Sunday 18 August 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Quiet Man Coveney does the hard lifting while Loose Lips Leo makes things harder for himself'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

One hundred and fourteen days - that's 16 weeks and change - before we're hit by what could be the most calamitous wave in the State's history.

In an article yesterday, Simon Coveney was stark in his opinion and, it should be noted, not particularly optimistic in his tone about the rapidly approaching Halloween nightmare that is the Brexit deadline on October 31.

As the Tánaiste says: "The chances of a disorderly Brexit have never been higher and the Government now considers the risk of this outcome on October 31 as 'significant'."

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Mr Coveney has been busy preparing a 'Brexit Contingency Plan', which he will present to Cabinet on Thursday, ahead of the full Dáil debates on the issue.

While he says that the plan "refines and improves on all the actions that were already in place", it's difficult to see what new tricks he can conjure.

After all, regardless of the merits or otherwise of the Brexit vote itself - it's still the largest vote in the history of the UK, whether we like it or not - the last few years have been notable more for the peevish irrationality and jaw-dropping cynicism of the Tory leadership.

Normally, when diplomatic negotiations are taking place, the hope is that both sides are at least acting in good faith.

As we have witnessed with increasing dismay in these last few months, even that baseline of integrity has been conspicuous in its absence when it comes to dealing with the Tory leaders. Even worse, as confused and chaotic as things have been for the last couple of years, that will look like a picnic compared the havoc that Boris Johnson openly plans to wreak.

One of the more interesting elements of Coveney's article was his acknowledgement of Brexit fatigue.

Apart from policy wonks and those businesses which will be the first to feel the sharp end of the Brexit blade, the temptation for many people has been to simply tune out whenever "the B word" is mentioned and hope that it will go away and we'll never have to mention it again.

That's an understandable response, but gravely mistaken.

As Mr Coveney says: "One of the biggest dangers Ireland faces in the weeks ahead is the 'boy who cried wolf' effect, whereby people and business assume that because a disorderly Brexit was averted in March and April the same will happen in October. To assume that would be a serious error."

But rather than the boy who cried wolf, the danger is that people will become so deadened to the story that they treat it as this generation's Millennium Bug; the Y2K virus that was apparently going to wipe out our computers at the end of 1999.

The difference is that Y2K never happened, whereas Brexit, one way or the other, is going ahead in October.

While it would be unfair to say there was an element of panic in Mr Coveney's words, he is deadly serious in his attempts to explain the urgency of the situation in which we now find ourselves.

But there is also the seemingly insurmountable problem that both sides are caught between two mutually exclusive aspirations. Essentially, the backstop is the roadblock - we need it, and the Tories have staked their claim on not having it.

It's also exposes the broader problem that even King Solomon would struggle to solve: we want to maintain an all-island economy, but it would be an all-island economy with a foot uniquely in both the UK and the EU camps. That's not a prospect which fills ether side with glee.

It makes a certain horrible sense that the UK's departure will take the form of the much-feared "disorderly Brexit", because everything about this process has been extremely disorderly.

But we shouldn't just take Mr Coveney's word on it.

The former head of the UK's Brexit department, Philip Rycroft, echoed the Tánaiste when he warned: "Everybody should be worried about a no-deal Brexit, we're taking a step into the unknown... it's unprecedented and a very major change to our trading relationship."

The Government, like the country, is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

In this case we're the unwilling tennis ball batted back and forth across the net by the two big powers.

Like any tennis ball, we have to be careful about the spin - it has become increasingly difficult to even know who is telling the truth, or if they're simply making things up because facts are now seen as an expensive luxury item, to be used as sparingly as possible.

Matters may be out of Mr Coveney's hands, but he has proved to be a diligent negotiator and hard worker behind the scenes.

He may have lacked the X-factor in his failed leadership contest against Leo Varadkar, but an increasing number of Fine Gael members and elected representatives are privately worried that they may have backed the wrong horse.

The character traits that made Mr Varadkar so popular with the party are rapidly turning into liabilities, and he has endured a rotten few months as Taoiseach. What was once the enthusiasm of youth and a refreshingly blunt approach now comes across as being glib and aloof.

In fairness, every politician is allowed to say something daft from time to time (his 'Love Actually' comments when he first walked into 10 Downing Street spring to mind), but he has been guilty of a series of baffling, avoidable blunders of late and his judgment is being called into serious question.

The party he leads seems to have more internal bullying scandals than Sinn Féin, which must stand to be a record. The country he leads is worn down by the housing and health scandals which give a lie to the idea that we have a booming economy. And his handling of the Maria Bailey situation has been incompetent.

From the first whistle of that particular controversy, he seemed to play it wrong. Rather than killing the story as quickly as he could it dragged on and the decision to withhold the internal report has given the Opposition even more ammunition.

After all, one of the golden rules of politics is that the cover-up will kill you quicker than the crime.

And then there were his remarks about Micheál Martin, which stunned even Fine Gaelers. His jibe about the Fianna Fáil leader behaving like a hypocritical priest seemed unnecessary and uncalled for.

People can debate the rights and wrongs of it, but he still - with minimal provocation - decided to go personal on the very man who is propping up his increasingly unstable Government.

Never give a sucker an even break is another rule of politics, yet it's a rule that Mr Varadkar seems to blithely ignore.

Meanwhile, we're left with Simon Coveney, the Quiet Man, doing the grown-up work, while Loose Lips Leo is in danger of being seen as the Taoiseach who only opens his mouth to change his feet.

Irish Independent

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