Saturday 21 September 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'As Johnson cranks up the bluster and bullying, the backing of our friends in EU and US will be crucial'

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Getty
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Getty
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

If there is one unfortunate aspect of Brexit which can't be denied, then it is surely the fact that even the French existentialists would have struggled to conjure a phenomenon so utterly wrapped up in ennui and despair.

At a time when all sides seem to be further from a compromise than ever before, there was certainly a sense that yesterday's meeting between Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson was an exercise in the futility of life.

When speaking to his base, Johnson has treated the 'Irish question' with an indifference that verges on contempt.

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The common mantra is that what the man infamously lacks in integrity, he famously makes up for with his oleaginous charm.

But yesterday, even that charm, such as it was, seemed forced and in short supply, and there was the sense that this latest stop-over of the BoJo Roadshow was little more than window dressing.

Certainly, even when Johnson ruefully shrugged his shoulders while talking to media and said there would be "no big breakthrough this morning", the Taoiseach was quick with the mild rebuke, "or the rest of the day".

On the one hand, there was something undeniably reassuring in the UK prime minister's assertion that: "As someone who went to the Border several times before the Good Friday agreement and shuddered to see towers on UK soil, I can say now as I've said many times before, the UK will never, ever institute checks at the Border and I hope our friends in the EU would say the same thing... our commitment in the UK to the peace process is unshakeable."

However, there is one slight problem with that statement - he knows it is nonsensical. 

What's even more cynical is that he knows this places the EU and the Irish on the back foot when it comes to the backstop and it allows him to appear as the innocent victim in a Hiberno-European conspiracy to punish plucky little Albion for wanting to go its own way.

As has been made explicitly and repeatedly clear since the result of the Brexit referendum was announced in June 2016 - my, doesn't time fly when you're having no fun? - there was always going to be some sort of border control; otherwise the European Union would be left with a gaping hole in the integrity and security of its Western frontier. 

Yesterday was a trip made out of obligation rather than desire by Johnson, who now seems to be looking at his plans crumbling in front of his very eyes.

His gamble to hire the notoriously rancorous Dominic Cummings seems to have backfired spectacularly in the past week - not that it was a raging success before then, either.

It has also been interesting to see Johnson, who openly despises Jeremy Corbyn and everything he stands for, expelling senior Tory party members with all the ruthless zeal of the Marxist Corbyn and his Momentum enforcers.

There has always been a popular theory that Johnson is simply a man who has made the mistake of believing in his own publicity, but while he is far from the bumbling fool of popular caricature, he has also proved that he is nowhere near as smart as he - or his shadowy adviser -seemed to think.

He is, in fact, now delivering a masterclass in how not to run a functioning democracy.

The mass expulsions of senior party figures, combined with yesterday's suspension of parliament for the next five weeks, are an unwelcome reminder that politics is a dirty business. While it's hardly rational to describe him as a putative dictator (dictators are usually reluctant to demand an election once they're in power, for instance) he is fast becoming the most toxic PM in living memory, who seems to view the rules with nearly as much contempt as he views his ideological opponents. 

That needlessly bullish approach has become a major problem for Johnson and Cummings, because most of their own party, including even Johnson's own brother, are now classed as ideological opponents. It's a tactic which may yet see him being remembered for the brevity of his tenure as PM.

The anti-no-deal legislation requires him to go to Europe and ask for an extension beyond the deadline of October 31, but he is already "looking for loopholes" to get around that. To remind the rest of us of just how farcical and, frankly, surreal events have become, he is now considering delivering two letters at the same time - the official, legally mandated missive requesting an extension until 2020 and his own personal note, asking that the EU ignores the other letter.

Is it any wonder the EU negotiators have simply lost patience? Should we be surprised that French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has categorically stated that "the British must tell us what they want. We are not going to do this [grant an extension] every three months".

Ultimately, Johnson wants everything on his own terms and is prepared to bully and bluster to get his way. Like all school-yard bullies, he then portrays himself as the victim when his demands aren't met.

There is also another potential stone in Leo Varadkar's shoe that he may not have expected.

When Mike Pence visited last week, most observers were expecting the usual platitudes. Instead, Pence unleashed the cat amongst the pigeons when he seemed to take the UK's side, and urged us to act "in good faith" in our negotiations.

That may have blindsided people, but it's not representative of most of the soundings coming from Capitol Hill.

As things get closer to the wire, with no sign of anything but ruination on the horizon, we may yet need our American allies to take a stronger line.

There have been some encouraging signs of that from both sides of the aisle in the States. Nancy Pelosi made a much publicised visit to the Border, and the Americans treasure the Good Friday Agreement as one of their few foreign policy victories in recent decades.

Many of the Irish-American members of the Republican Party have been quick to remind US President Donald Trump where their loyalties lie and Chuck Schumer, House Democratic leader, has threatened to veto any post-Brexit trade deal between the US and UK.

In a letter to Trump, Schumer warned of his party's "opposition to any prospective trade deal that either undermines the landmark Good Friday Agreement or facilitates a return to a hard Border."

Given Johnson's gleeful predictions of a lucrative trade deal with America, that may yet become a relevant factor. Of course, even that seems a forlorn hope at this stage. 

But with the Taoiseach forced to admit yesterday that he can't give any advice to Irish businesses other than "I'll tell them as soon as I know and we've nailed things down with the European Commission", we'll take any hope we can get.

Irish Independent

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