Tuesday 20 August 2019

Mary Kenny: 'Boris needs Bertie to fix his blind spot over Border issue'

Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

If I were in a position to advise Boris Johnson - and though I know him slightly from journalistic circles, I'm hardly in that category - the one piece of counsel I would give him is this: if you want to make progress with "our friends in Ireland", engage with Bertie Ahern.

To the English mentality, Bertie may seem like yer-pint-of-plain Dubliner, the kind of Irishman who, in Boris's words, might well be called Murphy (instead of Varadkar): the emollient, cordial, Irish stereotype like Terry Wogan or Graham Norton.

But Bertie has a subtle and sophisticated political mind. He also has powers of persuasion and the gift of listening. He was a key element in the Good Friday Agreement's success because of these communication gifts.

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The biggest immediate problem Prime Minister Johnson has in office is delivering Brexit. And the greatest obstruction to getting a deal, as everyone knows, is the backstop on the Border in Ireland.

Boris wants rid of it. Ireland - and the rest of the EU - are firmly standing by it. Bertie Ahern fully supports the Irish position - but he also perceives that there could be wriggle room. He told Miriam O'Callaghan on RTÉ that there were ways of rephrasing, of decrypting and re-coding the backstop that could loosen the logjam.

Boris needs someone with Bertie's political and negotiating nous to help him build that bridge with "our friends in Ireland", as he puts it. Dublin is the key to a Brussels deal.

But does Boris, like many Englishmen before him, have a blind spot when it comes to Ireland? The fact the Border was scarcely mentioned during the Brexit referendum speaks volumes.

It went almost unnoticed that the Border dividing the island of Ireland would become an international frontier dividing the European Union from the United Kingdom. And that this would contravene the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

As Kevin O'Rourke has written in his excellent 'Short History of Brexit', the fact Ireland and Great Britain were both members of the EU was a crucial element in resolving conflict in Northern Ireland.

Yet in one of his many careless generalisations, Boris waved aside the matter of the Border: it was of no greater significance than the "border" between the London boroughs of Camden and Islington.

He still thinks the issue is over-stated, saying recently "it's beyond belief that we're allowing the tail to wag that dog. We're allowing the whole of our agenda to be dictated by this folly".

That is the way so many Brexiteers, among whom I dwell, see it. They think Ireland is stopping them from achieving their chosen path of sovereignty. Ireland bid for her own freedom to leave the UK: Ireland chose to throw in her lot with the European Union: why should we Brits, they argue, be thwarted in our bid for sovereignty?

Because it's complicated: by history, by geography, by traditions, economics, and by the conflicting allegiances within the six counties of Northern Ireland.

Ireland and Britain have never been aligned in their national aspirations. Ireland's attachment to continental Europe has a long historical resonance with Catholic Europe, with Spain, Portugal, France, and above all, Rome.

Generations of Irishmen were educated in continental Europe. And then the patriotic tradition of Irish republicanism, from Wolfe Tone onwards, came from France. So loyalty to the EU grows from history's roots.

The trouble is - geography. Because Ireland is on the western flank of Britain, and because it contains a million British unionists, some alignment with Great Britain is inescapable. (At a familial level, about 25pc of Brits have an Irish parent or grandparent, as the current tsunami of applications for Irish passports testifies.)

So, although Ireland has joined, with observer status, the French Commonwealth and is also part of the New Hanseatic League within the EU, the facts of geography remain: the island of Britain is a bridge between Ireland and continental Europe, as every truckie knows.

And there is now to be an international frontier in the island of Ireland which, if some solution isn't found, could plunge the country into not only business chaos, but a return to the hostilities of yesteryear.

These facts have to be explained, clearly, repeatedly. Regrettably, in my view, the Dublin Government has chosen Senator Neale Richmond to be the public face of Ireland's position in Britain.

Mr Richmond is more John Charles McQuaid than Terry Wogan: grim, glum, unsmiling, sticking to absolute dogma without any deviation allowed.

How much better Bertie the communicator would be.

To be fair to Boris, his incorrigible optimism makes him imagine that with one wave of his hand he can make it all work. There'll be a technological solution to the Border - just as he believes in constructing a bridge between Ireland and Scotland (not such a bad idea).

It's true Ireland is seldom sufficiently on the radar of British leaders, either because they don't want to face the problems of what Churchill famously called "the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone", or because they want to believe "the Irish question" is "solved".

We all thought British-Irish relations were healed, forever, with Queen Elizabeth's state visit in 2011. But history and geography have arisen to throw it all up in the air again, and the finest political minds will be required to steer us through the choppy waters of autumn 2019.

Irish Independent

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