Wednesday 18 September 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'In dangerous times, friends in Westminster and Washington offer much succour'

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Julian Simmonds/Pool via REUTERS
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Julian Simmonds/Pool via REUTERS

Gerard O'Regan

A fevered battle is being waged for the very soul of England. On this side of the Irish Sea we look on as the stakes zoom higher almost by the day. In more morose moments the gnawing fear is that if a certain cabal comes out on top, a dark shadow will hang over Northern Ireland.

History offers a sombre warning from an all-too-recent past. There is a kind of historical symmetry in this latest fight for Westminster supremacy. It comes in the very week that British troops first appeared on Belfast streets 50 years ago.

Yet, despite the current rough and tumble, there is huge hope voices of moderation will win out in the end. The bottom line is that the Boris Johnson juggernaut is not being allowed ride roughshod over those outside what is dubbed the 'Little Englander' fold.

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A rump of Conservative MPs, willing to risk their careers by possibly supporting a no-confidence vote on the Johnson government, are showing raw courage. However, an opposition conglomerate which would also include Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru will be a nightmare to cobble together.

But if fierce rivalries between this unprecedented collective of MPs can be put aside, they will have a parliamentary majority. It will topple Johnson and his inner circle. Can they really come together, for an agreed time span, and install a 'national unity' government?

A key problem is that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn remains such a divisive figure. But should this audacious plan gain momentum, the drive for a hardline Brexit will come to a shuddering halt. The future is dogged with uncertainty. But ousting Johnson from power so soon after his coronation would be a body blow to his credibility. All the while a general election looms closer, with latest polls predicting no clear outcome.

As the drama continues, there is much consolation from an Irish perspective that so many MPs want to scupper Johnson's best-laid plans. The cross-party clarion call against the cavalier approach of the current prime minister - who so flippantly dismisses Irish backstop concerns - is further proof the beating heart of British politics is sound.

Back in 1966, a landmark newspaper investigation, famously headed 'John Bull's political slum', was the first mainstream cross-channel report to highlight discrimination in Northern Ireland. But as per a philosophy of 'hear no evil, see no evil', the Westminster government chose to look the other way. Within two years, the civil rights marches were gathering pace. A 30-year nightmare would follow.

Northern Ireland remains a story of many tragic ifs, buts and might-have-beens.

However, there is a certain safety valve this time round. An awareness of the Irish peace process has spread right across Europe. This is an inevitable fallout from the endless discussions at EU level about the Border in Ireland. Even as far away as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, there is agreement on the need to avoid a dangerous divide on this island.

The backstop and its complicated conundrums have also been heard loud and clear on the other side of the Atlantic. Nancy Pelosi, influential speaker of the House of Representatives, has issued a blunt message to the Boris Johnson cabal. She and other heavyweights in the Democratic Party will oppose a mooted UK-US trade deal should the letter and spirit of the Belfast Agreement be tampered with.

It's all a far cry from doomed attempts by the Dublin government in the 1950s trying to 'internationalise' the Northern Ireland question. The 'Irish News Agency' was created to push the views of the authorities here in foreign media. The whole effort fizzled out as a failure. Back then, British diplomats were so much more adept than their Irish counterparts in winning the transnational propaganda war.

But from an Irish perspective, this time round there are many sound heads and reasonable voices in both Westminster and Washington. In the international diplomatic world, we are now coming out tops in the fight to win friends and influence people.

Despite the ongoing self-centred recklessness of some Brexiteers, we can be thankful for small - and not so small - mercies.

Irish Independent

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