Friday 22 February 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'We must move beyond backstops and talk like good neighbours'

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Leo Varadkar is the first Irish Taoiseach to bet the country's Gross Domestic Product on the rationality of the right wing of the Tory party.

Because that's what he is doing in hoping for the best from Theresa May's withdrawal plans - while at the same time ensuring she has no hope of success by insisting on the backstop.

Naturally you will hear no hint of that contradiction from the Irish media which is now entirely composed of what I call cheerfollowers - cheerleaders at least run some risks.

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What follows boils down to a plea for politicians and media to get their heads out of the tight neck of the green jersey and take an equally fresh look around.

Because there never was such need of dissent, not just from the backstop but as an antidote to the tribal pollution being produced in reaction to Brexit.

Brexit will be a blip on our history. But the green venom that flows from the backstop - and porkies about it - is likely to leave a lethal and lasting mark on the national psyche.

Take a taxi and listen to the tribal spiel against the Brits. Look at the TV news in a pub and listen to the sectarian spiel about unionists. Not since Bloody Sunday can I remember such angry Anglophobia and raw sectarianism.

Both the Irish Government and the DUP are equally guilty, not of bigotry, but of fostering (no pun intended) bigotry among their followers for electoral ends.

Both Arlene Foster and Sammy Wilson are guilty of crude commentaries and refusing to recognise that the majority in Northern Ireland voted Remain.

But Leo Varadkar and the Irish Government are also to blame for raising the tribal temperature by playing to the green gallery with green rhetoric.

Mary C Murphy, Professor of Politics in UCC, writing for a London School of Economics magazine, shed a lot of light on careless talk last week.

She began by stating firmly - and I agree - that the Irish Government has no hidden agenda about a united Ireland.

But she also believes - and again I agree - that the problem is not the product but the presentation:

"For Northern Ireland unionists, however, it is not the Irish Government's stated position which is problematic, rather it is more often than not, the manner in which that position is framed."

She gives two examples: "When Foreign Minister Simon Coveney talks about achieving a united Ireland 'in my political lifetime', this is met with alarm by a unionist community which has long felt vulnerable and besieged. Unionists were similarly dismayed when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar promised nationalists in Northern Ireland that 'You will never again be left behind by an Irish Government'."

She concludes: "The unionist response to these pronouncements is to question the motivations of the Irish Government, and to perceive a link between the aspiration for Irish unity and the Irish Government's policy on Brexit."

Newton Emerson, an emollient unionist - if indeed he is a unionist at all - put the same points a bit more baldly in an Irish Times piece titled: "The backstop has completely backfired for Ireland."

His analysis included the same insights into how not to conduct negotiations, repeated ad nauseam, apparently to no avail, by Bertie Ahern and Peter Cassells, former general secretary of the ICTU.

Emerson writes: "In an international negotiation you should only clobber your opponent up to the point where they can sell a deal at home."

Bad enough for the Irish Government to be blindly gambling on the backstop. Even worse is the failure of its media cheerfollowers to call them out on three political fictions.

First is our selfish fiction that the backstop's pressure to force unionists into a customs union does not pose a constitutional problem for them. But as the respected commentator Dan O'Brien has shown, it certainly does. Full stop. Does.

Second, Emerson correctly complains about the bogus claim that Brexit threatens the Good Friday Agreement.

Emerson says this fiction has been repeated so often that any further refutation is futile. But I would still like to try to refute the most recent example.

It comes from John Bruton in the course of an otherwise exemplary review of the historical background of Brexit and the backstop.

Bruton believes the Good Friday Agreement is at risk because "Brexit requires barriers to go up between the UK and Ireland, where previously there was free exchange".

Bruton's assumption is that the GFA will unravel if you pull the EU thread. But the GFA is not predicated on both the Republic and the UK being in the EU.

The GFA does not require simultaneous EU membership for its various strands to work. This has been confirmed by the UK Supreme Court in 2017.

Brexit does not breach the Good Friday Agreement because the latter does not depend on EU law to work, and does not require the UK or even the Republic to be members of the EU.

Second, Irish media cheerfollowers have been continually changing their position about ownership of the backstop.

Last December when the backstop looked like a clever stroke, we claimed it, gloated over it. Last week when things began to look bad for Leo, Fine Gael fans began to dump it on the Brits or even the EU.

Before Christmas, Tony Connelly's book Brexit and Ireland gave the clever chaps of the Department of Foreign Affairs full, not to say fulsome credit for pulling off the backstop.

Last week, however, when things looked hairy, John FitzGerald, son of Garret, told The Irish Times the backstop was the Brits' idea.

But over on The Tonight Show, Patrick O'Donovan of Fine Gael told Ivan Yates it was the EU's idea.

The record shows the backstop began as a benign British idea which the bright sparks of the DFA turned into a sour idea by legally locking it down.

That being so, why doesn't Leo Varadkar lower the tribal temperature by admitting it was a British idea - adding this proved the Brits meant well.

This brings me to the final fiction: that Leo Varadkar should go on saying the backstop and nothing but the backstop.

After all, since the backstop was the Brits' benign idea in the first place why not cash that goodwill cheque instead of souring our relations with legalistic locks?

Last week Simon Coveney was the only politician doing his best for what I call republicanism, stoically persisting with a private meeting with the DUP where he knew he would get a hard time. He also got grudging respect.

The Irish Government and the DUP should back away from the backstop and take two steps to restore civil relations between near neighbours.

First, the Irish Government should listen to Bertie Ahern, stop pretending there is not pressure on the backstop and start creative negotiating.

Second, the DUP should stop taking selfies with Boris Johnson over in Westminster and remember the only way to protect the union is to reconcile the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, including Roman Catholic nationalists.

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