Monday 16 September 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Taoiseach should prepare the Irish people for some backstop tweak'

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Just over a month ago, on June 16, this column's headline predicted what has actually come about: "Why Boris Johnson will not back down on the backstop."

This week I'm predicting Leo Varadkar will offer a compromise on the backstop as soon as Boris Johnson shows his hand,

For the sake of my country I hope my latest prediction also comes true.

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Alas, the Taoiseach's media cheerleaders are still in denial, making it difficult for him to do the right thing.

Chief among them are RTE and The Irish Times clutching at straws like the Hilary Benn amendment and EU visits to the Border.

These will turn out to be the latest in a long series of media let-downs, foolish green fantasies of forcing the Brits to stay in the single market, hold a second referendum or, best of all, sell out the unionists.

A cheerleading media began by buying into the big lie of a hard border. But Bertie Ahern, in a podcast with Eamon Dunphy last Thursday, finally admitted that no matter what happened, there would be no physical structures on the Border.

For Enda Kenny, the backstop was merely a technical issue. But Leo Varadkar's loose talk about not abandoning Northern nationalists made it part of the national question.

From then on the backstop became an intrinsic part of the ideology of Irish nationalism which is ending in a UK crash-out, as I repeatedly predicted.

My predictions do not come from looking into a crystal ball, but by using what women call intuition.

My late friend Patricia Redlich believed that 'intuition' was based on women's beady-eyed attention to detail which enabled them to make educated guesses.

That is what I do: make educated estimates; not by bigging up my own side, but by exercising empathy with the other side.

But while The Irish Times made some cosmetic attempts at balance, RTE did not commission even one critical documentary on the dangers of the backstop.

RTE is now reduced to fighting a doomed rearguard action on the backstop for fear of looking foolish if Leo Varadkar does the sensible thing.

This merely makes it more difficult for the Taoiseach to compromise. Conversely, I have been trying to help him off the hook - as this sample of my headlines shows.

"The backstop green jersey must not be a straitjacket" (December 2018); "We must move beyond backstops and talk like good neighbours" (January 20, 2019); "Leo, take the soft backstop road and save our state" (February 3, 2019).

Varadkar's biggest mistake came last March when a tweak would have helped Attorney General Geoffrey Cox coming up to Theresa May's second vote.

But rather than giving May cover to get her Withdrawal Agreement deal across the line, Varadkar told a rushed press briefing there had been no change to the backstop.

Micheal Martin told the Taoiseach it was "a lost opportunity". Actually it was a fatal blunder leading to Varadkar eventually facing Boris Johnson.

At the time I still persisted in trying to persuade the Taoiseach he would not suffer politically if he trimmed the backstop to spare his country from a crash exit.

After all, last March an Ipsos poll still showed a majority of 43pc believed the Government should compromise on the backstop.

But the Taoiseach preferred to put his trust in RTE, where Tony Connelly's reports largely set the tone, and in The Irish Times, where Fintan O'Toole does the same.

Connelly has been silent these past few weeks - perhaps he's on leave - but in a July 10 Irish Times podcast, O'Toole showed no sign of turning.

He liberally used words like "insane", "bonkers" and "idiotic" to describe the British who had the temerity to vote to leave the EU.

At one point he even claimed the Brexiteers didn't care about the backstop.

Pat Leahy attempted a mild mutiny about some sort of compromise being required but O'Toole dismissed it, saying the WA wouldn't be reopened.

But Leahy continued to give the Taoiseach good advice in a second podcast last Wednesday, with Hugh Linehan and James Forsyth of The Spectator.

He agreed with Forsyth that the Taoiseach's caustic comments the previous weekend about the British economy were green grandstanding.

Leahy: "The Government has profited politically in the past from wearing the green jersey. And standing up to the British."

But now? "The Irish Government will be faced with difficult decisions in September/October."

Leahy was emphatic there would have to be compromise down the line.

"Movement will be required from the EU side in some shape or form on the backstop... not a massive concession... but enough to get the deal through."

Like me, Leahy does not believe the Taoiseach would suffer a political backlash. "I'm not convinced a retreat or a partial retreat on the backstop will be a disaster for Leo Varadkar but I'm certain that he thinks it will be."

As Leahy has good lines into Government, I began to wonder if he and the Taoiseach were sharing the same hymn sheet.

I fervently hope so, because only a backstop compromise can save our country from the cruel tariffs following a crash-out.

My spirits rose further when Sean O'Rourke (belatedly) raised the backstop with the Taoiseach last Thursday.

The Taoiseach waffled a bit but still gave himself plenty of wriggle room.

Pat Leahy was pleased. Even before the Taoiseach left RTE he tweeted: "Taoiseach tone on Brexit and backstop a bit more emollient this morning on @Today SOR."

Let's hope Leahy is right. My own view is that the Taoiseach is still reluctant to give up the fantasies fostered by RTE.

During the interview he fell back on the old Department of Foreign Affairs delusion of a Northern Ireland backstop or, more crudely, that Boris Johnson will sell out the unionists - which he won't.

The Taoiseach may also be tempted to fall back on the RTE/Irish Times fantasy that Dominic Grieve will rally the centre Tories to stop Boris crashing out.

Bertie Ahern, ever realistic, in the course of a tour de force review on Eamon Dunphy's The Stand podcast, gave short shrift to the Hail Mary hope of Tory rebels to the rescue.

Ahern said that whatever about Dominic Grieve, most rebel Tories would not risk pushing Boris into a general election.

Summing up, Ahern advised the Taoiseach to hold his compromise cards close to his chest - but accepted he will have to settle for a smaller pot.

Leo Varadkar has two choices. Carry on clutching at straws like RTE, doing a Micawber and hoping something will turn up.

His other choice is to recognise that Pat Leahy is right, that compromise is necessary and inevitable.

That being so, he would do better to go forward generously rather than sullenly drag his heels.

The Taoiseach claims to admire Michael Collins. He should not forget that Collins, always loyal to the facts, came home with a compromise treaty and saved his country.

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