Sunday 15 September 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'The backstop green jersey must not be a straitjacket'

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Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

The big beasts of the Irish media are all backing Leo Varadkar's backstop strategy.

But, as the British economist Arthur Pigou once observed, what everybody knows is wrong.

First, by the time everybody knows something it's not worth knowing.

Second, any consensus as compulsory as support for the backstop strategy should cause us to stop short and ask: is this true? Joe Kennedy saved his fortune by asking that question. When his shoeshine boy began to play the stock market, he sold out.

Pigou was talking about economists. But his insight also applies to political commentators.

More than any other group, journalists seek shelter in singing from the same hymn sheet.

Not only that, they usually allow a small elite to choose both the music and the lyrics.

That means journalists are more likely than most to be part of "the herd of independent minds".

Hence the pundits most praised by their peers are those who first hunker down behind the sandbags and make sure the situation pans out as they predicted.

My own position is the opposite. I try to challenge the consensus before it becomes a ball and chain on changing minds.

Furthermore, I mostly value journalists who are not afraid to stand alone against a media stampede.

Backing the backstop has been such a stampede. Few pundits had the raw courage to challenge the consensus.

Dan O'Brien of this newspaper group is one of them. He is no cranky contrarian. His responsible reservations rest on his economic training, his political savvy and having worked in Britain.

That is why I shall be using him as a guide rail in challenging the chorus in support of our current position on the backstop.

Last May, he warned that Leo Varadkar may have painted us into a corner last November by looking for and securing a legally binding backstop.

From the start, I shared O'Brien's fears, said so, and suggested alternatives.

Back in 2016, when there was still unionist goodwill, I believe we should have approached the border issue as a political problem to be solved at a local level.

I also believe Bertie Ahern or Enda Kenny would have found a solution by speaking to unionists rather than running to the EU.

Back in 2016, Arlene Foster was adamant about wanting a soft border. But instead of the Taoiseach trying for a local political solution within the island, he repeatedly alienated unionists of all persuasions, refusing to accept they had rational fears based on facts.

Thanks to his green rhetoric and the support of an equally green media, by now 99pc of the Irish people think the DUP is a party of dumb dinosaurs who don't know what's good for us is naturally good for them.

We should beware of wondering why others don't want the things we think they should want - and this also applies to choosing Christmas presents.

Last Thursday, in the Irish Independent, Dan O'Brien spelled out why the backstop posed a real problem, not just for the DUP, but for most unionists.

"This would involve, if the backstop as it now stands was ever used, Northern Ireland leaving the UK's single market and staying in the EU's single market. And he added: "Despite claims to the contrary, this has constitutional implications" (my italics).

O'Brien believes the backstop "would leave the citizens of Northern Ireland disenfranchised - they would be subject to laws made at EU level but without a vote in European Parliament elections and without representation in other EU institutions".

That factual view is now widely shared by even our most moderate unionist neighbours, the kind of decent people who turn up at Aviva Stadium to sing Ireland's Call.

And it cuts no ice with unionists to tell them that staying in a customs union makes economic sense - all political communities are entitled to subordinate economic to political ends, and that is precisely what we did from 1916-22. But my big reservation is whether Leo Varadkar is now acting in the national interest or in a partisan political interest - a question Dan O'Brien raised last May in the Irish Independent.

Presciently looking ahead, to precisely where we find ourselves now, he wondered whether the EU and Irish endgame would see the Taoiseach forced into a loss of political flexibility in finding a pragmatic political solution.

"As such, he may have a greater personal political interest in maintaining the hard line and allowing the talks to collapse, rather than giving ground and taking the best available deal. This is not a good position for a Taoiseach to be in."

Last Thursday, six months later, O'Brien repeated his realpolitik reservations of last May.

"Those who came up with the backstop misread British politics and the British, placing a demand on the table that could end up bringing about what it was designed to prevent."

Last Tuesday, the media missed the fact that the Taoiseach was already reaching for fall-back strategies to avoid blame.

Asked by Micheal Martin about Irish government plans for a hard Brexit, the Dail record shows the Taoiseach barely registering the horror of a British crash-out before reaching for an ESRI report to show we would survive it.

"I thank the deputy. He is correct to say Brexit, particularly a no-deal Brexit, will be damaging for our economy. However, it is worth noting the ESRI projections released this morning..."

Naturally, I understand the political imperatives that force Fianna Fail to wear a green jersey but I don't see why the media have to wear the same green straitjacket.

Right now, most commentators in the Irish media are so heavily invested in Leo Varadkar's high-risk backstop strategy they will be compelled to become his personal cheerleaders to cushion the blow of a hard Brexit.

That means that no matter what happens - soft or hard Brexit - a compliant and compromised Irish media will give Leo Varadkar an honours mark - he's in a win-win situation.

That's bad news for the project that matters most, not Brexit, but peace on our island.

Because while the current green gloating is politically benefiting the Taoiseach, it is also turning up the tribal temperature, north and south, to the long-term benefit of Sinn Fein.

The Irish Times is not lowering the tribal heat by running regular hares on Irish unity.

Last week, Eamonn Mallie told us "some unionists are thinking the unthinkable about living in a united Ireland".

Or maybe some naff nationalists are thinking things they would like unionists to think, as we regress back to the dark days when deep down we knew what was best for unionists.


The late Sean Garland freed a generation of republicans from that delusion. Any faults were redeemed by his ruthless courage in confronting the sectarian threat of the Provisionals whom he memorably accused of having "a slender grasp on reality". He literally laid his life on the line to secure the 1972 ceasefire and so did two states some service.

Sunday Independent

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