Letters to the Editor: 'Compromise on the backstop would solve nothing now'
The core weakness of Leo Varadkar's position is that a no-deal Brexit would create a hard customs Border with Northern Ireland - precisely the outcome his insistence on the backstop is designed to avoid.
Consequently, there are increasing calls from Fianna Fáil's Timmy Dooley and in the media for Mr Varadkar to back down from his insistence on the backstop in order to enable the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement through the House of Commons. In my view there are at least four flaws in this argument:
The bottom line: We are where we are, and there is no going back.
- It is becoming increasingly clear even removing the backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement entirely wouldn't guarantee its passage through the House of Commons. Hardline Brexiteers actually seem to want a no-deal Brexit.
- The EU has staked its entire position and credibility on avoiding a hard customs Border in Ireland (which they know would be a smugglers' paradise in any case). For Mr Varadkar to cave on this now would be like a stab in the back, undermining perhaps the most impressive display of EU solidarity in its history. He would lose all credibility with his EU peers were he to let them down now.
- Although there are isolated calls for compromise now, the moment Mr Varadkar concedes he and his party are consigned to electoral history. Fine Gael has never quite recovered from perceptions of being soft on patriotism by agreeing to the partition of Ireland as part of the 1922 peace settlement with Great Britain in the first place. This caused a civil war and an enduring split in Irish politics. To cave in to British bluff and bluster would be a national humiliation and would give Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin the boost they badly need.
- Compromising on the backstop would be seen as a betrayal of the people of Northern Ireland, who have benefited from border-less travel and trade with the Republic since the Good Friday Agreement and who voted by a large majority against Brexit. Many in the North (and not just nationalists) are also Irish citizens and would lose the EU dimension of that citizenship and the protections of their identity in the Good Friday Agreement if the backstop is dropped.
I have been a little concerned at the number of calls in the Irish media for Varadker to "show flexibility" and to compromise on the Irish backstop. Usually these calls are couched in well meaning terms of recognising the long and close association we have with the UK and the danger the current sharp deterioration in that relationship poses for our economy going forward.
Sometimes they are couched in quite vituperative terms by writers such as Bruce Arnold who used to be the lead political writer for the Irish Independent. Generally they betray quite a servile attitude to the UK. It is as if the sharp deterioration in the Irish British relationship caused by Brexit is somehow all our own fault.
Arnold, in an opinion article for the Daily Telegraph published on Wednesday, delivered a scathing assessment of the Government's policy and approach to Brexit.
"This is tough right now, being a proud and loyal British subject who has lived in, and loved, Ireland for more than 60 years," he wrote in the piece, headlined `Bought by Brussels, little Ireland's ridiculous leaders have landed it in a Brexit crisis'.
"What is tough is watching the ridiculous behaviour of the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his foreign minister, Simon Coveney, trying to destroy, like wilful children, relations with an ancient and friendly neighbour.
"Whatever faults the British may have, they understand independence and freedom. I can understand why they mock the ridiculous behaviour of these two men.
"Varadkar and Coveney are both members of Fine Gael, a party that has its roots in the fight 100 years ago to secure independence and freedom for Ireland. Yet now here they are trying to block the UK's path to the same independence and freedom."
Claiming that the British understand "independence and Freedom" and likening the fight for Brexit to the Irish fight for Independence are two canards which come up frequently in Brexiteer comments direct at the Irish. From an Irish perspective describing the UK as "an ancient and friendly neighbour" beggars belief, and their understanding of independence and freedom seems much more like an obsession with dominance and control: Comparing Brexit with the fight for Irish freedom when many people died or were executed by the British is hugely insulting.
