Monday 16 September 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Let the Brexit bile run its course but none of this is Project Fear for Northern Ireland - it is Project Learn From History'

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Finnbarr Webster/Pool via REUTERS
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Finnbarr Webster/Pool via REUTERS
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Boris Johnson is working hard at pretending to work hard at securing a deal. Look at him meeting EU powerbrokers, pumping hands and slapping backs with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. His handshake with the latter was surely the longest in history, it felt nearly as long as the Battle of Waterloo.

Maybe that's what he meant when he talked about entering negotiations "with a lot of oomph". Why didn't we think of oomph? Maybe it's been the missing ingredient to securing a deal all along.

Working hard at pretending to work hard is not the same as genuinely knuckling down to finding common ground. Instead, it is a ruse bolstered by turbocharged spin. It is a self-serving insurance policy designed to pretty-up the British premier before a general election.

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It allows him to go before the electorate saying: "I did my best, chaps, I gave it every bit of oomph I had - I put it on the table in the Elysée Palace. Actually, no, that was my foot. Better there than in my mouth, right?"

As for the German and French leaders Mr Johnson met, their stance can be filed under 'damage limitation'. Everyone is positioning themselves for "we did our best but due to circumstances beyond our control, yadda yadda" after a no-deal Brexit happens on October 31.

Ms Merkel gave one of her signature eye-rolls when Mr Johnson borrowed her own election slogan.

"We want a deal and we expect a deal and I think we're going to get one," he said, gamely adding "Wir schaffen das" - we can do it. Why the eye-roll? She knows a bluffer when she sees one.

What he didn't specify was when that deal would be struck. Realistically, it won't happen until after October 31. Nonsense ad nauseam is spoken currently about Brexit. Remainers are rebels and traitors, those uppity Paddies on their hindlegs deserve what's coming to them, Britain won two world wars singlehandedly and can survive any minor wobbles headed its way after Brexit. Let the bile run its course. It will be in the weeks following November 1 when productive negotiations really begin.

What Mr Johnson says publicly and intends privately are two entirely different things. He is jousting with European leaders only because it's pageantry for the home market. His damsel in distress is Britannia, his dragon the 27-headed EU - this plays well in a country on election footing.

Ms Merkel, declining to play at dragons, has called his bluff by inviting him to suggest a viable alternative to the backstop and given him 30 days to do so. Despite his eloquence with a dash of German thrown in, Mr Johnson will advance nothing substantial - least of all the comprehensive techno-solutions with spreadsheets and footnotes required by the EU.

But that won't faze the British leader because he doesn't expect a deal in advance of Brexit. He has some domestic business to take care of first. Here's the timetable: deliver Brexit by tumbling out of the EU. Call a general election soon after, gambling on winning a majority where the DUP is no longer kingmaker. Serious horse-trading can only begin at that stage, when he leaves off the mask and engages in earnest with the EU.

The likelihood is he'll agree to checks at the Irish Sea rather than along the Border because it's a solution accepted by everyone except political unionism. This can't be ignored - Stormont must be restored and unionist concerns addressed about a united Ireland by the back door. It has to be emphasised that no constitutional change can happen without consent.

The Irish position, quite rightly, is to protect the Good Friday Agreement, put under threat by Brexit and at risk of being unravelled in the months ahead. Tory hardliners have no respect for it. Some of them remain convinced a military solution was the answer to Northern Ireland.

Irish-British relations are at a dangerous low and will have to be repaired after Brexit. Rather than seek to change the Irish Government's support for the backstop by advancing a reasonable substitute, gunboat diplomacy evocative of former power dynamics has been used.

Concede to our demands or shock and awe consequences will ensue. This mimics British foreign policy in the past, such as Lloyd George's threat of "immediate and terrible war" in 1921 if Ireland didn't sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Fast-forward a century and we're told to drop opposition to the backstop or we'll suffer from a catastrophic Brexit and we'll only have ourselves to blame.

Some favour a policy of appeasement - give them the time-limited backstop, we hear. But that only pushes the issue into the future, it does not unscramble the problem. Perhaps tensions will have eased, perhaps not. In any case, it's a sticking plaster and not a solution.

Poll after poll shows the people of the North favour the backstop by almost two-thirds. And even supposing the backstop was watered down, there are no guarantees the Withdrawal Agreement would pass in Westminster. Further attempts at cherry-picking seem more likely.

Leaders of four Stormont parties - Sinn Féin, Alliance, SDLP and Greens - wrote to European Council President Donald Tusk this week amid the vacuum of uncertainty, reaffirming their support for the backstop. Neither the DUP nor the UUP signed the letter. Then again, the DUP opposed the Good Friday Agreement; now isn't the first time it's been out-of-step with the public.

The signatories represent a majority of elected representatives to the Northern Assembly. They have paid attention to the bomb found at Wattle Bridge near the Fermanagh-Cavan border this week, even if others turn a blind eye and characterise warnings about violence resuming as scaremongering. I say to them, none of this is Project Fear. It is Project Learn From History.

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson is banking on a swift trade deal with the US post-Brexit. Donald Trump also wants one, but the British will be negotiating from a position of weakness outside the EU and he is a shark in president's clothing - jaws open ready to take bites out of them.

In any event, Congress and not the White House is in charge of trade. Irish-American politicians will not risk the Good Friday Agreement which they value, having been instrumental as facilitators. Nor will Mr Trump jeopardise the Irish-American vote so close to his tilt at a second term.

Britain is entitled to Brexit if it chooses and, indeed, it is best all round now if it goes. But Britain is not entitled to resile from the Good Friday Agreement and the manner of its EU departure must be shaped by that landmark international peace treaty.

Britain does not have the luxury of dictating terms: it cannot walk away either from the EU or its obligations to supporting peace in Northern Ireland without consequences. They will start to materialise rapidly after October 31.

Irish Independent

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