Monday 19 August 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Leo should ditch the unity daydreams and take a slow look at Brexit's reality'

The Taoiseach should stop rushing to prepare us for a future united Ireland when the key concern is what's going to happen on October 31

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking to media, after touring Hillsborough Castle in Hillsborough, Northern Ireland. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking to media, after touring Hillsborough Castle in Hillsborough, Northern Ireland. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Eilis O'Hanlon

The Taoiseach made a flying visit to Northern Ireland last week, days after his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, completed his own first tour of duty as prime minister.

Leo Varadkar met business leaders at Hillsborough Castle, the Queen's official residence in the North. He gave a speech at a youth event in north Belfast. He then ended the day by taking part in a leaders' debate at west Belfast's Feile an Phobail alongside Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald and others.

Having the Taoiseach there was quite a coup for the annual event. Only three of the panellists were actually leaders of anything (Fianna Fail was represented by Brendan Smith TD rather than Micheal Martin), making Varadkar by far the most senior politician. His presence alone was enough to generate headlines, but he gave his hosts good box office anyway by raising the prospect that a united Ireland might need, among other things, a new constitution.

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This was only hours after saying he hoped Brexit would not "bring constitutional questions to the fore". That's like urging everyone else in the bar to ease up on the booze while ordering another pint.

The Taoiseach would have been better off slipping away from his minders and heading down to North Street in Belfast city centre. There's a bookshop there called Keats & Chapman, which has somehow managed to survive the commercial revolution which sadly saw off many older, smaller businesses. It's a proper old-fashioned bookshop, with thousands of volumes double packed, higgledy piggledy, on to shelves. Whiling away the hours there is a pleasure.

The last time I went, I happened upon a 2006 collection of poems by a Welsh writer called Andrew McNeillie, a new name to me.

The title poem, Slower, describes a visit made to Northern Ireland in the immediate aftermath of the Belfast Agreement, and revolves around seeing the road sign "slower", and how it came to represent to the poet the best hope for the future, as, navigating hazardous political territory with all those he met, they together "jiggled terms and jinked down unmarked borders of speech".

"Maybe in their lifetime?" it ends tentatively on the prospect of a united Ireland and permanent peace. "Or slower yet, their children's? Or their children's?"

Slower is surely the right approach to Northern Ireland, but the Taoiseach seems temperamentally unsuited to slowness. He's a man in a hurry, and that's manifesting itself in a kind of political Tourette's syndrome, in which he's regularly gripped by the urge to make impetuous pronouncements when, in retrospect, he'd be better advised to simply bite his tongue.

He's not alone in that. Right now the chattering classes in the country appear in no way prepared for a no-deal Brexit, but are mysteriously preoccupied instead in making preparations for a united Ireland, despite the fact that one of those events looks likely to happen at Halloween, and the other at some indeterminate point in the future. Or not. There are, after all, as many ways to believe that a united Ireland would not happen in the short to medium term, even if Northern Ireland leaves the EU, than there are to believe it would.

Suggesting that there are more important things to be talking about in the summer of 2019 than what flag a new unitary Irish state should fly above public buildings has, unfortunately, been added to the growing list of things it's considered unpatriotic, if not downright treasonous, to say.

The Taoiseach did tell the crowd in west Belfast that a Border poll immediately following a no-deal Brexit would be divisive, which was not what the audience on the Falls Road wanted to hear; but what good authority he showed by pouring cold water on republicans' giddiness for a referendum on unity was immediately undone by his declaration that one of the dangers of an early Border poll was that it could be defeated, which would be "a real shame" for those who believe in Irish unity. Would a Border poll which opted to keep the status quo for the time being really be that big of a problem?

Surely defeat would be the optimum outcome, bringing the dreamers back down to earth, where they can rejoin the long game, rather than embarking on this headlong rush after the unicorn of imminent unity, especially since both sides of the Border are woefully unprepared for it? Why's he in such a devil of a rush?

The real danger is getting dragged into an endless talking shop about different versions of unity that only exacerbate divisions rather than healing them.

The Irish Times headline on its report of the Feile debate was bothersome in that respect: "A united Ireland would be a 'different state', Taoiseach warns." Why "warns"? Isn't it just a statement of what Basil Fawlty once famously called "the bleedin' obvious"?

There are no easy solutions for the Taoiseach. Either way lies potential danger. In chess, this situation is known as "zugzwang", in which every move you make will probably turn out to be the wrong one, and the best solution would be to do nothing at all. The difference is that the chess player has to move when it's his turn, and the Taoiseach doesn't. He has time over the summer to decide what to do next. He doesn't have to make bold statements every couple of days to reporters, just as he didn't have to go to the MacGill Summer School or the west Belfast festival.

Reporters will keep asking him questions, but he'd have every justification, with Brexiteers now bedded down in Downing Street, to take refuge for a while in some of that creative ambiguity which seems to be all the rage. Instead he keeps stirring the pot needlessly, for example by also telling the pro-union Belfast News Letter last week that the Irish Government would oppose a return to direct rule in the North, despite the fact such a course may be unavoidable in the next few months as talks on restoring devolution are finally admitted to have failed.

If hardliners in the British government are wrong to put down so many red lines on Brexit, then it's illogical to argue that putting up preconditions on how the UK should run a part of its own country is particularly helpful from Leo, especially when direct rule has been reimposed on a number of occasions since the Belfast Agreement was signed without prompting resistance by Dublin.

One thing is for sure. Even if a united Ireland is closer than it's ever been (and again, there are plenty of reasons to question that assumption), it's not going to happen on October 31. Brexit is. The Taoiseach would be better off reassuring the Irish public that the country is fully prepared for it, rather than giving himself up to daydreams about what anthem we're all going to sing when the four green fields are reunited.

What unionists want isn't the be all and end all. They're not the easiest people in the world to deal with either, and have said unhelpful things about Brexit and the Irish themselves. But when a moderate such as Ulster Unionist Doug Beattie, a Remainer, tells the same leaders' debate in Belfast that the backstop is unacceptable "in any shape or form", it behoves a wise Taoiseach to listen. When it comes to Northern Ireland, he needs to learn to jiggle terms and jink down those unmarked borders of speech. He needs to learn slowness.

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