Monday 14 October 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Why Boris Johnson will not back down on the backstop'

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Last week in The Irish Times, Fiach Kelly said the FG strategy for the next election is Brexit and financial prudence.

The first gave me a fright, the second gave me a grim laugh. Let me begin with Brexit, which of course, means the backstop.

The economist Keynes famously said when the facts changed, he changed. That is not true of Leo Varadkar

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I believe the Taoiseach is a Pied Piper leading us to disaster by not budging on the backstop - even though the facts have changed.

You might justify hanging tough when weak Theresa May was prime minister - but it makes no sense with Boris Johnson in the job.

A few weeks ago, with no qualification, I predicted flatly that Boris Johnson would be the next British prime minister.

Now I predict flatly that Johnson will crash Britain out of Europe rather than retreat on the backstop.

Boris Johnson doesn't believe in much. But he does believe he is destined to do a Churchill.

He sees himself and Trump as Churchill saw himself and Roosevelt - incarnations of the Atlantic alliance.

Charles Moore, his former editor, spelled out in The Spectator Johnson's two core positions. First, deliver the democratic will of the British people on Brexit.

Second, to resist "a permanent Northern Irish backstop and thus a change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without consent".

Faced for the first time with a British leader with nothing to lose (especially not a general election, according to the polls), Leo Varadkar should save his country by time-limiting the backstop.

But rather than lose face, he seems to be freezing like a rabbit caught in the headlights of history.

He is being enabled by an Irish media so deeply embedded in the backstop that they cannot see the tank is about to be hit and they will perish in the fire of public opinion.

Because, of course, when Boris Johnson opts for no deal, and our economy faces destruction, the public will blame Boris - for about two minutes.

Then the post-mortem will begin. But the corpse will be that of the Fine Gael party and a craven media.

Far from treating the Tory leadership contest seriously, one Irish Times piece called three candidates "the opium user, the buffoon and the swivel-eyed loon".

You can be sure the paper would not apply these abusive adjectives to the swivel-eyed loons who lead Iran and Venezuela.

The extent of how deeply embedded RTE is was revealed when Jeffrey Donaldson came down to Dublin last Thursday to a sour RTE reception for his moving appeal for dialogue on the backstop.

He recalled how Sean Lemass never hid behind outside bodies when dealing with the Border.

"Leo Varadkar is the first Irish Taoiseach to subcontract Northern Ireland policy to the EU Commission, instead of emulating Sean Lemass, who tried to settle the Border issue, not by bringing outsiders in to lean on unionists but by means of tri-lateral talks between Belfast, Dublin and London."

Recalling the literally cold reception Lemass got from Ian Paisley, he added: "And the snowballs Ian Paisley threw at the time would melt in later years and reveal them not that far apart as the principle of consent became the bridge that brought our two traditions to a meeting point."

He made it clear that the backstop was both a boulder on the back of mainstream unionism and a blockage to good relations on the island.

"If we are to lay a foundation which the next generation, both North and South, can build upon, then we must recognise before it is too late that there is a seismic problem with the backstop."

RTE News made no attempt to address Donaldson's case on the backstop, dismissing it simply because he'd said it before! But not heard.

But as ever The Tonight Show team on Virgin Media were on the ball. Sebastian Hamilton, the English editor of the Irish Daily Mail, tried to warn us of how well Boris Johnson's Churchillian line would go down in the UK.

But when Ciara Kelly pressed Neale Richmond, the FG Brexit spokesperson, he called the backstop a "red herring".

Revealing that FG has lost all touch with reality in reading British politics, he claimed a compromise on the backstop would mean more demands from the British!

Really? What demands? What planet is he on?

Matt Cooper, channelling Keynes, wanted to know why we hadn't changed when the facts had?

Richmond, increasingly dry-mouthed, somewhat wildly concluded by saying that the Conservatives "do not know what they want!" Alas for us they do now.

Let me now turn to the second plank of Fine Gael's election strategy according to Fiach Kelly - financial prudence.

But that ship has sailed and sank, according to the Fiscal Advisory Council which rapped the Government hard for financial imprudence.

This blow was only the latest in a long convoy of crashes: the National Children's Hospital, National Broadband Plan, health overspends, the grandiose spin exercise that was the launch of the National Development Plan 2040.

Tonight ran a revealing clip from the Dail where a dry-mouthed (increasingly a Fine Gael oral problem?) Leo Varadkar showed he was feeling the pressure from the FAC report.

Pat Leahy earlier in the week suggested, without much conviction, that FG might "pick some fights on public spending" and attack FF's fiscal record.

But surely Enda Kenny had tried that tack at the last general election in 2016 and found out the public had forgiven Fianna Fail and wanted to move on?

Still Fine Gael sent young Peter Burke into the breach on Morning Ireland in a botched RTE attempt to ambush FF's heavyweight spokesperson on Finance, Michael McGrath, who it seemed was led to believe he was there on his own. But he coped.

Rachael English asked Burke if FG would take seriously the rap from the Fiscal Advisory Council?

But Burke went straight for Fianna Fail's record: "These are the type of discussions that were suppressed when Fianna Fail was in government."

Rachael English reminded him this was about the Fiscal Advisory Council report not a "spat between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael".

McGrath, composed as ever, coolly hung a lantern on Fine Gael's strategy.

"He [Burke] was clearly sent on as an attack dog this morning and instead of dealing with the substance of the criticisms that have come from the independent watchdog, he decides to come on and attack Fianna Fail and that's the Fine Gael tactic and we'll deal with that."

Rachael English asked McGrath whether this is just "a manufactured debate" between FG and FF?

McGrath responded reasonably by pointing out "that's what RTE has created in the way that you have structured the debate".

Indeed. Just as RTE has structured the backstop debate to hide the fact that Leo Varadkar, enabled by an Irish media totally out of touch with British public opinion, and tribally indifferent to mainstream unionist fears, is leading our people towards a dark cave rather than lose face.

Sunday Independent

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