Friday 20 September 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'We need to talk more about the backstop before we get hurt too'

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Last January, the playwright Colin Murphy, in an essay about the danger of consensus, quoted George Orwell:

"At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed all right-thinking persons will accept without question. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness."

Backing up the backstop is the biggest national orthodoxy of my lifetime. Ironically, one of the most effective enforcers of the national consensus on the issue is columnist Fintan O'Toole, assistant editor at The Irish Times and winner of the Orwell prize for journalism on Brexit.

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Challenging a consensus shared by almost all commentators - the two exceptions being Dan O'Brien and Peter Cassells - is not for the faint-hearted.

But a few weeks ago, I braced myself to argue that were we wrong to use the backstop to back the British towards a crash exit that might take us with them, and argued that Enda Kenny and Bertie Ahern would have done better than Leo Varadkar.

Just before Christmas in a piece titled, 'The British should know their place on Brexit', Fintan O'Toole togged out for the Taoiseach and the consensus.

At the risk of breaking the Christmas truce on Brexit that Fintan O'Toole refers to, but in the interests of a healthier democratic debate, I propose to take some of his key points, with ample quotes, followed by my comments on them - admittedly a bit anoraky but necessary for fairness.

FO'T: "Before we declare a Christmas truce in the Brexit wars, let's clear away one large piece of debris. In Britain, and even in Ireland, a narrative has taken hold: the Border problem was not a big issue until Leo Varadkar replaced Enda Kenny as Taoiseach in June 2017."

EH: But Varadkar's own biographers state that the hard line was a conscious decision by Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, not a reaction to external necessities.

In their biography, Leo Varadkar: A Very Modern Taoiseach, Philip Ryan and Niall O'Connor say that the policy shifted in July 2017, one month after Kenny was ousted, when Varadkar and Foreign Minister Simon Coveney agreed to "adopt the most hardline stance possible in relation to the Border".

FO'T: "And both sides fully understood that dealing with the Border in the context of the peace process meant one thing above all: no physical infrastructure."

EH: But the Good Friday Agreement says nothing about tariffs and customs along the Border. It is an international treaty which aims to facilitate political cooperation between one sovereign state, and one special region of another sovereign state.

For sure, economic cooperation is one part of a broader political settlement, but it is a subsidiary concern relative to the core constitutional issue.

The logic of O'Toole's implied claim would lead us to believe that NI disintegrated in 1969 because you needed to go through border customs.

But the Provisional IRA campaign was not a protest against customs barriers. In essence it had little to do with the fact of the Border itself. It was a product of what the historian FSL Lyons called "anarchy in the mind and the heart, an anarchy which forbade not just unity of territories, but also 'unity of being'".

The core unionist problem with the backstop is the implied refusal to accept the logic of the declaration the Irish Government made in the Good Friday Agreement.

The GFA marked the formal acceptance that "the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the union and, accordingly, that Northern Ireland's status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish".

This means us accepting that NI is actually part of another country, and it is not for us to tell another sovereign state what to do, not least a neighbour which has spent blood and treasure keeping the peace in NI. But let's move to his next charge against the Brits.

FO'T: "The staggering fact is that even though they knew that the Border was the key to Brexit, they left it out of their Brexit planning."

EH: This omits that fact that Varadkar and Coveney shut down all the preparations that Kenny had authorised. As the Financial Times noted last October, while Kenny was Taoiseach Barnier did actually explore various technological approaches to the Border, including trusted trader schemes systems to minimise regulatory checks at the Border. True, May threw a spanner in the works with the hardline Lancaster House speech in January 2017.

When she announced she wanted the UK to leave both the customs union and the single market, Kenny began to lose faith in technology - but Varadkar dropped the whole thing entirely. The FT quotes one British official: "The shutters came down in Dublin."

Stephen Donnelly, former Brexit spokesman for Fianna Fail, says that relations after that became "more antagonistic". And he added: "The official level antagonism was an instruction from Government to cease engagement with British officials."

In sum, even though the technological approach (which I have always favoured) would have been difficult and complicated, Kenny at least tried and who knows what would have happened later in 2017 after May lost her majority. Kenny's instinct might well have been to try again. But Varadkar refused.

In fairness, can O'Toole criticise the UK for failing to plan for something the Irish side wouldn't even discuss?

FO'T: "So how could any Irish Government of any hue simply take it on trust that the British would keep the commitments they had so freely given?"

EH: There was no basis for thinking the British would double-cross us on the Border after they had given a voluntary pledge to keep the Border open.

As Tony Blair said last week, the need to keep the Border open was one of the stated aims of the British side. They never once hedged on that after the referendum result.

Why would they? They would have to police a hard border, having already bore the brunt of the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland where 1,400 British military personnel died keeping the peace. Why on earth would they want to double-cross us?

FO'T: "If the British either would not or could not come up with credible proposals to deal with what they knew to be the single biggest obstacle to Brexit, there were only two things any Irish Government could do. It could ask for a legally binding assurance. Or it could shut up about its own vital national interests."

EH: Or we could have avoided the backstop. Is keeping the Border with NI free of physical structures really a more vital national interest than maintaining our economic lifeline with our biggest single trading partner, the UK, which is on the verge of staggering into the WTO morass, dragging us with them, and endangering 400,000 jobs and Irish-UK trade worth €65bn a year - compared with the relatively small €1bn in our NI exports?

Heresy? Well, at least it's in the spirit of Orwell.

Sunday Independent

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