Tuesday 21 May 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'The Taoiseach has used the green jersey to gag Fianna Fail'

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Last Monday, I sat in the Dail chamber listening to the largely mediocre centenary speeches - President Higgins's the sole exception - and reflected on Leo Varadkar's version of the fable of how to boil a frog.

Drop a frog into boiling water and it will jump out. Begin with cold water and the frog will hardly notice the slow rise in temperature until it's too late.

Leo Varadkar has been boiling the Fianna Fail frog on his backstop burner for months and by now it can't even manage a croak.

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Fianna Fail is not alone of course. The rest of the Opposition also gladly donned the green jersey offered by Leo Varadkar thinking it would magically avoid a hard border.

On Fianna Fail, as the largest opposition party, fell the primary duty of probing the backstop. But by last Friday it was too lulled to notice that the Taoiseach was suddenly turning up the heat.

Last weekend Shane Ross was still being beaten up for mentioning a hard border. But by Friday, Leo Varadkar was brazenly flaunting a hard border in Fianna Fail's face as if he had no responsibility for it.

Why? Because last Tuesday, the Taoiseach found himself briefing a compliant Opposition, which he had gagged with their own green jerseys.

Fianna Fail and Labour should have challenged the Taoiseach on the fundamental flaw in his backstop strategy as follows:

How could he back Theresa May's withdrawal deal and still insist on a backstop which makes that deal impossible to deliver?

But led by Fianna Fail the Opposition filed out like sheep, consoling themselves they were being patriotic, when actually they were dodging their democratic duty to act with good authority.

This emboldened the Taoiseach to brazenly evade any blame for a hard border while making increasingly inflammatory statements - one which seemed to link the Derry bomb and Brexit was only reported in the Irish Examiner.

At least Professor Deirdre Heenan (who is a member of our Council of State) backed away from a sloppy tweet to Theresa May where she also seemed to conflate the bomb with progress on Brexit.

But not Leo Varadkar who seems happy to deal in what Lenin dubbed "excitative terror" - ie, making wild statements that whip up populist emotions.

To be fair, Sinn Fein spokesperson Matt Carthy had earlier avoided blaming the Derry bomb on Brexit and Mary Lou McDonald criticised the Taoiseach's Davos remarks about soldiers on the border.

But mostly the media has been marginally braver than the Opposition. Hard questions have been asked by Dan O'Brien and Kevin Doyle of this parish, and repeatedly in this column.

Even The Irish Times, which far too often acts as the Taoiseach's Praetorian Guard, has raised awkward questions - or at least its political editor Pat Leahy has done so.

Last Saturday week, Leahy probed the lack of challenge to the backstop strategy in a piece subtitled: 'A device that was meant to facilitate progress has instead become a barrier.'

Leahy pointed out that "within the political and administrative apparatus, any questioning of the strategy is expressed only in hushed tones".

He also quoted a Leinster House observer: "How is it a negotiating triumph if it presents the other party with something they cannot agree to?"

Fianna Fail's failure to call out the Taoiseach on the backstop contrasts with Micheal Martin's earlier courageous challenges to tribal rhetoric.

But months of being boiled in a green jersey seems to have blinded Fianna Fail to the increasing brazenness of the Taoiseach's efforts to avoid any blame.

This has helped hide the fact that while the backstop is a Fine Gael Government's baby, the entire Opposition has been roped in to act as babysitters.

Fianna Fail and the Opposition have been babysitting that Rosemary's Baby for so long they seem blind to their role as pawn in the Taoiseach's brilliant politics of blame evasion.

Behind the briefings, this is the subtext of what the Taoiseach is telling them:

"This is a win-win for me. If my green gamble pays off, I'll get all the credit. If it blows up, you all share the blame."

Instead of insisting the Government investigate alternatives to the backstop, Fianna Fail took refuge in two distractors.

The first distractor was the protracted talks on a FF-SDLP merger which was only laid to rest a few days ago - to the secret relief of many Fianna Fail supporters in Middle Ireland.

The second distractor came last week when Niall Collins moved a Bill originating in the Seanad, to boycott products from West Bank settlements.

Admittedly all parties in Opposition are prone to taking trendy stands in the hope of looking hip, but this was one of the worst I can remember for three reasons.

First, it singles out Israel as if it were the only state guilty of illegal occupations. But as an Irish Examiner editorial explained, picking on Israel risked making us look anti-semitic because it ignored other offenders such as Russia and Turkey.

Second, such a boycott cannot be confined to West Bank settlements and thus risks a backlash from American multinationals in Ireland with Israeli links.

Finally, it puts Niall Collins in bed with the kind of Trots that he normally despises - and already he is making Trotty noises and being sniffy about America.

Asked about the danger to Irish jobs, he said that the United States cannot be given "a free pass on everything simply because it provides us with jobs".

Last Monday I was glad to escape from politics to history and listen to President Higgins's call for courage in facing the challenge of the centenaries, "lest we be tempted to avert our gaze, take refuge in evasion, or seek to ignore the difficult questions they shall raise for us all".

Next day, in Dun Laoghaire Library, I heard the legendary history lecturer Michael Doran rise to that challenge in an tour de force talk on 1919.

Speaking without notes, Doran held the rapt attention of a packed auditorium, aided by a few slides. The most moving was a letter from Christy McDonnell, son of Constable McDonnell, killed at Soloheadbeg.

Last Wednesday in the Irish Independent, Joe O'Toole recalled the views of Mairtin McCormack, journalist son of Paddy McCormack, one of the IRA attacking party.

"Ten years ago Mairtin argued trenchantly that the two RIC men who died in the ambush should also be remembered at the commemoration."

Martin Mansergh replied to O'Toole next day, assuring him the RIC men's names had been added to the memorial.

This reminds me that on February 26, 2006, I took Mansergh to task for the following remarks on RTE.

"Relatives of the policemen do come from time to time to the commemoration, and honourable mention is made of them. I have no problem with that. But there is no suggestion that the people who were taking part in the struggle be put on the same level with those who, in my father's words, had the melancholy fate of falling on the wrong side of history."

Good to see he seems to have changed his mind.

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