Thursday 24 October 2019

Kevin Doyle: 'If May abandons her pledge we must fight fire with fire'


Wanting out: A pro-Brexit protester outside Houses of Parliament in central London yesterday. Photo: Getty
Wanting out: A pro-Brexit protester outside Houses of Parliament in central London yesterday. Photo: Getty
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

For weeks now Irish ministers have run away from the flames of Brexit. They ducked and dived from the British media, refusing to engage on almost any level.

But last Friday in Davos, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar performed a 180-degree turn and decided to fan the flames. He warned not only of customs checks but also painted an image of Army troops and police in the vicinity of the Border.

The picture presented to Bloomberg appeared to come as a shock to people at home and across Europe.

But in reality he just described what a Border would look like. For months now, journalists and Opposition TDs have tried to pin down Government ministers on the Border issue. They resolutely ignored the questions.

Instead, Mr Varadkar chose to talk to a well respected international news outlet because this was about grabbing the attention of MPs in Britain rather than the public at home. Similar comments made to the Dáil would, most likely, have gone largely unreported in the UK.

His intervention sparked a weekend wave of media appearances from Tánaiste Simon Coveney, European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee and Fine Gael Senator Neale Richmond.

It was a remarkable change of strategy. The Irish Government has been inundated with requests from the UK since Christmas but rarely agreed to interviews. Such was the paranoia about upsetting Theresa May that it actively sought to exclude channels which have correspondents based in Dublin.

For example, there were no cameras allowed at that ill-fated press conference where Transport Minister Shane Ross struggled to answer basic questions. The fear was that anything said could have been beamed back via Sky News or BBC in the hours before the original 'meaningful vote'.

However, the vow of silence allowed Brexiteers to gain control of the narrative. They portrayed Ireland as an unreasonable saboteur who was unwilling to compromise in any form. The tabloids also reported briefings from 'senior sources' on how the EU's solidarity with Ireland was about to crack.

Lost in the debate was the reality that the UK-wide backstop was the compromise.

Then Downing Street started to waver on the Irish element of the deal. Before Christmas, the prime minister was telling MPs: "There is no deal available that does not include the backstop." But she has spent much of the past fortnight wining and dining the DUP while discussing going back to Europe to seek a new deal on the backstop.

Last night came the ultimate "betrayal" as she decided to rally support for a motion that mandates her to seek alternatives to the backstop. Her theory is that if the House of Commons can agree on something, it will strengthen her hand when dealing with Brussels.

Mrs May's 180-degre turn is, no doubt, partly driven by the reality that other amendments being voted on tonight seek to take power away from her.

But it creates massive problems for Ireland. The idea that an alternative to something that took 18 months to negotiate could be devised in two months is fanciful. There is zero suggestion as to what these 'alternatives' to the backstop are.

In any event, the backstop doesn't come into force if alternatives are found before the end of 2020.

The media blitz over the weekend led to accusations that Varadkar was 'upping the ante' and 'threatening the UK'. The Irish are damned if they stay silent and damned if they speak out.

But if Mrs May is will to abandon the backstop, we must now fight fire with fire.

Irish Independent

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