Thursday 19 September 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Coveney's hard line will run our republic on the harder rocks'

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Simon Coveney is a skilled yachtsman, but cheered on by RTE he has set a reckless course hoping to round Cape Boris and return in triumph flying the green flag.

If he fails, we all go down on his political yacht. If he succeeds, he will surely take a second bite at the leadership of Fine Gael.

Boris Johnson is not the only politician in these islands campaigning ahead of a general election.

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Some Skibbereen Fine Gael stalwarts say Leo Varadkar has lost lustre.

They add that if FF wins a majority of seats, there will be a heave in FG.

As Fine Gael is prone to passing fashions, such a heave cannot be ruled out.

In that case, Simon Coveney would be hard to beat, especially if he came with the tricolour wrapped tightly around him.

Certainly he seems to have taken the lead in the backstop campaign in the past few weeks.

So let us consider the first line of his recent two-line statement on the RTE website. "Ireland is reasonable and has always shown flexibility and a willingness to compromise."

On the contrary, Coveney keeps repeating the refrain that there is no alternative to the backstop.

Now the second line: "We are not going to compromise on a peace process that is fragile right now on the island of Ireland."

Coveney talking about a "fragile" peace process would be more credible if he had categorically rejected the remarks made by his spokesperson, as reported in this newspaper by Philip Ryan last Sunday.

The spokesperson shockingly suggested the Fermanagh bomb had helped to soften Boris Johnson's cough.

Micheal Martin rightly called on Coveney to distance himself from his spokesperson's remarks.

Instead he got the following response from the spokesperson: "There is absolutely no place for men or women of violence in our society. The Irish and British governments are united to the core on that and it is foolish for anyone to play politics with that for headlines."

In sum, Coveney's spokesperson seemed more interested in accusing Martin of playing politics than in dealing with his charge.

Coveney's office did not deny the appalling remarks nor did he cleanly disassociate himself from it.

RTE and The Irish Times helped him to fudge the issue by not reporting Martin's statement

The Irish Times is not a public body and has leeway.

RTE is the national broadcaster, however, and is bound in law to be balanced.

But in seeming to shelter Coveney, as well as bigging up the backstop it is surely in breach of the broadcasting acts.

So is the following nauseating nationalist flagwaving by Ryan Tubridy last week. "I'm fed up with the kowtowing to the British message."

He went on. "We are in a European scenario at the moment and we should be protecting the backstop."

Tubridy's jingoism can be treated as a bad joke. But Jon Williams, head of news in RTE, should be more circumspect.

A few weeks ago, I noted his positive tweet about Simon Coveney on The Andrew Marr Show as "punchy".

Last week he tweeted again, and tagged it to the Tanaiste's Twitter account.

"With #Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay looking on, @Simoncoveney accuses UK of political grandstanding on no deal."

For Williams to be posting what come across as supportive tweets of Simon Coveney strikes me as on the inappropriate side.

From the beginning, RTE's editorial line on the backstop has lacked any sense of balance. So if there is a future backlash against Coveney's use of the backstop — as I believe likely — RTE will find it hard to defend its record.

One of the very few programmes it could cite in its favour would be Today with Miriam on the morning of Wednesday August, 21.

A replay of Miriam O'Callaghan's interview with Coveney will concern anyone who is worried about his handling of the backstop.

What was revealing in relation to his character is how quickly he becomes intense and irritable when he realises that Miriam O'Callaghan isn't one of the RTE pushovers.

O'Callaghan is concerned mostly about the fact that we are only weeks away from October 31.

In response, Coveney complains about the British changing their commitments.

In short, that Boris Johnson is not the same as Theresa May.

Miriam O'Callaghan: "That has now changed, Tanaiste."

Coveney: "With respect, I don't think it's your job to do the selling for Boris Johnson."

Pressed on no-deal preparations, he gets tetchy:

"Miriam, I don't know whether you were listening."

But the woman who took on Martin McGuinness is not easily deflected. She asks him repeatedly about what the border would look like in event of no-deal.

Clearly taken aback by an RTE reporter who wants to ask hard questions Coveney says: "Miriam, I'm not quite sure what the agenda here is, this morning."

She could have replied that the agenda was to ask the questions we all want answered but she let Coveney hang himself.

Miriam O'Callaghan is also one of the few RTE presenters to respect the right of a majority (81pc) of unionists to oppose the backstop. Last Friday, economist John FitzGerald, referring to Foster's reaction to Theresa May's agreement to a NI-only backstop, said: "Arlene got excited."

O'Callaghan cut in: "But they were unhappy and worried that they would be separate from the UK."

Another small blow for balance.

The reason you should replay that interview is because I believe it reveals why Coveney is more likely than Leo Varadkar, or indeed any other Irish politician, to run us on the rocks.

From the start, the Irish Government has never fully understood that Boris Johnson has put his total trust in his brilliant strategic adviser Dom Cummings.

All great political advisers are hedgehogs not foxes. They crave one big issue that will imprint itself indelibly on the public mind.

As an example, think of Clinton's adviser James Carville: "It's the economy stupid."

Cummings wants us to be clear Johnson won't blink on the backstop so that we compromise on it. Worryingly, what Cummings doesn't know is that Coveney won't blink either, because of his class and his politics.

Coveney comes from the Cork equivalent of the British aristocracy and has the same patrician sense that he is always right.

Politically, his green politics means he is shaping up to be the Charles Haughey of Fine Gael.

But that self-belief, bordering on arrogance, and his green grandstanding, makes him the last person likely to strike a deal.

To save us from destruction we need a politician with the social and personal humility of Bertie Ahern.Last Thursday on Drivetime, Mary Wilson asked Ahern if we should we be "giving anything at this stage that might progress towards an agreement".

Ahern: "Well I think we should keep our mind open to that. It's never a good thing to go into negotiations of any kind with your mind absolutely closed."

Alas Coveney not Ahern is at the helm in this storm.

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