Saturday 21 September 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'The bad karma of the backstop has now come back to haunt us'

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Last week the Irish media led with some shocking news: "Government got it backwards - the backstop has created the hard Border it was supposed to stop."

Naturally, the media did no such thing. Having colluded in the crime, they are now forced to carry on with the cover-up.

The crime was telling us the big lie that the backstop was about creating an invisible Border.

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Luckily, a few journalists, like Dan O'Brien of this parish, are not willing to look away in order to look after Leo & Co.

Last Thursday, Pat Leahy of The Irish Times kept faith with the facts in a story whose headline said it all:

"Ireland will prioritise single market integrity over frictionless Border."

Finally the naked truth. It was never about the Border. It was always about keeping the British in the single market, or failing that, to force Northern Protestants into a constitutional limbo.

From the start, the Government's case for the backstop should have been met with critical scrutiny by Irish politicians, journalists and academics.

Instead, our cowardly Irish intelligentsia deserted their duty of care both to the truth and to the Irish people and became a Twitter mob of tribal cheerleaders.

If they cared about protecting Irish working people they would have pushed the Irish Government to modify the backstop and help Theresa May get the Withdrawal Agreement through the House of Commons.

Instead, they pumped up green fever in an orgy of Brit-bashing and sectarian sneers at the DUP for defending its position.

Even now they try to normalise the abnormal, jeer at unionists or sneer at British parliamentary democracy.

By normalising the abnormal, I mean acting as if no-deal was no big deal.

Last week, Failte Ireland said at least 10,000 jobs would be lost in tourism.

Last Friday, Edgar Morgenroth, Professor of Economics in DCU, played down these figures on Morning Ireland.

Accepting the economy would only grow by 1pc in the event of no deal, the professor said the impact would be severe but: "It's not a catastrophe."

Maybe not if you are in a permanent and pensionable academic post. But if you're a hotelier or barista it could seem like a catastrophe.

The Irish Government could have prevented that catastrophe. All it had to do was tweak the backstop a bit last March.

Since there was no logical reason not to look for a compromise that would protect our people, we can only conclude the Fine Gael Government did not want to lose face.

Far from calling that Government to account, academics and journalists are still flakking away.

Last Monday and Tuesday, RTE's Europe editor, Tony Connelly, told us the EU view of the backstop was increasingly "holistic".

Holistic is a word to strike terror into the heart of any negotiator. Instead of one specific issue we have a spider's web of issues.

Connelly confirmed that for the EU the backstop was now about everything.

"It's not just about infrastructure, it's about society, it's about the all-island economy, it's about North-South cooperation."

Why not throw in the Norman invasion, the plantation of Ulster and the partition of Ireland?

Leo Varadkar went all holistic as well that day.

In fact he said that even if Boris Johnson came up with an invisible Border it would not be enough!

In case you don't believe me, here are his exact dismissive words about a possible range of sensible suggestions on agribusiness tariff solutions floated by Boris Johnson, Jeffrey Donaldson and Nigel Dodds.

"They just manage a border, they facilitate tariffs, they facilitate checks, they facilitate controls."

But what's wrong with that? Listen to Leo again: "But they do it in a way that is invisible and unobtrusive, and that's better than nothing, but it's not the outcome that we want to achieve."

The plain sense of that sentence means that even if Boris Johnson creates an invisible Border, it's still not acceptable because it's not the invisible backstop Border somewhere at the back of the Irish Government's mind.

What does that madness mean? To me, it means Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney don't really want to do a compromise deal.

They want to keep the British in a permanent single market purgatory until we are satisfied with a "holistic" backstop.

Failing that, they want to force the majority of unionists into a Northern Ireland-only backstop.

That is why the Government rejected Nigel Dodds's suggestion of an agribusiness solution.

On The Tonight Show, when Ivan Yates asked him about the idea, Patrick Donovan of Fine Gael dismissed it immediately.

Bad enough that Fine Gael want to impose a nakedly sectarian settlement on the 81pc majority of Northern Protestants who reject the backstop, but it's sad to see some Fianna Fail and Labour spokespersons following them down the same tribal path.

In doing so they are only cravenly following the line laid down by Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson when dismissing Nigel Dodds's calls for talks with Dublin.

She tweeted: "DUP Nigel Dodds is intentionally trying to change the meaning and spirit of the GFA. The principle of consent is NOT the consent of both communities. GFA is clear - 'consent of a majority of the people'."

Anderson's crude reading is a tribal travesty of the Good Friday Agreement.

The GFA set out to deliberately destroy the kind of crude head-counting which is called majoritarianism.

First, the NI Assembly is elected by PR to amplify the minority vote, whereas Westminster elections are first past the post.

Second, the election of the first and deputy first ministers and speaker must be a cross-community vote.

Third, the GFA says only two types of vote are legitimate. One is by a majority voting on the day - but only if that includes a majority of both nationalists and unionists.

The other way is by a "weighted majority" which requires 60pc of those voting - and must include 40pc of unionists and 40pc of nationalists.

From the start the spirit and letter of the GFA was designed again to wean the parties off the majoritarian drug. There has to be power-sharing or direct rule.

A final word about the fulminations of Irish pundits about the alleged collapse of the British constitution.

They say this is a "constitutional crisis". But a crisis is when nobody knows what to do next.

But last week, behind the sound and fury, we saw British parliamentary democracy working perfectly to thwart the plans Boris Johnson.

The British don't need lectures from champions of a constitution written in secret in 1937 by priests and civil servants.

We banned divorce until 1995. We only legislated for abortion last year - nearly 50 years after Roy Jenkins liberalised the UK law.

The great American jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, said a good constitution has "plenty of play in its joints". The House of Commons showed us that in action last week.

Sunday Independent

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