Sunday 15 September 2019

Declan Power: 'We should brace for a late backstop change, just in case'

Backstop looks good deal but it’s time now for the Government to seek the best alternative – and fast

Boris on manoeuvres: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson serves food to a patient during a visit to a hospital in Devon, south west England. Photo: PA
Boris on manoeuvres: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson serves food to a patient during a visit to a hospital in Devon, south west England. Photo: PA

Declan Power

The question must now be asked out loud: Have we blown it? There's no point in bleating or beating about the bush. Is there a distinct possibility that Boris's bit of whistle-stop diplomacy to Germany and France may herald a change in how the EU will deal with the UK over Brexit?

Will this '30-day challenge' from Angela to Boris change the status quo of the EU on the backstop?

If that appears to be the case, then what is our Government's strategic position going to be?

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Do we even have such an alternative position, or will we bob like a cork on a stormy sea with no direction other than continuing to put all our hopes in the basket of EU solidarity?

Depending on what one is hoping for, it's either Boris has caused two of the leading EU players to partially blink, or it's a case of both Merkel and Emmanuel Macron simply humouring Boris for making the effort to come and visit.

The fact is, no one can be sure what may be happening here and we are all interpreting this according to our own cultural and political perspectives and pouring scorn on anything that does not adhere to our national narrative.

So, are we in this jurisdiction not now guilty of some of the blinkered vision we are accusing others of? For example, if there is shift, what will be Ireland's BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement)? Read on to the end and I'll explain.

Of late we've been quick to point the finger here at the political chaos across the water. In fairness it's hard to not to do so, but has it affected our ability to engage in critical analysis?

Certainly if you are to look at the general reactions to those in this parish who have posed alternative points of view about Brexit, you could be forgiven for thinking we are just as capable of engaging in blind jingoism we've accused the near neighbours of doing.

In Ireland today, Dan O'Brien, Eoghan Harris and Ray Bassett have all been doing their bit to prod us into some further examination of our collective approach to Brexit in general and the backstop in particular.

What is worth noting here is that in "chaotic" Brexit Britain, there is significant space for opposition expression to Brexit and all related to it; in Ireland, that space is a small and difficult one to operate in.

Whether one agrees with the Government's current strategic approach to Brexit or not is not the point. The point is why are we all, to use that well-worn phrase, "pulling on the green jersey" to deal with this?

Actually, it's more like putting on green-tinted spectacles so we can't rationally consider any other opinion.

In an era of green-jersey thinking, O'Brien, Harris and Bassett have become the "Red Men" of Irish public life.

In the world of intelligence analysis, there has always been a need for counter-intuitive thinking. In fact given some of the blunders in that world over the years, it has become a necessity to have people who will posit well-analysed and thought out positions which differ from the main stream thinking.

However, in more extreme circumstances, this becomes a raw necessity to prevent group think causing failure. This is where the Red Man comes in.

In military long-range reconnaissance training the teams are usually small and the team leader, regardless of rank may have to make important decisions without recourse to advice from higher authority.

Therefore he has only his team to rely on to help him reach decisions, usually under great stress and time constraints.

This is where the Red Man comes in. He is the one who stays aloof from the whole planning process other than to watch and observe.

After the commander has engaged with the team to formulate a plan, the Red Man will use his own expertise to pick holes in that plan. With this awareness the commander then makes his final decisions.

It's a simple system, it prevents group think and many a plan was saved from disaster at the last minute by finding the hole beneath the waterline by the Red Man. He is not a saboteur, in fact he is often the saviour.

So it's worth noting when we try to interpret what different things mean regarding Brexit and the EU over the next few days that Dan O'Brien has done time in the EU trenches. He, better than most, understands both the political and technical manoeuvring and their rules-based obsessions.

Dan also understands their negotiation process. As a Red Man he's worth listening to. So are Eoghan and Ray. We don't have to agree with them, but we don't have to malign them and close our ears to any nuggets of wisdom.

But between Ray's experience in diplomatic negotiations and Eoghan's knowledge of the atavistic impulses that lie beneath the surface of this country's psyche, they offer thoughts and warnings we would do well to heed in how we craft our BATNA.

So what is the BATNA? It was a lesson I learned when being taught how to negotiate humanitarian access and captive release in Africa.

It means the best alternative to a negotiated agreement, something we were always expected to have as a fall back if negotiations fell apart.

At the moment all we hear in this country is the backstop is the only game in town. In fact it was trumpeted as a "great deal", even though the parliament of one party to the deal never ratified it.

So, as far as this Red Man is telling you, of course the backstop may seem like a great idea, but that's what it is right now. It is not signed, sealed and delivered and what is our best alternative if the negotiated agreement never comes to pass?

I do hope we have one.

Declan Power is an independent security and defence analyst

Irish Independent

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