Sunday 24 March 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Why Leo's poor poll ratings are linked to his backstop line'

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Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

To know the true mind of Middle Ireland, take a budget week's break in Morocco.

Like me, most people in my hotel were what George Orwell might call upper-lower-middle class, people who made their way by merit and hard work.

Around the pool, I pressed the freckled flesh (not literally, but close enough to smell the suntan lotion) of provincial Middle Ireland - and found out what they felt about Leo Varadkar.

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First, they liked Leo waving the green flag for a while, but now wish he would stop waving it as crudely as the characters who drape the Tricolour around their shoulders with beer bottles in their hands.

Second, they wish he would stop banging on about the backstop and compromise so that Theresa May could get a deal and we could be civil to our Irish neighbours again.

Last week's Irish Times poll, where 43pc said the Government should compromise on the backstop, confirmed the accuracy of my soundings round the Argana Hotel.

Finally, like the 62pc of southern voters in the same poll, my poolsiders would vote for a united Ireland in a referendum - but not for real. Not if it came with a bill for €9bn to keep the Nordies in the comfort they currently enjoy.

And if a united Ireland also involved paying for security to keep sullen loyalists from carrying on low-level terrorism and feuds with IRA factions? Are you mad?

This confirms the truth of a satirical poll question I came up with years ago, viz.

Q. Would you like a Mars bar. A. Yes, please.

Q. Would you like a Mars bar costing €9bn, laced with loyalist/IRA arsenic? A. Are you completely mad?

But it was the NI poll which proved that those polled in the Republic were doing a Leo, waving a rhetorical green flag

In NI, only 32pc would vote in favour of unity, with 45pc against. Some 18pc of Catholic nationalists want to remain in the UK.

In sum there is a lack of real bite behind the bluster about a united Ireland.

In spite of this, Leo Varadkar continues to believe the best policy is to plant a green flag over the backstop.

So why do his ratings keep dropping? Yes, I know there is a perceived cold persona. But then he was always like that. In fact, it was his corporate coolness that appealed to the suited and booted in Fine Gael.

What none of his advisers in Fine Gael have figured out is that far from his green flag being the solution to his ratings problem, it is the cause of it.

Long ago, I laid down two iron laws for aspiring Irish political leaders which the distinguished political academic Tom Garvin felt had some merit.

The first law says that most Irish people were "dumb revisionists", not meaning they were stupid revisionists but silent ones; secretly not as anti-English as they pretended to be.

The second law said that, while sounding off about the Brits in public, Irish people issued a secret fatwa on political leaders who were too crudely anti-unionist or anti-British.

In proof of these two laws, I would cite the popularity of Sean Lemass, Jack Lynch, Garret FitzGerald, Bertie Ahern, and notably, Micheal Martin.

All these leaders robustly rejected Sinn Fein's narrow definition of republicanism.

Conversely, Charles Haughey's mayfly burst of popularity was proof that the Irish people are also prone to brief - repeat brief - bouts of nationalist hysteria.

Leo Varadkar, as soon as he became leader of Fine Gael, started to wave the green flag. A gormless new generation in Fine Gael did not seem bothered that his slippery rhetoric echoed that of Sinn Fein.

But you don't have to take my word for that. A few weeks ago, Dan O'Brien, writing in these pages, noted the following shifts in Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael:

"One intriguing development is the decline in opposition to the idea of coalition with Sinn Fein in Fine Gael... By contrast, the chances of a Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein coalition may have dimmed."

Where Micheal Martin has continually called for dialogue rather than denunciation, Leo Varadkar still believes that tapping the tribal drum will make him Taoiseach. Reporting the launch of Mark Durkan's campaign, Fiach Kelly of The Irish Times dubbed him "Leo the Green".

Kelly said the most interesting aspect was not Durkan's candidacy, "but the fact that Varadkar cast it as a furthering of his December 2017 promise to Northern nationalists that no Irish government would ever leave them behind".

According to Kelly, one Fine Gael source, speaking of Varadkar's pledge to Northern nationalists, said: "Plenty of votes in that."

Not so. There are no long-term ratings or votes in waving the green flag. In fact the opposite is true.

Because he has a longer memory, Micheal Martin knows that Decent Ireland gets nervous when Varadkar bangs the tribal drum as loudly as Haughey ever did.

Martin has cleverly used the backstop to conduct a coded struggle with Varadkar and to present himself, not as a narrow nationalist, but as pluralist republican in the Lemass and Lynch tradition.

That is why at the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis, Martin renewed his attacks on Varadkar's decision, in December 2017, to present the backstop as a victory, making it a constitutional issue for all unionists, not just the DUP, and thus solutions more difficult.

Lisa Chambers, his able lieutenant, at a meeting in Galway after the Ard Fheis, was equally blunt in her criticism of Varadkar's "victory" speech: "It turned the issue of the backstop into a toxic issue we really haven't recovered from."

Last Tuesday, Mary Lou McDonald - also in plenty of trouble at the polls - tried hammily to flush out Martin on the backstop:

"I am assuming he was not suggesting or encouraging that the Government might resile from the content of the backstop. If he was, I want to pour cold water on it."

If Martin was suggesting such a thing he was in tune with the majority of the Irish people. Two days later The Irish Times poll showed a majority favoured a backstop compromise.

Last Tuesday, too, misreading the mood of the Irish people, McDonald lectured Leo Varadkar on staying loyal to their shared hard line on the backstop.

"It is essential at this juncture that the Government does not blink and that it is not distracted or unnerved on any level."

Fat chance. Sooner or later he'll have to get the backstop off his desk.

Meantime, Micheal Martin recently explained real republicanism in his reply to Aine Lawlor on The Week in Politics.

Aine Lawlor: "And where's the republican leader in you when you focus all your criticism on them [SF] predominantly and not on the DUP?"

Micheal Martin [in disbelief]: "Are you suggesting that Sinn Fein is somehow the embodiment of republicanism? To me Sinn Fein is the embodiment, the personification of sectarianism for far too long. My republicanism is the Wolfe Tone republicanism of uniting Catholic, Protestant and dissenter. I'd add others now because we have a much more diverse society in the North and elsewhere. The Good Friday Agreement represented a triumph of democratic constitutional republicanism."

Sunday Independent

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