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Eoghan Harris: 'Taoiseach must take risks on backstop to save economy'


Cartoon by Jim Cogan

Cartoon by Jim Cogan

Cartoon by Jim Cogan

Leo Varadkar has come to a cross-roads in his political career and must make a choice: does he look good or do good?

Doing good means going with a compromise to replace the backstop, which is closer than is being admitted despite the gloom exuded by Simon Coveney.

I believe Leo Varadkar wants to broker a deal - which basically boils down to a deal the DUP can live with - but is being trammelled by two factors, both of his own making.

First, Simon Coveney, whom he made Minister for Foreign Affairs, is still clinging to the backstop and still doesn't understand why unionists have a problem.

Last Friday he told the Today programme that "some" unionists don't like the backstop but just need to be reassured.

Coveney must know it's not "some" unionists, but 81pc of unionists.

A senior DUP politician emailed me this comment: "That's like saying a united Ireland is good for unionists - they are just in denial."

The second problem the Taoiseach created is a media caucus that cannot bear to contemplate an alternative to the backstop they've promoted for the past three years.

But what should weigh more heavily with him than Coveney's carping or a sullen media is the desperate need of the Irish people not to be plunged into poverty for the sake of a backstop that will inevitably end with the EU erecting Border posts.

In sum, to deliver a deal Leo Varadkar has to dismantle the delusions he helped to create by sacralising the backstop.

Let me help him to do so by making the following three points.

First, there is no chance that the UK or the unionists can live with the backstop which would leave both of them in limbo.

As John Bruton conceded on Today with Miriam a month ago, the EU-Irish backstop attempts to "carve out" Northern Ireland from the UK to manage Brexit.

Second, Boris Johnson will not betray the unionists by imposing the backstop on the majority of unionists as it would seriously unsettle Northern Ireland.

Third, the backstop case is built on fake facts such as bigging up our tiny cross-Border trade and playing down our massive cross-channel trade.

Dan O'Brien made that clear on Eamon Dunphy's increasingly unmissable podcast, The Stand.

"There is very little all-island economy. Between 1998 and now there has been almost no growth in cross-Border trade."

O'Brien added: "It's tiny. It's actually gone from 2.7pc of our goods trade to just 1.5pc. 1.5pc of our goods trade goes North-South."

This contrasts with our huge British and overseas trade which accounts for 98.5pc of our business.

These three truths lie behind the Irish Examiner's recent ICMSA poll where half of farmers favoured a backstop compromise.

The farmers will be followed by the rest of the country as soon as the reality of a UK no-deal begins to bite into our standard of living - while we watch the EU put a hard Border in place.

In short, Leo Varadkar has a lot more to lose by standing by the backstop than he has to lose by accepting an alternative that avoids Armageddon.

The public will not forgive Fine Gael if it plunges us into recession by refusing to back away from the backstop. But the same also applies to Fianna Fail.

Micheal Martin knows that Fianna Fail would be committing political suicide if it tried to make political capital out of a Michael Collins-type compromise that saved our country.

That is why he spent last week sending up positive signals about a deal and avoiding the word backstop.

Martin knows that a deal needs the assent of unionists, hence his careful coinage "a Northern Ireland- specific solution".

From now on, the bottom line is as follows. Politicians and pundits more interested in saving our economy than saving face will promote a compromise and talk civilly to the British and the DUP.

Conversely, pundits and politicians who are invested in the backstop will go on carping about the DUP.

Here is a small sample of how this division played out on media last week.

SUNDAY: On The Week in Politics, the panel members were in emollient, constructive and positive mode.

But Aine Lawlor kept her critical focus on the DUP, asking: "Are the DUP offering too little too late?"

To his credit, Charlie McConalogue for Fianna Fail rejected the bait and said he "welcomed the language coming from the DUP".

Again Lawlor would not let it go: "Are they conceding too little in time to get a deal by October 31, or do you think Boris is going to dump them?"

Later we got a more positive vibe from Marian Finucane who encouraged Olivia Buckley, former spokesperson for Bertie Ahern, to cogently explain why the DUP were also running big risks

Buckley: "So when the DUP is trying to find a way forward, it's still looking at where that emotion and sentiment is within their own community."

Finucane: "And identity."

Words matter. Any DUP leaders listening to Finucane's show - and they do - would feel less bullied by the Republic, more ready to run risks in doing a deal.

Later still, on This Week, Reverend Chris Hudson, who works with loyalists, pointed out they were far less concerned about Brexit than by Sinn Fein pressure for Border polls.

MONDAY: The fiscal and economic lunacy of a Border poll that ended in a united Ireland was laid bare by Prof John FitzGerald and Prof Edgar Morgenroth.

Their report, The Northern Ireland Economy: Problems and Prospects, spelled out what a united Ireland would cost us.

If the €11bn subvention to Northern Ireland from the UK was removed, we would have to fork out €30bn and accept a 15pc drop in our standard of living.

Later, Tony Connelly on RTE News, referring to the antics of Luxembourg's prime minister Xavier Bettel, told us his message was delivered "very passionately".

Actually, it both damaged the mood music of those trying to do a deal and predictably boosted Boris Johnson's poll ratings.

TUESDAY: The Irish Examiner's headline read: "Farmers support compromise on backstop".

This finding was buried by the rest of the media. Why? Are the pundits so deeply invested in the backstop they don't want to hear about compromise?

On The Tonight Show, Micheal Martin was positive about the prospect of a deal by the end of October: "A lot depends on European attitude as well, which I think has to be receptive and responsive."

THURSDAY: Bobby McDonagh, former Irish ambassador to the UK, tells The Irish Times the backstop is "supported by a large majority in Northern Ireland".

In fact, 60pc is not a large majority - and this is his second piece in recent weeks that never mentions unionists.

FRIDAY: Peter Foster of the Daily Telegraph, referring to the backstop, tweets it would be "political suicide" for any taoiseach to accept the "repartitioning of Ireland".

Wrong twice. Ireland is still partitioned. And it would be political suicide for any Irish taoiseach to turn down any solution that protects the Irish people.

Sunday Independent