Ireland is too hardline on the backstop

Ireland is too hardline on the backstop
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin slapped down his communications spokesman, Timmy Dooley, over a tweet this week criticising the Government's stance on Brexit.

Already, huge damage is being done to relations between Ireland and Britain, writes Daniel McConnell

To challenge the Irish line on Brexit has become tantamount to treason.

Witness poor Timmy ‘Trigger’ Dooley, who shot from the hip with a tweet that lashed out at Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s handling of the backstop issue.

The Clare TD and communications spokesman tweeted, earlier on Tuesday, that a “standoff” with the UK was a “direct result of Varadkar’s failure to engage in basic diplomacy over the past two years”.

“The Government’s lack of experience and arrogance will hurt Ireland in the coming months,” Mr Dooley added in the message, which he later deleted.

Cue outrage.

The comments from Dooley, as a senior spokesman in Fianna Fáil, were seized upon as a weakening in support for the country’s Brexit strategy (including the backstop) and as a deviation from the political consensus in Dublin.

His comments followed a poll in the Sunday Independent last weekend, which showed reduced public support for Varadkar’s hardline stance on the backstop and the withdrawal agreement.

Tensions were rising as Varadkar, at that stage, had not yet spoken with the new British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and there was increased scrutiny of Ireland by the rabid pro-Brexit press in Britain.

Irish Government supporters lashed out at Dooley’s tweet, decrying its irresponsibility and recklessness.

Bizarrely, Sinn Féin deputies rebuked Dooley and voiced support for Fine Gael’s insistence that the backstop and the withdrawal agreement were the only show in town.

Within a couple of hours, Dooley was publicly rebuked by his own party leader, Micheál Martin, who said that Fianna Fáil backs the Government’s stance.

In his school teacher manner, Martin scolded the bold Timmy on Twitter: “To be absolutely clear: the refusal by PM Boris Johnson to engage with European leaders and our Taoiseach, without preconditions on the issue of Brexit, is unacceptable and is not within the realms of normal diplomatic or political behaviour.”

Dooley was left with no option but to delete the tweet; a humiliating climbdown. Other senior Fianna Fáil figures expressed anger with Dooley, and said Martin had to publicly slap him down.

But another episode showed just how dangerous a position we are in. I am talking about the over-the-top reaction to a scathing piece written by Bruce Arnold in the Daily Telegraph. In the article, headlined, ‘Bought by Brussels, little Ireland’s ridiculous leaders have landed it in a Brexit crisis’, Arnold branded Varadkar and Simon Coveney “uncertain fools”, acting like “wilful children” in the destruction of Anglo-Irish relations.

“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.

“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.”

He described this approach as “painful and embarrassing stuff”, and was highly critical of the EU’s treatment of the UK. The outcry from Dublin was loud, fervent, and nonsensical.

So, credence was given to the rantings of a journalist who stopped being relevant in the broader political debate 20 years ago. The article also smacked of being written to order for a paper that has been a champion of Boris Johnson and of Brexit. While his views may not be palatable to Dublin, Arnold is entitled to them. As was Dooley with his criticism of Varadkar.

The reaction to Arnold and Dooley illustrates a dangerous, enforced conformity of thought. At such a critical time for our country, all viewpoints should be heard and articulated. If yours is the best argument, then it will surely hold out.

A prolonged and dangerous consensus has established around the backstop. It has only been challenged by a few voices, including economist Dan O’Brien and columnist Eoghan Harris.

The Government’s handling of the Brexit crisis has not been challenged enough by the opposition and the media, who seem happy to swallow whatever is fed out of Merrion Street.

All of this has taken on greater importance since Johnson took over, given that Britain is in a stand-off with Dublin and Brussels over the withdrawal agreement, which would secure Britain’s orderly exit from the EU. London is refusing to accept the inclusion of the backstop, while Europe is refusing to drop it.

Perhaps a more realistic explanation for the over-the-top reaction to Dooley and Arnold is that since Johnson’s elevation, Varadkar has become, more than before, the bogey man to the Brexit-loving press in Britain.

This is typified by Richard Littlejohn’s jingoistic column in the Daily Mail last week, in which he branded our Taoiseach a “pipsqueak” and referred to him as “Lenny Verruca”.

“I’m also led to believe that Steve Barclay, who is staying on as Brexit secretary, has been to Dublin and read the riot act to pipsqueak Irish prime minister, Lenny Verruca, reminding him on which side of his bread he’ll find the Kerrygold. As a consequence, Verruca is coming under serious pressure at home to stop playing silly beggars on the so-called backstop,” he wrote with remarkable inaccuracy.

On one level, it is understandable that the Government has held hard and fast to the backstop principle. Leading civil servants and experts have been adamant that Ireland can’t allow Britain off the hook and let them think the solution to all of this is anywhere but London.

I get that, I really do, but as I wrote in December 2017, and repeatedly since, our insistence on such a hard line may look good from an Irish perspective, but risks being too much for Westminster and Whitehall to accept. I have been proven correct: The withdrawal agreement has been rejected by the Commons three times and Johnson has declared it dead.

Johnson’s determination to leave on October 31 has escalated the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit, which would be disastrous for Ireland.

Behind the scenes here, officials in all departments are ramping up plans for that disorderly exit. We hope a deal can be reached in time, but, already, huge damage is being done to relations between Ireland and Britain. Tempers are running high, but rounding on those with alternative views (stupid ones included) is not the answer.

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