Saturday 24 August 2019

Kevin Doyle: 'Megaphone diplomacy gets us nowhere as soundbites reign supreme'

Leo Varadkar. Picture: Damien Eagers
Leo Varadkar. Picture: Damien Eagers
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

As the Good Friday Agreement was being spell-checked, Tony Blair told reporters in Northern Ireland that it was "not a day for soundbites".

He then promptly declared: "But I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders. I really do."

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told an audience in Belfast this week that he really admires Blair "with one exception".

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He was talking in the general context of the ex-prime minister's leadership style - but no doubt Blair's strong anti-Brexit stance has endeared him even more to the Taoiseach.

All politicians spend time scripting their one-liners in the hope of shaping a headline on the evening news or the next morning's newspaper. In fact, those in high office have a team of people to come up with their witty, pithy or poignant statements.

A killer punchline can often help cover a lack of substance - but in truth most politicians can only hidebehind words for so long. When Boris Johnson was contesting the Conservative Party leadership, there was a widespread assumption that his statements about leaving the EU do-or-die on October 31 were 'just talk'.

Varadkar openly suggested it was the kind of thing you say during an election and things would calm down once he actually won the key to No 10.

That same theory was applied when Donald Trump ran for election but look at events in the United States in the past week for how that played out.

We live in an era of soundbites, which is fine until what was once bullish political rhetoric becomes reality. Brexit has descended into little more than slogans. Remember, Johnson was a journalist well-known for his punchy writing.

He talks about bringing the "can-do spirit" back to Britain and his ministers barely speak a sentence without using the word "energise".

They are trying to inject the 'feel-good factor' into what is becoming an increasingly perilous situation for businesses, farmers and the UK public at large. It's a modern-day version of 'Stay calm and carry on' - but with the economy starting to shudder it's hard to see how much longer before cracks appear.

Back on this island, Varadkar told the audience in Belfast that he is "definitely not the type of politician who tells everybody what they want to hear".

He has often been accused - primarily by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin - of being a spin merchant.

But the Taoiseach argued he tells the truth "that people don't want to hear".

"That'll very often get me into trouble and be divisive. It's a form of leadership in itself."

Except that, when it comes to the reality of Brexit, we are still waiting for some hard truths.

For years the Irish Government told us it would be impossible to have Border checks. It just simply wouldn't happen. Now we know that animal and food products will need to be monitored as they move between the UK and the EU single market.

But the Government won't tell us how or where.

There are strategic reasons for this but at this stage we have to wonder whether the Government is more worried about its negotiation position with the UK or public opinion at home.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney famously scolded Transport Minister Shane Ross last January, telling him: "Once you start talking about checks anywhere near the Border, people will start delving into that and all of a sudden we'll be the government that reintroduced a physical Border on the island of Ireland."

The Taoiseach said on Tuesday that business would be given plenty of notice but that no deal is still avoidable.

"I'm certainly not fatalistic about that," he said, adding that in any event Brexit will "go on and on and on" beyond October 31. Very quotable stuff.

All the while another week has been wasted in the land of Brexit, as none of the key players actually managed to hold a conversation.

The megaphone diplomacy is getting us nowhere and all the while the hand of history is hovering.

Irish Independent

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