Monday 21 October 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Simon Coveney is leading a charge of the Backstop Light Brigade'

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Politically, I'm a hedgehog, not a fox. The only issue which finally matters to me is whether we can share this island with our Northern Protestant neighbours.

Last week proved the answer is no. So deep is our demonisation of the Democratic Unionist Party that we could not see they had made a massive concession to help sweeten the first half of Boris Johnson's offer.

The DUP agreed to stay in the single market for four years. Common sense says that if the arrangement worked - as it would - their own supporters would not let them disturb it.

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The second half of Johnson's offer was a brilliant fudge that solved the main problem - there would be no physical checks on the actual Irish Border.

A grown-up Government would have immediately nailed down Boris Johnson's offer, getting the bit more that was definitely there, and helping him to get it through the House of Commons.

But in rugby terms, instead of taking responsibility, holding possession, and heading for the white line, Coveney and Varadkar, with a toxic mix of macho bluster and moral cowardice, gave the ball a wild Hail Mary punt ahead hoping Boris would betray the unionists.

But deep down they must know that what happens now runs on iron rails towards no deal.

The Benn Act means Boris Johnson will have to seek an extension. After that he will fight a general election under the bloody banner of no deal.

We all have our London sources. Mine tell me our sour rejection of Boris's brilliant fudge has put Dom Cummings firmly in control.

Accordingly, I believe Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar's rejection of Boris Johnson's brilliantly fudged alternative to the backstop is a fatal, epic error that will end in economic misery for the Irish people

Simon Coveney comes first because I believe he is leading Leo Varadkar by the nose, with the long-term aim of leading Fine Gael by the nose, starring as the nationalist who stood up to the Brits on the backstop.

Apart from vaunting ambition, both men suffer from personal and political flaws well known to the ancient Greeks.

Simon Coveney suffers from hubris, that is from excessive egoism and self confidence, arising from his class background.

Leo Varadkar suffers from akrasia, a weakness of the will that causes a person to act against their better judgement.

Last week these two fatal flaws were fully on display as both men dismissed any fudging of the backstop.

But the Good Friday Agreement was built on fudge. Leo Varadkar would have struggled to negotiate it, but Simon Coveney could not have coped at all.

Coveney can't bear compromise. Can't bear to back down. Can bear to get anything less than the full backstop.

Last week's useful leak allowed him to dismiss the bones of Boris Johnson's offer before he'd read it.

His subsequent hard-line statements, particularly on Sean O'Rourke last Friday, reinforced my belief that Coveney does not want a negotiation of the backstop; he wants a win.

He won't get it. But we will pay a high price for his hard-line hubris and his high principles.

Lest you think I am crying wolf about the wasteland ahead, let me remind you of my record. Last June I made three predictions that came true.

I predicted Boris Johnson would become prime minister, that he would not betray the majority of unionists, and that he would win the next British general election. Now I want to make a fourth firm prediction: Unless the Irish Government helps Johnson get that deal through parliament in the next week we will eventually end up in economic hell.

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Let me turn with relief to Minister Joe McHugh whose moral courage contrasts with the moral cowardice of his more senior colleagues.

Politely rejecting the advice of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the minister will make history a compulsory subject in the Junior Cert cycle - a call for which first came from Micheal Martin.

I believe the minister's decision will make for a more mature democracy and could well save lives.

History teaches teenagers to read newspapers critically and introduces them to the big political debates which will dominate their adult lives.

History also warns teenagers against populist political charlatans who appeal to a perfect past where even Magdalene Laundries can be blamed on the ever-evil Brits.

Finally, by introducing teenagers to a more complex past, it offers a kind of accelerated adolescence. Or at least it did for me.

Minister McHugh was right to listen to the NCCA but also right not to let them have the last word.

That's just as well because that body should long ago have removed compulsory mathematics.

That's unheard of in the UK where the system just teaches basic numeracy and leaves it at that.

If maths is compulsory, then history should be too, as it's a more important skill than trigonometry.

Having welcomed the minister's decision, I believe he should beware being too beholden to the current crop of green media academics.

What we don't need is a crop of Shinner history teachers running classroom versions of The Brigade.

What we do need are programmes like BBC's Spotlight on the Troubles.

David Nally, managing editor, RTE Current Affairs, made a big deal of showing No Stone Unturned about the Loughinisland Massacre.

This documentary caused no problem for nationalist viewers, but some of its charges have been robustly rejected in a series of articles in the Belfast Newsletter.

But neither Nally nor RTE have ever commissioned a series comparable to Spotlight, telling the story of southern pluralist resistance to the IRA: the mass marches after Warrington and the saga of the Peace Train.

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Posy, our West Highland terrier, star of the Baltimore saga that gained her the affection of many readers, died last week at 18 years.

About eight years ago, we adopted Dolly, a pretty bichon frise, to act as Posy's lady companion.

The contrast was striking.

Posy was a handsome West Highland terrier of dignified twin-set and pearl Presbyterian stock, slow to make a friend, slow to make an enemy, loyal to the last.

Dealing with her always reminded me of my dealings with decent but reserved Northern unionists.

Dolly was different. A lapsed Roman Catholic, she has the flashy brains of her French ancestry, the political skills of Northern nationalists, and many weak English admirers.

In spite of their surface differences they learned to put up with each other, rather than love each other. At least that is what we thought until Posy died.

Since then, Dolly has been depressed, standing guard just inside the front door, gazing out, hoping to hear the lusty bark of Posy coming home.

We think we would get on fine without the Posy Protestants of Northern Ireland. But it would be a lonelier island and we would be a lesser people. Trust me: you only miss them when they're gone.

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