Friday 23 August 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Leo Varadkar has left it too late even to eat humble pie'

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

An ancient Chinese proverb says we cannot stop the blackbirds of evil flying over our heads - but we can stop them making a nest in our hair.

Leo Varadkar was not responsible for Brexit. But he should have handled it without allowing the blackbirds of Anglophobia to nest all over the place.

So far, the Brit-bashing has only benefited a newly rampant Sinn Fein, now snugly embedded in a pan-nationalist consensus.

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From the start, Micheal Martin should have called on the Taoiseach to respect rather than thwart the British decision, given that Eamon de Valera opposed the EEC because he too was worried by the loss of sovereignty.

Martin might have felt he had to put on the green jersey - but he should not have let it gag him when we were losing the game.

He should have reserved the right to robustly query the Taoiseach's conduct of Brexit, and rejected the nationalist consensus on the backstop, which last week morphed into a sustained and nasty campaign to silence its critics.

The silencing of people in a nominally democratic state is the subject of Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann's 1982 study, Die Schweigespirale, or 'Spiral of Silence'.

She gave two reasons why, even in states without totalitarian trappings, people still feel they have somehow been silenced.


Read more here: Jody Corcoran: 'We may need two general elections for voters to square the Brexit circle'

First, when mass media repeatedly tells people their views are not popular they simply fall silent.

That's what happened to the majority which wanted to negotiate the backstop in last March's Ipsos poll.

Second, public opinion must be salonfahig - that is acceptable by 'polite society'.

The Irish Times and RTE act as the Praetorian guard of 'polite society' in protecting Leo Varadkar's backstop from scrutiny.

But now it's blown up in their faces, the media cheerleaders have every reason to be ruthless. Any cessation in the campaign of Brit-bashing might let people face facts.

Seven weeks ago the headline on my column said "Boris Johnson will not back down on the backstop".

That still holds. Johnson will call and win a general election and will take the UK out of the EU in October.

The EU will then force us to put up customs posts along our side of the Border.

Read more here: 'Economy to worsen' - poll reveals nation is bracing itself for Brexit hit

When that happens, how will the Irish media justify the monstrous mendacity they sold you - that the backstop would prevent a hard Border when clearly it was going to cause one, as predicted by Dan O'Brien, Ray Bassett and myself?

They can't justify it. So last Tuesday they launched a frenzied media campaign of distraction, aimed at blaming the Brits and preventing a post-mortem.

Significantly, the Brit- and critic-bashing was intensified in the days after my first RTE interview on Brexit with Mary Wilson on Drivetime.

The Irish Times waxed indignant about backstop critics like the elderly English expat Bruce Arnold, while rewarding Sinn Fein for backing the backstop.

On Thursday The Irish Times front page photo flattered and rehabilitated Mary Lou McDonald.

On Friday, Fintan O'Toole reinforced Sinn Fein's rehabilitation by ingeniously outlining how it could take its Westminster seats by proxy to thwart Boris Johnson.

Fat chance of Sinn Fein risking its monopoly on mischief in Northern Ireland and doing something for the sake of Ireland.

In fairness, most RTE presenters kept their heads: Miriam O'Callaghan and Mary Wilson were models of balance.

But to my shock - and sadness - Tommie Gorman began to throw green paint around by the gallon.

First, he started a hare about how Boris Johnson had "snubbed" Leo Varadkar by not calling him. Actually, Leo Varadkar should have called Johnson, as other world leaders did.

Gorman also hinted darkly that Boris had given the DUP bags of goodies. Not so. Northern Ireland got anything going.

Finally, Gorman indulged himself in indulging Sinn Fein, telling us with a straight face that Michelle O'Neill had given the new secretary of state, Julian Smith, "an earful".

The only earful O'Neill is entitled to give anyone is an abject apology for abstention at Westminster.

By the end of the week Sinn Fein spin doctors were in seventh heaven from all the stroking by The Irish Times and RTE TV news.

But Fine Gael spin doctors were even more satisfied by Micheal Martin's silencing of Timmy Dooley.

Yes, Dooley made a mistake by not clearing his tweet with his party leader.

Read more here: Fianna Fáil's Dooley rebuked over his 'bizarre' Brexit 'solo run'

But his tweet only repeated Martin's own Dail warnings, a few months ago, about the dangers of "megaphone diplomacy".

Martin should have supported Dooley's democratic right to query Leo Varadkar's abrasive tone in talking to the UK - and asked some belated questions of his own about the backstop.

For example, even if we wanted to eat humble pie at this late stage, would EU leaders like Macron let us?

Miriam O'Callaghan's chilling post-mortem with John Bruton last Monday made that look doubtful.

Bruton is a big beast. As a former EU ambassador to Washington, he knows how the EU operates. But he sounded subdued, almost like a man in shock.

Pressed by O'Callaghan, he alternated between retreating onto Neale Richmond's rubbery rhetoric and advancing to tell us the hard truth.

Listening, we finally saw the great engine of the EU emerge from the fog of words, and taking up position on our Border to erect its border posts.

Miriam: "Is there no way out of this?"

Bruton: (long silence) "There's no way out of that."

Miriam cuts to the fatal flaw in consensus thinking:

"Were we wrong, therefore, to stick with the backstop from the get-go because, in a sense, we're getting the worst of all worlds?"

Bruton refuses to take responsibility for decisions by "other governments". But surely we should defy the EU if needs be?

We could have saved ourselves all along by accepting the British pledge not to put up physical structures and persuading the EU to let us bin the backstop so that the British could leave with goodwill.

Read more here: 'Winter is coming' - warning of €10m daily Brexit losses

But now it's too late. Frightened of being found out, the media is propping up a terrified transition year Taoiseach whose disgraceful preferred option is a Northern Ireland backstop.

Translated, the Taoiseach hopes that Boris Johnson will betray Northern unionists - with whom we hypocritically claim we want to unite!

In any normal democracy, a prime minister who promised that a backstop would prevent a hard Border, which actually ended in a hard Border, would be called to account by opposition and media.

But we are a 'spiral of silence' society, blinded to reality by the fog of a green fever which will get worse in October when we have to erect EU posts.

The National Consensus cheerleaders will never admit they got it wrong.

They will reach for the nationalist distractor, satirised by Dominic Behan.

I was taught all my life, cruel England to blame...

And to play up my part in the patriot game.

So they will blame it on the Brits, filling the letters page of The Irish Times and the chat shows of RTE with a tribal anger that will bring a renewed Sinn Fein roaring back in Dublin.

They will also try to take it out on the tiny group of critics like me who told the truth. But here's the rub.

Elizabeth Noelle- Neumann says the 'spiral of silence' cannot influence those who either don't fear isolation or who are strong enough to withstand it.

That's me. To Patriot Gamers I say: you got it wrong, take responsibility for your mistakes and stop whining in The Guardian.

Sunday Independent

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