Tuesday 17 September 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Confusion reigns and rancour rules over the backstop as negotiations for Brexit left in limbo'

Putting his foot in it: French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the Elysée Palace in Paris. Photo: Christophe Petit Tesson
Putting his foot in it: French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the Elysée Palace in Paris. Photo: Christophe Petit Tesson
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

For the last few months, this country has been like a tennis ball bobbing on the open water - helpless to decide its own course and reliant on outside currents to dictate its direction.

Now, as we move ever closer to the end game that is October 31, those waters have become increasingly choppy. Internationally speaking, you could argue we are now caught in a rip-tide between the UK and the EU.

There was a rather forlorn hope the weekend's G7 meeting in Biarritz may have conjured a magic rabbit out of the hat at the last minute. But anyone who has been observing the increasingly farcical and bitter exchanges between the main Brexit players will have known a forlorn hope is no hope at all.

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Instead, this year's G7 was one that will be remembered more for its rancour and sniping than the diplomatic brilliance of any of the attendees.

Certainly, Boris Johnson's bizarre yet apparently premeditated decision to plonk his foot on the table when he was meeting Emanuel Macron was undoubtedly a new development in the wrong direction.

After all, showing the soles of your feet in such a manner is considered bad form in Ireland and England - but in other European cultures it's seen as a studied and deliberate insult.

Let's put it this way, if he had done that to the leader of one of the central/eastern European countries, there would have been a major diplomatic incident.

In fact, those of a conspiratorial bent may well have seen the gesture as a direct message to the anti-EU, secessionist movements which are gaining momentum in the countries which form Europe's hinterland.

At this stage, with the public almost punch drunk from the constant bad news surrounding Brexit, such a slight seems small potatoes. After all, undiplomatic diplomacy now seems to be the order of the day, if Phil Hogan's contemptuous and badly timed sneer that Johnson was an "unelected PM" was anything to go by.

We came away from the G7 little wiser and much more confused - at precisely the time we need to be getting concrete answers, even if we don't like those answers.

The burning issue for us and for the EU, if not necessarily the UK, remains the Border question.

How will it operate? Who will patrol it? Who will fund it? A "light touch" Border, or a return to armed checkpoints?

Johnson's constant assertions he doesn't want a border are just another example of his innate mendacity. After all, everyone knows the EU, for all its faults, must maintain some sort of control over its territories.

That is why, when Johnson told the BBC that, "I think in the last few days there has been a dawning realisation in Brussels and other European capitals what the shape of the problem is for the UK," Irish negotiators will have been forgiven for putting their head in their hands.

After all, there's no question about the "shape of the problem" - it's shaped precisely like the Border.

In a climate where the main players are all definitive about what they don't want, but infuriatingly opaque about what it is that they actually desire, and even less clear about how to achieve that, confusion reigns.

That can be seen in the news that UK ministers have come up with a contingency plan for policing the North.

In the increasingly likely event of a no-deal scenario, they intend to send 300 Scottish police officers to help patrol the Border and deal with what is ominously described as "civil unrest or sectarian violence".

Not surprisingly, the head of Scottish Police Federation was quick to pour cold water on that idea, sensibly arguing: "The simple reality is that our officers are not armed when they go to Northern Ireland and are not trained to the same level of terrorism awareness as officers there."

As we have seen in recent weeks, as far as the nutjobs in the dissident republican movement are concerned, the arrival of Brexit is like all their Christmases come together at once.

Apart from the vastly increased opportunity for smuggling goods, they know killing a few "mainland" police officers will get them the attention they so desperately crave. After all, while the Border debate still remains a largely theoretical distraction for many in the UK, the prospect of police officers' funerals in Glasgow and Edinburgh would certainly concentrate British minds.

That is realised by even the ministers who concocted the plan, who have admitted they are reluctant to send English officers due to the "sensitive" nature of the region.

All sides are adamant they want a solution that won't cause irreparable damage to this island. That's fine in theory but we have long moved away from theory and into a rather bruising reality and we want - no, we demand - to know what those solutions may be.

Lucinda Creighton may have gone on a solo run when she spoke on Sunday of a need for compromise from the Irish side on the backstop. Or maybe her close personal relationship with the Taoiseach gave her an insight which has been denied the rest of us.

But again, her contribution brings us back to the same old question - she has suggested compromise, but what form would it take?

Speaking on RTÉ, the former Europe minister admitted that while she supports the backstop, she now believes that a five-year "fudge" on the issue would be the lesser of two evils when compared to the loss of 80,000 jobs in the event of a hard exit.

Those comments have caused consternation among her former party colleagues, but if it's a binary choice between a fudge and some nightmare scenario -EU forces running the Border checks? -then even that idea, as unworkable as it seems, would be a better bet.

We should also remember the very different positions - and mindsets - in which the two leaders find themselves.

Johnson and his Svengali, Dominic Cummings, are obviously keen on an election.

Their best-case scenario sees them solidifying a Commons majority which would make his job immeasurably easier, loosen the DUP's death grip on Tory policy and probably finish Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition. That's a political hat-trick not to be sniffed at.

In Leo Varadkar's case, we could be looking at a leader on a downward trajectory.

His handling of the situation has been in turn naïve and gauche and he has been dogged by a succession of domestic scandals - and now open party revolt - that would have finished a leader in more settled times.

In fact, while Johnson obviously sees Brexit as merely a means to an end, for the current Taoiseach it could very well just be the end.

Irish Independent

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