Saturday 16 February 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Leo's hardline Brexit stance may be popular, but is it wise?'

The Taoiseach is making too much of a target of himself and of Ireland as Brexit nears, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Leo Varadkar might well be the Leave campaign's single biggest asset right now. Photo: PA
Leo Varadkar might well be the Leave campaign's single biggest asset right now. Photo: PA

European Council President Donald Tusk made one significant statement last week, but it wasn't the schoolboy jibe about Brexiteers going to hell.

"Today," he said, "there is no political force and no effective leadership for Remain [in the UK]. I say this without satisfaction, but you can't argue with the facts." MPs who want a second referendum certainly do seem to be in something of a disorderly and hopeless retreat, and perhaps that's just as well, because Leo Varadkar might well be the Leave campaign's single biggest asset right now.

Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage already thinks that Brexiteers would win a second referendum with an increased majority; and a suspicion that he's right may well be behind the reduced enthusiasm for a so called "people's vote". Thanks to the Taoiseach, the momentum to Leave might well turn into a landslide.

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The EU has forgotten the famous advice from Sun Tzu's Art Of War never to back one's enemy into a corner. Leo himself has ignored an equally important golden rule. He has become too visible, and put Ireland right into the firing line through his increasingly desperate desire to provide uncritical backing to the EU.

A true cynic might say that he has been deliberately manoeuvred into that position in case a fall guy is needed. A lot of the stuff that happened this week - from Tusk's remark about there being a "special place in hell" for those who led the campaign for Brexit, to the giant greeting card shown off by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker which declared that "Britain does not care about peace in Northern Ireland" - may have been just silly, but it was also easily avoidable.

There, though, was Leo Varadkar right in the middle of it at each turn, quite patently not avoiding it, playing along, chuckling. Coincidence? One can only hope so, because the alternative - that he was there because he was meant to be - is troubling.

If he sensed that he was being set up as a patsy, the Taoiseach gave no sign. "They will give you terrible trouble in the British press for this," he was quoted joking sotto voce to Tusk at the joint press conference where the former Polish PM made his provocative remarks. As for the photo-op with Juncker, if he was asked for his permission to release a picture of himself alongside the giant card, then he either must have given it, or been ignored when he didn't - neither of which is encouraging.

The stand-up comedian Stewart Lee once speculated on stage as to which of the three most famous Top Gear presenters he hated most.

"You'd think it would be Jeremy Clarkson, wouldn't you?" he said, but it wasn't. "At least Clarkson has the guts to stand there personally expressing his stupid, offensive opinions. But Richard Hammond doesn't do that, does he? He just stands next to Jeremy Clarkson, giggling."

For the English comedian, Hammond played the ignoble role of a "kid at school, hanging around with all the bullies, laughing at their jokes, in the hope that they won't pick on him". It was a savage put-down, and probably unfair, but it hit home because it did say something about the on-screen relationship between the alpha male Clarkson and his less macho sidekick.

Whether it also says something uncomfortable about Leo Varadkar's role in these present EU negotiations is the still unresolved question.

Tusk and Juncker have evidently given up on the UK and moved on. That will be music to the ears of Brexiteers as well, because they don't want a continued relationship with these representatives of a hated federalist vision of Europe anyway. Ireland, though, still has to deal with Britain every single day. That's not going to change. Only the atmosphere in which such relations are conducted can change, and it has. If there was any confidence that Varadkar had a deeper plan as to how to repair the rift which has opened up over Brexit, that would be some consolation.

But we too may have to face facts and admit that he really doesn't. He's just hoping something turns up, and right now the most likely prospect is that what turns up will make matters worse. There was a terrifying report in German newspaper Der Spiegel midweek which quoted influential MEPs saying in effect that the protection of Europe's internal market was "even more important than peace in Ireland", and that if trouble on the Irish border was the price for protecting it, then they would expect Dublin to pay it or risk being shut out from the single market itself.

It's this underlying threat which makes the Irish Government's hardline position on the backstop so hard to fathom. On the one hand, we're saying that the British created this problem and must be the ones to solve it. On the other hand, it is Europe itself which, despite previous promises, seems to be hardening its stance on the border. The British may be lying when they say they won't impose border infrastructure, as the EU now seems to have been doing all along, but, until they are shown to be in bad faith, the assumption must be that the British mean what they say. How then is finding a way out of the backstop conundrum not our problem?

It may be this dawning realisation which has started to unnerve Leo Varadkar, but his implacability is proving popular with ordinary Irish voters who, if the latest Sky News poll is to be believed, are ready to die in a ditch for the backstop, buoyed no doubt by the sentiment, as expressed in Juncker's giant card, that "for the first time ever, Ireland is stronger than Britain".

Meanwhile, it's those urging that the rhetoric be dialled down as a matter of urgency who are challenged.

"It's time for people to cool the jets," said Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin on BBC's Newsnight on Wednesday. "We need calm, reflective engagement, the stakes are too high."

His intervention went largely ignored back home.

Businesswoman and broadcaster Norah Casey on Virgin Media's Tonight Show found herself equally alone when she expressed disquiet about the rising tide of anti-British sentiment which Brexit was provoking.

Her argument was not that Ireland should consider taking a softer line because it would help Britain, but because it was harming Ireland. When judicious self-interest can be made to sound seditious, and stubborn self-harm is the new patriotism, then something has gone terribly wrong.

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