If you’re playing cards with British make sure you supply the deck

If you’re playing cards with British make sure you supply the deck
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the MacGill summer school in Glenties, Donegal where he said that a no-deal Brexit would prompt more liberal unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland to consider joining a united Ireland. Picture: Michael McHugh/PA Wire.

Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. The Taoiseach, that is.

An increasing number of the voices you hear on the radio and read in the newspapers are saying the same thing.

Brexit? It’s all Leo’s fault. And if it’s not his, it’s Simon’s.

With his unerring insights into the inside track, the Sunday Independent’s Eoghan Harris was even able to tell us over the weekend that the Taoiseach was actually pondering a compromise on the backstop when Simon Coveney got “tetchy” on British TV, causing the Taoiseach to panic and run up the green flag.

I have to be honest and tell you I didn’t notice the moment when the Tánaiste upended the Taoiseach on live television.

Mind you, I hadn’t realised, until I read Eoghan Harris, that the backstop was designed by our Department of Foreign Affairs and implemented on instructions from Dublin by the entire European Union, bent to our will.

According to the front page of the same newspaper, a new opinion poll reveals that “Varadkar’s tactics fuel Brexit fears”. That’s surely proof, if proof you needed, that Brexit must be Leo’s fault.

Mind you, the figures in the poll don’t quite tell the story that we all think Leo is to blame. When people we asked how satisfied they were with the Taoiseach’s approach to Brexit, 43% of us said we were.

Some 27% of us aren’t, 22% of us are neutral, and 8% of us have no opinion. In any man’s language, that means a significant majority of people who have an opinion on the matter support the Taoiseach’s approach.

That doesn’t mean he’s always going to be right, or that his view will prevail in the end.

A moment may well come in the next few months when a new settlement becomes necessary to prevent the United Kingdom from leaving the European Union without agreement.

Most people, I reckon, understand that’s the most catastrophic outcome possible.

And it may well be the case that as part of any new settlement, Ireland will have to offer some form of compromise.

But — and here I must respectfully disagree with the views expressed by my colleague Daniel McConnell in this paper last Saturday — until a compromise is visible, there must be no compromise.

The Irish Government has not been guilty of gloating or triumphalism. It has not sought to rub Britain’s nose in the dirt, nor to manipulate European sentiment against the British.

It has done what any Irish Government has to do in a crisis. It has sought to defend our interests, and in this case the interests of Northern Ireland.

Apart from anything else, one of the things the Taoiseach and Government have to bear in mind is that many of the same commentators who continually press for compromise will not applaud them, if and when they actually compromise.

Some will say it should have happened much earlier, some will simply accuse the Government of selling out a vital national interest. That’s why this is one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t moments.

And its not the first. Garret FitzGerald endured months of dog’s abuse after Margaret Thatcher’s “out, out, out” speech at a crucial moment in Anglo-Irish relations.

Albert Reynolds went bald-headed at John Major when, at the last moment, the British made fundamental changes to the text of what was to become the Downing Street Declaration.

John Bruton had to summon all his nerve to cancel a summit with Major over changes they made in the text of the Joint Framework Documents, the forerunner to the Good Friday Agreement.

The Irish delegation at the Stormont talks on the Good Friday Agreement had to hold its nerve when the deputy leader of Unionism at the time, John Taylor, said he wouldn’t touch the agreement with a 40-foot pole.

When you’re negotiating with the British government, the first rule is that you hold your nerve. Smile politely, roll out the tea and biscuits, and keep saying no.

Sooner or later, a new idea emerges, and things that were impossible — unthinkable — yesterday become commonplace tomorrow.

It is of course possible that things may be different now. The UK has elected a new prime minister who is going to govern by the Trump playbook. Which is to say, he’s going to play to his base — the hard line Brexiteer base — for as long as he can.

And his real game, in all probability, is not Europe, but a general election. There will be months of bluster, leading to no new agreement.

That will be followed by a proposal to the House of Commons that Britain leave without a deal — because Europe and the bloody-minded Irish have forced our hands.

If the House of Commons disagrees, and all the precedents say they will — parliament will be dissolved and a general election will be under way.

In that election, the British people will be offered a pretty binary choice. Leave on our own terms. Stand up to Europe. Put the Irish back in their box.

They’re the lines that will be crafted into campaign messages by the man Harris describes as Europe’s best spin doctor, Dominic Cummings. (Cummings was the alleged mastermind behind the Brexit campaign. He’s a man who uses illegally gotten data to manipulate fear and distrust into what he wants.)

On the other side of that choice, as things stand, is a pretty simple message right now. Yes, we’re going to leave. But on negotiated terms.

Protecting the things that need to be protected, like the rights of people, like decent standards in food and the environment, like the Good Friday Agreement.

The big issue right now is who is going to carry that message to the people with passion and conviction? Who can match Boris’s bluster and debating skill, assuming Boris debates?

Sadly, the answer to that question right now is Jeremy Corbyn.

It's not an awe-inspiring prospect. I have no doubt whatever that one of the reasons Boris believes he can win an election is the incoherence of the opposition on this one central question.

But at the end of the day, Boris has proved that the only thing he’s really interested in is in winning.

And he may win. Nobody can predict right now the outcome of a British general election, or even how a campaign might unfold.

Boris is so unpredictable that we have no idea what aspect of his private or public life might emerge to do him in.

We do know that behind the façade of political party unity, there are more than a few Tories who hate him with a passion.

So we have to watch and wait. The last thing we should do is roll over to have our tummy tickled.

The history of Anglo-Irish relations tells us very clearly that if you’re playing cards with the British government, even while we’re the best friends in the world, you have to make sure that you supply the deck.

That has always been the case — but never more so that now, when there is a complete chancer and life-long bluffer on the other side of the card table.

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