Tuesday 19 March 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'We were isolated in past conflicts - but this time the EU has got our back'

EC President Jean-Claude Juncker pictured alongside Leo Varadkar. AP Photo/Francisco Seco
EC President Jean-Claude Juncker pictured alongside Leo Varadkar. AP Photo/Francisco Seco

Gerard O'Regan

The gloom of a dark night was gathering. It was getting late. Our Taoiseach at the time was in foreboding and pensive mood. In his more morose moments he wondered might the unthinkable happen? Was Northern Ireland tipping towards civil war?

Jack Lynch knew full well that fateful evening a moment of truth was at hand. Ireland, North and south, was swirling in a whirlpool of emotion.

The enormity of what had happened only a few hours earlier in Derry was increasingly stark; it would enter the national consciousness as Bloody Sunday.

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And so he decided to make a phone call. History does not record whether he just might have fortified himself with a tincture of his favourite Powers whiskey beforehand. But State papers do confirm he was decidedly apologetic about disturbing the then British prime minister, Ted Heath, out of office hours.

Heath was well known for his grumpy persona. And, sure enough, the records confirm his irritation with Lynch, despite the gathering storm over the Derry killings a few hours earlier. Heath's condescending and hectoring tone was emblematic of a British approach to Anglo-Irish relations at the time. Subsequently, Margaret Thatcher would also be tempted to lecture our political leaders. But as we watch the ongoing Brexit drama, it is impossible not to contrast the bolstered position of Leo Varadkar with the relative isolation of Jack Lynch almost half-a-century ago. Never was the old truism more apt - there is at least some safety in numbers.

What we have been watching in recent weeks is the economic and political power of the EU at full throttle. The EU, by definition, has to be somewhat dysfunctional. But when it speaks with one voice, it is a force to be reckoned with.

An underestimation of Brussels-centred strength - when the entire bloc is focused on a single objective - is why hardline Brexiteer MPs and their DUP colleagues have come unstuck.

All the while, they presumed Michel Barnier and his cohorts would crack at the eleventh hour. The clock is now about to strike midnight, and there is no sign the Brussels inner sanctum will crumble.

It is especially cheering that a clear majority in the House of Commons has faced down the anti-Europe ideologues in their midst. The evidence suggests Nigel Dodds and his Westminster collective overplayed their hand and backed the wrong horse.

Jacob Rees-Mogg and Co still dream of a psychological border around the UK - while some DUP acolytes wish to re-enforce a divide in Ireland. But that not-to-be-underestimated bedrock of British life, the tolerant middle ground, has scuttled the best-laid plans of hardliners. A groundswell of MPs, operating as per the gold standard of remaining open to the wider world, will ensure there can be no hard Brexit.

And there is repeated evidence we need not fear long-term damage to Anglo-Irish relations, despite the wailing of some of our own doomsayers. Brexit has shown mainstream British and Irish public opinion is at one on the future of Northern Ireland.

Britain will be outside the EU in the future. But there is no reason why Dublin and London cannot build on that 'special relationship' so hardfought for over the years.

The strategy of pursuing the backstop has been vindicated. The inner core of British politics accepts the return of a hard Border in Ireland is not acceptable in any guise. As haunting images of Bloody Sunday were resurrected this week, nobody of reasonable hue wants to put the peace process at risk.

But we cannot but be reminded how Leo Varadkar is operating in a different world compared to Jack Lynch, when dealing with a London government.

Lynch cut a lonely figure, obviously on the back foot, desperately trying to plead his case. In contrast, Varadkar has the fair wind of 26 other governments behind him. Perhaps a square has been circled.

The ghost of a certain ex-Cork hurler, who was our man in the gap when times were desperate and dangerous, might raise a glass of his favoured tipple and whisper quietly: "I'll drink to that."

Irish Independent

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