Paddy, a former chairman of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, is one of my great heroes.

He had been interned for four years during the 1950s. He was interned again in 1971, although by then he was just a NICRA activist.

In the first eight days of his internment he was beaten with batons and boots, hooded, subjected to white noise, and dropped from a helicopter.

Gerry Gregg, while making a film, once asked Paddy Joe McClean why he still scorned the Provos after his ordeal, had no anti-British bitterness, and went on working for peace.

Paddy Joe simply replied: "I didn't want to dine off that wound for the rest of my life."

He added that he came from both Presbyterian and Roman Catholic stock and that he treasured both traditions. Let's do likewise.

Sunday Independent

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