And while the UK tabloids have been having a field day heaping personal abuse on "little Leo" Varadker and Simon Coveney, one would have expected a little more cop-on from "a leading Irish political correspondent". Such abuse merely increases the political support for Varadker and Coveney in Ireland and further diminishes the UK in Irish eyes. Arnold went on to describe Theresa May's approach to the Brexit negotiations as "painful and embarrassing stuff", and was highly critical of the EU's treatment of the UK:
"The European Parliament had a brief walk-on part in the humiliations - to approve the draft agreement. They seemed from time to time to be sniggering behind their hands at this unfortunate woman who was betrayed on all sides."
Arnold, who has written for several newspapers including The Irish Times, the Irish Press, the Sunday Independent, and the Guardian, accused Dublin of acting as "cheerleader for these tormentors".
"Yet their cheerleading operates in terms that make no sense at all," he said. "Varadkar and Coveney are increasingly uncertain fools. Their desire to be players in a game they don't understand is causing their clothing to unravel and their minds to lose their way.
"Their determination to work against the UK's desire for a smooth and prosperous Brexit will in the end leave Ireland diplomatically estranged from its most important trade and political partner.
"With some satisfaction I see that public opinion in Ireland is at last questioning their policies."
Arnold, who was awarded an OBE in 2003 "for services to Irish journalism and Anglo-Irish relations", said Brussels was using the "spaniel-like euro-eagerness" of the Government "for its own ends".
He added: "Once Brussels gets what it wants, it will dump all interest in Irish concerns.
"What Varadkar and Coveney are doing is helping Brussels to block the path for the UK government to implement the democratic decision of the British people to leave the EU. There was a referendum. The people gave their decision.
"And yet a Dublin government which brags that it is republican and democratic denigrates this decision as populism. It colludes with the EU to try to have the decision dismissed and resisted."
The European Parliament can be forgiven for a little schadenfreude given the abuse it has constantly endured from Nigel Farage and friends. And for the umpteenth time Arnold repeats the canard that Ireland is somehow trying to prevent the UK implementing the democratic decision of the British people. It is not: if the UK wants to engage in an act of self-harm, that is their prerogative. But the Irish Government has a responsibility to ensure that Irish interests are protected as much as possible from the damage that will inevitably be caused by the Brexit process.
In short Bruce Arnold, like many Brexiteers, seems to have a problem with Ireland acting independently of Britain, and puts it down to Varadker and Coveney acting like Spaniels eager to please their EU masters. Arnold for his part, seems to have repaid the OBE he was awarded "for services to Irish journalism and Anglo-Irish relations" in spades. He won't be getting any awards from Irish sources for this article.
Northern Irish unionist commentator, Newton Emerson, has written that:
What everyone in Northern Ireland actually sees is a rise in British nationalism provoking a rise in Irish nationalism. That leads nowhere but disaster, as all good Europeans ought to know.
He may have a point. But what is striking, from an Irish perspective, is how slow and measured that Irish nationalist response has been. Fine Gael is the least nationalist major Irish political party, and Varadker and Coveney and the Irish government in general have been moderate and reasoned in response to much provocation by British and DUP media and politicians.
Varadker, in particular, may have been doing too much talking about the possibilities and risks of a United Ireland for this writer's tastes, as I think the two issues are separate and shouldn't be confused with one another in official government communications. But even those pronouncements have been moderate and cautious and within the context of the Good Friday Agreement.
A little more respect from British media, commentators and politicians wouldn't go amiss. Ireland may soon become the only friend the UK still has within the EU, not that we can expect much thanks for it. Perhaps, in some ways, Brexit could be the making of Ireland as an independent country as well: forcibly removed from over-dependence on Irish/UK trading links and dominance by their media and companies like Tesco importing almost solely British brands.
There is nothing too wrong with that in an EU context: it is normal for a small country to have a heavy dependency on a much more powerful close neighbour. But at least the EU guarantees us a near equal voice at the table, something we never enjoyed as a colony of Great Britain. I am viscerally opposed to fanatical nationalism within a European context because of all the senseless wars it has caused, but Bruce Arnold and his ilk may make an Irish nationalist of me yet...