Eoghan Harris: ‘Leo, take the soft backstop road and save our State’

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Eoghan Harris: ‘Leo, take the soft backstop road and save our State’


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St Brigid’s Day normally sees me in high spirits, but not this year.

That’s because I was bracing myself to challenge 99pc of my colleagues about the backstop: nobody likes to be that far out on a limb.

But acting with good authority means telling my own tribe hard truths. So here goes on the backstop.

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Leo Varadkar should drop what I call the hard backstop for two reasons.

First, it would help Theresa May secure a deal and thus remove the danger of a UK crash-out that could destroy the Irish economy.

Second, and to my mind just as important, it would improve relations with our British neighbours and roll back the Anglophobia so disgustingly promoted by most of the Irish media.

Brexit brought out the worst in British politicians, but the backstop is bringing out the worst in us.

Just because a few Tory buffoons showed an irritating ignorance about Irish history is no excuse for commentators here to behave like corner boys, gloating over the UK’s crisis instead of telling you three things you need to know.

First, the British parliamentary crisis accurately reflects a referendum which divides Britain – and revealed the alienation of a large section of the working class.

Second, most of the nationalist polemics about the problems of the hard border of the past, gloss the primary role played by the Provisional IRA.

Finally, we are told the DUP are wreckers who won’t talk.

On the contrary, they have a solid constitutional case, don’t want a hard border, and are willing to talk to us about a time limit to secure a “soft” backstop.

Failure to focus on these three facts led to the ridiculous reaction to May’s volte face – or ”betrayal” as the media calls it – as if our backstop was not the main reason why May could not get an agreement.

Like Leo Varadkar, Theresa May is a politician who must deal with the pragmatic and the possible.

Here is why we are hypocrites. We know the backstop is the primary reason May can’t get a consensus. We know if she doesn’t get one the UK could crash out. We know this would damage us.

Rather than face facts, our journalists run around like a bunch of Trots bleating, “the backstop, the whole backstop and nothing but the backstop”.

The noise of a nauseating nationalism is drowning out all decency and balanced discourse in our country, corrupting the coming generation and creating cannon fodder for the Recurring IRA.

George Orwell defined nationalism as “identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests”.

Accordingly, you might think Fintan O’Toole, winner of the Orwell prize, would be the first to challenge Irish media versions of the Orwellian “two minute hate” sessions in 1984.

Alas, to the surprise of some of his admirers, including me, he continues to fulminate against the Brexiteers in language that shows scant respect for the wrong but sincerely-held opinions of many working- class English people.

Last week, Eilis O’Hanlon, of this parish, took Fintan O’Toole to task for describing the Brexit vote as “pig ignorance – of the genuine hallmarked, unadulterated, slack-jawed, open-mouthed, village idiot variety”.

She believes such caricatures are the equivalent of “Punch cartoons from the Irish Famine era, only with the roles reversed”.

What a pity our leading public intellectual seems to be suffering from green fever, given the urgent need to challenge the consensus of cowardice that sees not a single Irish politician willing to challenge the backstop, and most of the Irish media wallowing in tribal mud.

How can we call ourselves a democracy if not one Irish politician is willing to say publicly what many people are saying privately: that we should take the safer road to a soft backstop rather than the risky cliff road of a hard backstop?

How can we call ourselves a democracy if most of our journalists have joined the politicians in a conspiracy of fearful agreement that last week saw television panels with not one single dissenter?

How can we criticise British democracy, which is locked in a democratic debate, while we refuse to debate the role of the backstop in creating a risk to the Irish economy?

How can we criticise British democracy, which supports a healthy media that has happily carried Fintan O’Toole’s polemics from The Guardian to the BBC, when in contrast RTE not only refuses to challenge the consensus but makes sure that dissenters like me are never allowed on air?

A courageous Irish media would have pointed out the contradictions exposed by Andrew Marr in his interview with Simon Coveney last Sunday week.

Although barely allowed to get a word in, the mild-mannered Marr managed to read out to Coveney a recent statement by Michel Barnier as follows:

“If there is no deal then we will have to find an operational way of carrying out checks and controls without putting back in place a border.”

Arising from that, Marr logically asked why a backstop at all when in the event of a crash-out the EU itself would have to put a hard border in place?

Coveney gave him the rictus smile that denotes discomfort, dodged for a while, then admitted:

“If we don’t have a backstop, then the EU, Ireland and the UK will have to work together to avoid border infrastructure.”

These contradictions prompted Ken Andrew of Cobh in a letter to The Irish Times to ask: “If it is possible to prevent a hard border in the event of a no-deal why is there a need for a backstop in the first place?”

Last Tuesday week, Leo Varadkar also gave the game away when he admitted that, in the event of a crash-out, the UK and Ireland would have to negotiate a bilateral deal.

But if the Taoiseach accepts he would have to sit down and talk to the Brits after a crash-out, why on earth not head off that horror by talking to them now before a crash-out?

When I raise these contradictions I am asked: “What’s your alternative to the backstop?” Yes, actually asked what’s my alternative to forcing Theresa May into a hard Brexit!

My reply is that the best alternative would be to drop the hard backstop in favour of a legally binding time- limited soft backstop.

Lord Paul Bew, the distinguished Irish historian, in a recent policy paper, believes this is something we will have to do anyway. He says the backstop breaches the Good Friday Agreement by putting the EU above it.

But he also offers Leo Varadkar an honourable way out of the woods. He recalls – as George Mitchell did – how in 1998 Bertie Ahern defied the DFA to get the Good Friday Agreement.

Bew writes: “Fianna Fail Irish Taioseach Bertie Ahern saw the need for a genuine compromise and achieved an enduring place in history – securing Ireland’s most important interests along the way.

“It could be that a Fine Gael Taioseach, Leo Varadkar – himself something of a symbol of the new Irish Republic – may wish to emulate him over the coming days and weeks.”

Sunday Independent

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