Wednesday 21 August 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'As we prepare for a hard Border, the Government must now start telling us what we can expect'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: PA
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

It's good to talk. Readers may remember the old TV commercial for BT from the mid-1990s which featured Bob Hoskins exhorting consumers to pick up the phone and have a chat with each other.

It's hard not to be reminded of that old slogan when you turn your mind to current Anglo-Irish relations, which are now at their lowest ebb for a generation - if not even longer.

What's worse, there's no indication of any hope for improvement in the immediate future.

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Any hopes that Boris Johnson was playing a political trick, and would soften his rhetoric once he was installed in Number 10, now look like nothing more than foolish optimism. The new prime minister seems, if anything, to be ramping up his rhetoric and determination to flounce out of the EU come October 31.

The dreaded prospect of a Halloween fright night as the UK completely and irrevocably drops out of the EU and leaves this country hanging on the vines of uncertainty and confusion is no longer a doomsday scenario. It's now the unfortunate reality.

For the last three years of this interminable debate, with all its delays and the blood-splattered political infighting of the Tory leadership class, there was a hope that some sort of common sense arrangement would be reached.

That hope was based on several factors, not least the belief that the UK government simply couldn't be so myopically self-destructive that it would be prepared to potentially destroy its own economy, while merrily bringing ours down with it.

Rather disturbingly we seem to have ignored the cliché that 'it's good to talk' and have been reduced to a case of 'what we have here is a failure to communicate'.

Even when there is communication, it seems to take the form of thinly veiled insults and sneers.

That could be seen in yesterday's pro-Brexit 'Daily Telegraph', when Nick Timothy, the disastrous former chief-of-staff for Theresa May, excoriated the Irish Government for having the temerity to place Irish interests first.

In a frankly bizarre and rambling op-ed, Timothy even reckoned that: "It must also have been hugely enjoyable for a young Taoiseach, and his deputy, Simon Coveney, to lord it over Ireland's former colonial masters."

Say what you like about Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, but can anyone say either man has ever given the impression that they are 'enjoying' any of this endless process?

You could certainly detect an air of exasperation and even anger at the obduracy they have encountered. But there has been precious little enjoyment to be had.

Similarly, there was little joy for the Taoiseach in Sunday's Kantor opinion poll, which shows a drop in public support for his tactics when dealing with the UK.

Less than half (43pc) of those polled are satisfied with his approach, with some claiming that he has been too robust - a fair point, but one which can be argued either way.

Buried in the details of that poll was another interesting little nugget - public support for the EU has dropped from 84pc this time last year to 77pc today.

Timothy's flippant dismissal of the Irish perspective let slip what many of us have long suspected - that, to the leading Leavers, this is little more than a game of high-stakes chicken; a political jape that seems to rest more in theory than in practise.

The sense that many of the current Tories still don't understand the sheer gravity of the situation is merely reinforced by the fact that none of them will actually have to live with the consequences of their decisions.

After all, the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg may be many things - some good, some bad - but he is hardly a man of the people and Johnson seems to have assembled a cabinet which could give Marie Antoinette a lesson in being removed from the public mood.

There has been plenty of criticism of the way Varadkar has handled his counterparts in the UK, and most of those criticisms have focused on what some observers say was his needlessly antagonistic approach.

In normal circumstances there would have been much merit to such accusations, but these are far from normal circumstances and the normal rules of diplomacy seem to have been cast overboard.

The Taoiseach's bullish approach has certainly angered large swathes of the pro-Leave UK media, which has involved him being told by one paper to 'shut your gob', while last week saw him conferred with a new nickname by the 'Daily Mail', 'Lenny Verruca'.

That is the level we can now enjoy - school-yard insults and fatuous taunting at a time when everyone should be desperately struggling to find solutions, not conjuring new ways to insult the leader of the country which will suffer the most under Brexit.

That strange combination of indifference towards, and contempt for, the Irish predicament was evident again in Timothy's article, which was still clinging to the long-debunked theory that there could have been some sort of technological, electronic Border solution.

Even more striking is the latest assertion from many Tories that any threat to the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process is coming from the Republic and our European 'masters'.

This is simply nonsense.

After all, to use the kind of childish analogy the Leavers like to employ, they started this, not us.

If they want to commit economic hara-kiri that is entirely their business, but the reality is that we rely on our nearest - if no longer dearest - neighbours.

So where do we stand now?

Well, it would be helpful if our Government could actually lay out just what pleasures lie in store for the Republic of Ireland come November 1.

It was perhaps understandable that our senior politicians were reluctant to fully divulge the full implications of a catastrophic crash-out of the EU by the UK - it's quite possible that they weren't even entirely sure themselves.

But we have run out of all other options and now the people need to know - and we need to know as a matter of urgency.

We need to be informed of what measures we will have to take, what precautions are in place because we are now, despite all previous claims to the contrary, looking at a hard Border.

Hard borders have to enforced, after all, and that's where the chaos will truly kick in.

As the Kantar poll displays, public satisfaction is wavering with Varadkar and there is growing anxiety that the EU could yet throw us overboard.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum and in the absence of any concrete, definitive guidance from our Government, fears about the future are only going to increase between now and Halloween.

Irish Independent

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