Sunday 18 August 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Green flags won't keep us warm in a bleak no-deal winter'

It's not unpatriotic for critics to question the Irish Government's Brexit strategy at a time of national crisis, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: North West Newspix
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: North West Newspix

Eilis O'Hanlon

Be afraid. Be very afraid. That was the Taoiseach's message last week about a no-deal Brexit, as he urged Boris Johnson to back down from his threat to take Britain out of the EU on October 31 come what may.

The Brexiteers, though, don't believe that a no-deal Brexit is anything to fear, at least not for Britain. On the contrary, they see it as a glorious opportunity. They may be out of their minds for thinking that. Until it happens, who really knows who's right?

It's still baffling to suggest that the people who aren't afraid of an outcome should retreat in order to avoid it, while those who do think it should be feared insist that they mustn't budge even if that makes what they most fear come to pass.

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Why has the Taoiseach not been pressed more strongly on the contradictions in his position?

Only because Brexit has weaponised patriotism on both sides of the Irish Sea to the extent that expressing doubts about the strategy of one's own side has come to be regarded as tantamount to letting down the whole country.

That's why we've gone from not knowing what a backstop even was to now regarding it as the final ditch on which every true Irish man and woman is expected to fight to the last breath.

There is, it's true, something strange about the notion, advanced by Leo Varadkar's harshest critics, that the Taoiseach could have formed a one-man diplomatic bridge between the UK and the EU during negotiations on the withdrawal agreement. Brussels had its own red lines heading into talks with Britain. More worryingly, the British government was all over the place for three years under former prime minister, Theresa May.

It's doubtful that it would even have been able to recognise that Dublin was offering a precious lifeline, much less grab it.

Varadkar could have done more to not worsen the situation, not least by reining in Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, and Fine Gael's chair of the Brexit committee, Senator Neale Richmond, when they got the urge to yank the Northern unionists' chain about the Border. The current disastrous state of relations with pro-union, pro-Brexit opinion in the North is a direct result of those errors of judgment. Talking up the prospect of a united Ireland in the event of a hard Brexit was a grave error. If the golden rule of warfare is never to invade Russia in the winter, the golden rule of Irish politicians when faced with problems in the North is never to suggest Irish unity is imminent.

The only ones to benefit from that loose talk are not people you want to see benefit. Mary Lou McDonald's tactics last week, demanding that Boris call an immediate border poll in the event of no deal, are designed only to make mischief, not to help either government through this crisis.

Whether the outcome would ultimately have been any more promising had the Taoiseach taken a different tack is now for speculative historians to decide. It's too late, anyway. Johnson has to go full steam for no deal, or be eaten alive by the Brexit Party whenever the next UK election happens. If there was a window of opportunity, it's been slammed shut and the curtains drawn tight.

Leo Varadkar has no other choice but to put his faith in the EU negotiating team, and hope for the best. That's still no reason for persisting with this childish guff about pulling on the green jersey and coming together for the sake of the country. The Government is not our football team. It's not our job to stand on the terraces chanting and waving flags. Any student of Northern Ireland should know how patriotism can easily become toxic.

There has to be room for honest disagreement about the right way forward without questioning the national loyalty of critics of the backstop. The backlash against Fianna Fail deputy Timmy Dooley's tweet about Varadkar, which did little more than state, in slightly stronger language than previously, legitimate concerns about the Taoiseach's strategy, was a worrying sign of what happens when asking questions is mistaken for treason.

Even those most supportive of the Government's stance must see that there's something unhealthy in allowing the country's entire sense of self worth to become tangled up in the backstop, when, as the Taoiseach himself warns, the risks of no deal are so great?

Leo Varadkar may have overplayed his hand. What's equally galling, though, will be to see an army of told-you-so merchants, all wise after the event if disaster strikes at Halloween, blaming him as vigorously as they've supported him hitherto. Polls are a fickle mistress and could easily turn against him. His advisers will have reminded him of that. Or have they?

One question that keeps coming to mind is what all these highly paid special advisers swarming round Leinster House were telling the Government as the withdrawal agreement failed repeatedly to get through the House of Commons.

More to the point, what are they telling it now? Whatever advice they proffered, it was either not very good, or was ignored. There can surely be no other alternative.

Come to think of it, who are these special advisers anyway? In recent times, we've moved from having civil servants providing ministers with analysis to having a more specialised service, often performed by former journalists and other refugees from the world of media, and it's hard not to wonder if that has had a deleterious effect.

Civil servants tend to be cautious, and these new advisers to being over-confident in their ability to read what's going on. Being a full-time adviser has now become a vocation in itself, and the sad truth is that most of those jumping on that bandwagon simply aren't that "special" at it. They all watched The West Wing at too influential an age. Secretly they think they're PJ Mara or Alastair Campbell.

There are brilliant strategists out there - Boris has one inside Downing Street in Dominic Cummings, former mastermind of the Vote Leave campaign - but Cummings challenges and confronts, and isn't afraid to make enemies.

Take Cummings' contention that "the average expert is no more accurate than the proverbial dart-throwing chimp on many questions". Are the Government's advisers in Dublin willing to confront consensus in the same way, or are they all in the same bubble of mutual agreement? Media-infatuated politicians such as Leo Varadkar need to be shocked out of conformity sometimes.

Having a media caught in its own echo chamber is bad enough, but bringing that mindset into Government is madness.

They still seem to be doing it now, painting Boris as a buffoon who's bound to fall on his face. He well might, but the country still needed and needs a Plan B in case no deal hits the fan.

Did the advisers ever walk Leo through a way to rescue the situation if it all went wrong, or were they all in the same bubble? They must have feared that they had come close to the edge inching up to March 29. Did they have an alternative strategy - a backstop of their own, one might say?

Being willing to consider whether Ireland should compromise on the withdrawal agreement is in no way the same as cheering on the Brexiteers. It's not as if we automatically trust Government ministers to be making the right calls on other matters of policy. Quite the opposite. Yet on this one issue, everyone's apparently decided independently that our leaders are towering statesmen.

That can only be because the issue has become one of emotion rather than reason. Historically, that has rarely led to positive outcomes, to put it mildly.

When it comes to Brexit, Ireland should take whatever steps are demanded by cold economic self-interest. If that's to do or die on the backstop, so be it, but it's the Taoiseach himself who's admitted he's afraid of what that could mean for the country. That's the scary part, and pulling on a green jersey won't warm away those shivers.

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