Friday 23 August 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Leo's backstop lab created the monster called Boris Johnson'

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Last week, the backstop began to blow up in Leo Varadkar's face where it politically matters most - in mainstream Irish media.

Five top political journalists - none of whom work for RTE - wondered if we should think about a time-limit compromise to save our country. Dan O'Brien and myself have been doing the same in the Sunday Independent - since last December.

In the past six months, more than half my columns warned that the backstop was backing the British into a corner and would cause a crash-out.

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Like Dr Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's story, Dr Varadkar's backstop has created the Boris Johnson monster who may politically destroy his creator. But our politicians and media were too busy sneering at the suicidal Brits to notice that it was our beloved backstop that was driving them over the cliffs - and that we were shackled to them.

Dan O'Brien and myself should not have been alone in sounding these warnings. The main value of a media is to speak truth to power - especially to the power of consensus.

Luckily for the future of our country, the privately owned print and broadcasting media finally found its voice last week.

In contrast, publicly funded RTE ignored growing concerns about the backstop. Let me prove that by looking back.

Monday. Simon Coveney starts a week of hand-wringing with an Irish Times piece titled: "We only have 115 days to get ready for a no-deal Brexit."

It should really have read: "We only have 115 days to come off our high horse on the backstop."

Coveney finally admits that if there is no deal there is no backstop.

Micheal Lehane, RTE's political correspondent, recycles Coveney's piece, but there is no reflection on the countless contradictions it contains.

Likewise on Sean O'Rourke, Neale Richmond wrings his hands about it all, without O'Rourke once raising the backstop.

Meantime, as RTE lost relevance, private sector radio was starting to probe.

On Newstalk's Hard Shoulder Dan O'Brien told Ivan Yates why we should be thinking about a time-limit.

"If we get to October and it's a choice between time-limiting the backstop or having a no-deal, what's worse?"

His answer? "In my view no deal is infinitely worse because there'll be a border anyway."

Tuesday. Simon Coveney continues his campaign of making our flesh creep about a crash Brexit - while doing nothing to avoid it.

Earlier in a piece in The Irish Times, Harry McGee reminded us that Leo Varadkar once said: "We are not blind to the possibility, however unlikely, that things could go wrong."

As McGee wrote: "Ouch. Unlikely has become likely."

Simon Coveney holds a press conference to make our flesh creep without suggesting the solution staring him in the face - begin talks on time-limiting the backstop.

Starting his round of radio studios he runs into Matt Cooper in ferociously forensic mood.

In what I believe will turn out to be a watershed interview, he fires hard questions at Coveney.

Cooper: "Hasn't the backstop backfired?

"Is it time to relax the backstop to ensure that does not happen - a hard border and a disaster no-deal Brexit?"

Coveney blames the Brits - as if that somehow solved our problem.

Like a child clinging to what was carelessly promised to them a year ago, he tells Cooper that Brexit was a "British problem, British created" and that it's not Ireland's duty to get them out of it.

But surely, Minister Coveney, it's our duty to get us out of it.

Cooper tries vainly to give him a reality check. He tries to remind Coveney that standing by the backstop will create an annual hole of €6bn in the public finances and that at least 50,000 jobs will be lost.

Coveney's response reveals he has left the real world of politics for fantasy: "What you're saying to me is that I should change the Irish position on the back of a threat and I won't do that."

Cooper reminds him it's not a threat but a reality: "What about changing position on the back of the reality you face?

In response, Coveney stamps his rhetorical foot like a petulant child.

"It will be a British choice if they chose a no-deal Brexit, not an Irish one."

Great debating point Simon. So we just let them crash out - even though we could prevent it?

Glad to get out of Cooper's clutches, Coveney seeks sanctuary on RTE's Six One News. He finds it. Ray Kennedy, for whom I normally have a lot of time, never raises the backstop.

Later, on The Tonight Show, when Cooper presses him on the backstop, Michael McGrath of Fianna Fail throws Leo Varadkar a lifeline.

McGrath should study Timmy Dooley's masterclass on not doing the same, given on Sean O'Rourke on Friday.

Wednesday: Pat Leahy, in a powerful piece in The Irish Times, puts the backstop strategy into perspective.

He starts with: "The Government has relished wearing the green jersey on Brexit and standing up to the British with the help of the EU."

But he finishes with this question: "After all, isn't the possibility of Border checks in a few years' time better than the certainty of checks on October 31st?"

Leahy's piece was plainly titled: "Reality intrudes on the Government's Brexit game plan."

But over on RTE no such reality was intruding on Morning Ireland.

Maggie Doyle, who clearly could not have read Leahy's crucial piece, let Helen McEntee waffle for a wearisome 10 minutes with not a single solitary word about the backstop.

Did even one RTE reporter show a bit of backbone by bringing up the backstop last week?

Yes, Sharon Ni Bheolain did, two days running, reporting on Leaders' Questions. On Wednesday she tried to pin down Fergus O'Dowd. She got no help from Conor McMorrow of RTE's political staff.

On Thursday, she again raised the backstop with Fiach Kelly of The Irish Times, noting that his own colleagues were now asking questions.

Kelly floddled, passing up the chance to support colleague Stephen Collins, who that morning suggested compromise was on the cards.

Looking back at last week, Sharon Ni Bheolain was the only RTE reporter who actively tried to honour the national broadcaster's obligations to observe balance, impartiality, objectivity and fairness.

Why did RTE not debate the backstop like Newstalk and Virgin Media did?

Why should we pay a larger licence fee to RTE given its lazy-arse refusal to ask awkward questions?


Matt Cooper also had the last word on the late Noel Whelan.

He felt Noel's generosity was his greatest virtue, and I could not agree more. Noel had none of the petty begrudgery that is the bane of Irish media life.

Like Michael Collins, he was loyal to the facts no matter where they led, and believed robust debate was the basis of democracy. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.

Sunday Independent

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