Tuesday 17 September 2019

Kevin Doyle: 'Taoiseach can't afford subtlety if he wants to bring curtain down on PM's 'Brexit lies' tour'

Led by the nose: Britain’s PM Boris Johnson will need to grab the bull by the horns if he is to find common ground for a new deal with the EU. Photo: Andrew Milligan
Led by the nose: Britain’s PM Boris Johnson will need to grab the bull by the horns if he is to find common ground for a new deal with the EU. Photo: Andrew Milligan
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Monday morning can be challenging at the best of times - but imagine the severe dose of 'Sunday night fear' that Leo Varadkar must have suffered.

Since becoming Taoiseach, he has had to deal with difficult diplomatic matters with leaders ranging from Donald Trump to Viktor Orbán.

However, his meeting today with Boris Johnson carries huge risks and few opportunities.

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The British prime minister has already brought his 'Brexit lies' tour to Germany and France where his hosts were too polite to simply call out his bluster.

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron did subtly rubbish his proposals but Johnson doesn't do subtle.

Since those trips, he has told anybody who will listen that great progress is being made - and the EU is willing to alter the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop.

The eyes of Europe will be on Dublin today, as Johnson flies in for a brief meeting in Government Buildings. It was supposed to be in Farmleigh House, but Johnson's decision to arrive during rush-hour traffic saw the tête-à-tête moved to the city centre. He needs to be back in London in the afternoon for another row with Parliament.

There are deep suspicions in Government circles as to why Johnson has chosen this moment to finally accept the Taoiseach's invitation. Whatever his motives, nobody believes he will come to Dublin with fresh ideas or alternatives to the backstop.

We are lacking any actual evidence that Johnson cares about the situation on this island at all. His view of Northern Ireland is seen through the prism of the hardline DUP, whose conference he addressed before becoming leader.

Johnson has served as both foreign secretary and prime minister since Brexit but has never seen fit to visit the Border.

You might say there isn't a whole lot to see when you zip off the N1 and on to the A1 - but that's the point.

Twenty years ago, many people in the Republic wouldn't dare venture into the North. Now it's estimated 30,000 people cross the invisible Border daily.

Senior figures from 12 EU governments, the EU's chief negotiators and the Speaker of the US House of Representatives have all gone to see two different shades of tar meet. It is astonishing that politicians in Germany, France and the Netherlands are more willing to understand what is at stake than her majesty's government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

There are valid reasons why the UK government would object to the backstop. It does restrain its ability to do trade agreements with other countries. However, what's not fathomable is Johnson's unwillingness to accept that there has to be some legally workable way of maintaining an open Border.

Could it be that Johnson is what his predecessor John Major described as "most people" in Britain? He sees Ireland as "just another island" rather than an equal partner with whom he must work to resolve a problem caused by his government.

And that's why the Taoiseach can't afford to be subtle with him today. By all means roll out the red carpet for our guest, but there can be no skirting around the issues.

Varadkar has shown himself to be diplomatically capable when dealing with Trump and Mike Pence - but today is not about avoiding controversy. On this occasion, Varadkar cannot afford evocation or niceties. Being subtle will achieve nothing with a man who said he'd rather be found "dead in a ditch" than delay Brexit.

Perhaps the Taoiseach could begin by reminding Johnson of all the people who were found dead in ditches during the Troubles.

Irish Independent

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