Thursday 19 September 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Bigging up the backstop poisons our once decent pluralism'

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Last Monday, speaking to Shane Coleman on Newstalk, I again urged a compromise on the backstop, reminding listeners that Ireland lived within two circles.

The circle of the EU mostly comprises economics - but the UK circle, along with economics, includes language, culture and, above all, geography.

Alas, the green fever gripping the country, akin to war fever, does not want to hear any talk of compromise.

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Last Wednesday, Simon Coveney came back from his holidays to tell us that a meeting between Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson wouldn't bridge the gap about the backstop.

He also dissed the prospect of the UK getting an American trade deal, pointing to the opposition of politicians like Nancy Pelosi, she who stroked the Gerry Adams beard in Dublin.

So here we are all ready to go to war. But about what? About an abstraction called the backstop, which in practice merely means an invisible border.

We plan to do this although the British are pledged to put up no physical barriers whereas the EU will force us to erect them. Pure madness.

Be clear: I was not against the backstop at the beginning, in 2017, when its implications were not clear.

It was not until late December 2018 that I wrote my first worried piece titled, "We need to talk more about the backstop before we get hurt too".

But this year my columns became more critical as Theresa May's three attempts to secure the Withdrawal Agreement foundered on the rock of the backstop.

Today I believe we should not only be getting ready to tweak the backstop, but we should not drag it out. Because bigging it up is doing dreadful damage to the decent pluralism that was the norm after the Queen's visit.

But anyone who warns about growing Anglophobia finds themselves up against a self-pitying green myopia.

Sean Lemass said if we had a fault, it was a tendency to feel sorry for ourselves. But we must now be world leaders in what Liam Kennedy calls MOPE, Most Oppressed People Ever.

Tony Connelly, RTE's Europe editor, recently tweeted about personal jibes at Irish politicians.

Now I know he spends most of his time in Europe, but he surely reads the Irish print media which has been Brit-bashing for three years.

Columnists, when challenged, claim they are bashing Brexiteers, not the Brits. But there is the same thin line between the two as between bashing Zionism and bashing Jews.

Corbyn & Co crossed that line some time ago. So did the Irish media on Brexit.

Incredibly, The Irish Times is now trawling for more fuel for that tribal fire. Last Thursday it asked the Irish in Britain, "Have you experienced anti-Irish sentiment?"

But while it is safe to whinge to the Irish media about bad experiences in the UK, it is not a bit safe to publicly complain about anti-British sentiment in Ireland, in Irish media.

That is why none of my correspondents complaining about green fever want me to use their names.

They include my own niece working in London who is homesick, but whose English partner refused to return on holidays with her this summer after the vilification he got last year.

A Cork texter says silence is no protection. "My refusal to engage in the mad Brit bashing is taken as proof positive that I'm 'as bad as Harris'."

A regular Galway reader mordantly reports, "the buskers are dusting off their old Wolfe Tones albums to find material to resonate with the new nationalist mood on the streets".

Even a pretty village like Adare gets its touch of the Wolfe Tones, according to a friend and his wife who stopped there last Wednesday to text me this:

"Having a sandwich, 100 metres from the spot where Jerry McCabe was murdered by the IRA. The Wolfe Tones version of Sean South of Garryowen blasting through nearby loudspeakers."

Last week, Bernadette McAliskey, still fiery but with a tempered flame, warned that the rising green fever of nationalism could morph into fascism.

She said that across the whole island we "need to get out of the nationalist conversation", which she described as increasingly "narrow and sectarian".

She added: "In a world where nationalism is hell-bent on fascism, it will sooner or later take us in the same direction."

Fiach Kelly of The Irish Times appears to have no such worries. Last Saturday his militant headline proclaimed: "The backstop is a fight worth having."

On the same day, he backed up his backstop approach with a feature titled, "Britain has always struggled to take Ireland seriously, say Irish ex-diplomats".

Now, I can take a bit of self-satisfied belly-rubbing revisionism from retired Irish diplomats dining out on Anglo-Irish anecdotes, but some of their stances simply call out to be called out. So here goes.

Sean O hUiginn told Kelly, "the British do not engage very willingly with or about Ireland".

That is not so. Every British prime minister since 1970 has concluded some kind of treaty with us. The record shows nobody listens to us more than they do.

Michael Lillis told Kelly that Edward Heath, "made it very clear that Northern Ireland was none of the business of Dublin".

Has Lillis lost his memory? It was Heath who agreed Sunningdale, for crying out loud!

Mrs Thatcher, far from not engaging with Ireland, gave half her second term to negotiations with Garret FitzGerald between 1983 and 1985.

Sean O hUiginn gives the DFA green agenda away when he speaks of the "secret hope" of those like himself who worked on the Belfast Agreement.

He says their "secret hope" was the GFA would be "a decompression chamber" where "people could calmly consider what kind of future constitutional model they wanted".

Again, this is not so. The GFA was meant to settle the constitutional question for the foreseeable future. It certainly wasn't about teeing up a future united Ireland, as O hUiginn implies.

It was an honourable compromise: consent in exchange for power-sharing and North-South contacts.

But in spite of their complaints about British diplomacy, these diplomats all agree we'll have to pick up the pieces and cooperate with the UK after Brexit.

So why the devil couldn't we have cooperated with the British since 2016?

If negotiation is inevitable after Brexit, given our proximity to Britain, surely it must have been inevitable before it?

Fiach Kelly also writes that Sean O hUiginn picked up the pieces after the Falklands War. But he doesn't give context.

In May 1982, Haughey withdrew Ireland's support for UN sanctions against Leopoldo Galtieri.

In short, Haughey sided with a fascist junta in Argentina to score political points after H Blocks.

Fiach Kelly went for wisdom to Irish diplomats who had privileged access to Thatcher, Major and Blair.

These diplomats saw three British prime ministers giving their time, blood and treasure to Northern Ireland.

Yet they still can't resist insulting the British in print and playing to the backstop gallery. For shame.

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