Sunday 15 September 2019

Gerry O'Regan: 'We can't read Johnson's mind, we can only hope backstop bluster is a bluff'

Boris Johnson. Photo: PA
Boris Johnson. Photo: PA

Gerry O'Regan

We have no option but to remember the enduring relevance of the old truism: Everybody has a public life, a private life, and a secret life.

In the case of Boris Johnson, the first two have been fairly well recounted. But as to what goes on inside his head, how can any of us know?

What he really intends to do this summer on Brexit - or on the backstop and related matters - only he can say. Is he privately wrought with indecision?

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That cultivated persona of bluster may well mask inner demons and doubts.

In the meantime, outward hardchaw brinkmanship is the order of the day.

If we are to believe what Johnson, and his band of hardliners, keep telling us, we should be in Titanic mode. He will risk countless jobs and livelihoods across the UK so that he and his cabal can bow at the altar of Brexit. This country, and others across the EU, will be ensnared in a whirlpool not of their making.

Two central questions dominate all others. Is he bluffing? Will he get his way?

The first is unanswerable by anybody other than himself. The second holds the key to what may, or may not, happen between now and his October 31 exit deadline.

Johnson's working majority in the Commons - wafer thin already - is likely to fall to two in a matter of weeks.

That is a near-impossible scenario given the current volatility around Westminister.

Hemmed in on all sides, the temptation to call a general election could be overwhelming. Yet on that front there are no certainties for the new prime minister, despite the ragged nature of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. Nigel Farage and his Brexit movement have queered the pitch, while the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a new lease of life.

As the political temperature soared, in tandem with Europe's weather, the EU's Brexit ringmaster, Michel Barnier, chimed in unison with the Taoiseach.

There will be no bending of the knee to the new bulbous approach from Downing Street. While a war of words wafted over the continent, it was dispiriting that the Irish peace process received scarcely a nod from those who denigrate the backstop.

However, one of the most insightful asides on the current maelstrom was by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

"On the backstop, what I'd love for people to do - and particularly people across the water - is to read it, and try and understand it," he said.

He repeated its purpose is to avoid a hard Border in Ireland.

"That's all it is," he stressed. "What is it they don't like about a frictionless Border and peace on the island of Ireland? Is the problem really with the Good Friday Agreement?

"We've given nearly everything. The Taoiseach shouldn't give anymore."

But things have moved to a new level. The regime in Downing Street wants - and needs - a big win. For that to come about the EU must divide and crumble.

A side effect of the rhetoric of recent days is that a fudged solution to the Brexit crisis is now more difficult than ever. As with all tales of high-wire heavy hitting, the risk of serious loss of face by one side or the other will make concessions more difficult.

DUP MPs in the Commons this week could hardly mask their unease about the new prime minister.

He has assured them he is their saviour. But can they really rely on Boris Johnson should circumstances change? Their votes will no longer be needed if he secures a Commons majority following a general election.

There are various straws in the wind suggesting such an election will be sooner rather than later. A social media campaign to test the mood of the electorate was up and running within hours of Theresa May's departure. Johnson's central mantra will be that in turbulent times, only he can see Brexit through, and also steady the ship of state.

Sadly he will indulge little talk of peace in Ireland - or make any effort to understand why all political parties here support the need for a proper insurance policy: to prevent a possible return to bloodshed.

Irish Independent

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