“All alone, alone here in the world our fathers braved. . . and compared to them we’re matchstick men”.
The line above is from a new song by Ireland’s best political songwriter and singer, Eamonn O’Connor. I have been singing that song, and that line, in my head all week.
Watching the continuing Brexit ‘car crash’ in Westminster, those words are so perfectly apt, given the appalling behaviour of some so-called political leaders.
On Monday, to avoid a defeat in the House of Commons, Britain’s embattled prime minister, Theresa May, capitulated to the Jacob Rees-Mogg brigade of hard-line Brexiteers and accepted four amendments.
From an Irish perspective, the crucial one makes it illegal to establish a customs border in the Irish Sea, thereby reneging on the promise of last December to give Northern Ireland a special status.
May’s appeasement of Mogg, Boris Johnson, David Davis, and others was immediately denounced by the Remainers in the Tory party, who were May’s prime supporters.
The capitulation led to an extraordinary contribution from Tory MP, Anna Soubry, who stuck it to Rees-Mogg (who is worth an estimated £450m).
“If we do not do that [deliver frictionless trade], thousands of jobs will go and honourable members sitting on these benches in private conversations know that to be the case,” she said.
“And what they have said, in those private conversations, is that the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs will be worth it to regain our country’s sovereignty. You tell that to the people of my constituency! You tell that to the people who voted ‘leave’ in my constituency. Nobody voted to be poorer and nobody voted leave on the basis that somebody with a gold-plated pension and inherited wealth will take their job away from them,” she roared, as she pointed in Rees-Mogg’s direction.
It is frankly alarming that May has not learned the lessons of Neville Chamberlain, in that appeasement does not work, cannot work, and will only lead to disaster.
But alarming as the antics in London were, something even more alarming happened here on Tuesday.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was attending the official event to mark the establishment of Dublin’s Technical University, at the swanky Grangegorman campus.
There, I asked him about the events in Britain and the Irish response.
He said an extraordinary thing. He said the turmoil in London “shouldn’t give us cause for panic, and certainly shouldn’t give us any reason to change our position”.
“And our position is as it has been for two years. We want to maintain the CTA, avoid a hard border between North and South, and avoid any disruption to trade between the UK and Ireland,” he said.
“The votes that have taken place will obviously have to go on to the House of Lords, but the one thing we all know is that when it comes to the withdrawal agreement, I think we can come to a withdrawal agreement in October, that also has to be approved by Westminster and the European Parliament,” the Taoiseach said.
The vote on the withdrawal agreement in Westminster will supersede any of the votes that are happening now, he insisted.
So, a vote of the House of Commons that makes it illegal to adopt the Irish backstop arrangement, as agreed, is no big deal.
This is a vote of the sovereign parliament. Not a motion, not a proposal, but an actual vote.
The House has spoken.
To listen to the Taoiseach, his Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, and EU Affairs Minister, Helen McEntee, such votes are inconsequential.
Such talk from the Irish Government was plain daft. To minimise such a vote undermines the credibility of the message coming from Dublin.
The one-time, cast-iron guarantee of that backstop, as Varadkar described it last December, is now looking very shaky indeed.
In Belfast, yesterday, May ruled out agreeing to any border backstop based on the European Union’s proposal to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and parts of the single market.
She told the European Union to “evolve” its stance on Brexit, warning that previous positions are “unworkable”.
The EU’s proposal is in breach of the Belfast Agreement, leaving the people of Northern Ireland without their own voice in trade negotiations and would be destabilising for their economy, she said.
As Patrick Smyth, of the Irish Times, reported yesterday, Varadkar’s confidence is not shared in Brussels, according to diplomats.
Sources in Brussels have said they are yet “to discuss with Ireland how it would secure the internal market in the context of a no-deal”.
The sources warned that Brussels will not allow there to be a loophole in the single market.
Varadkar’s plea for us not to panic would sound far more credible but for the uncertainty in his eyes.
Also, his continued denials that Ireland is preparing, in some shape or fashion, for the worst-case scenario (a border between North and South) are also beginning to ring hallow.
If you are preparing for the worst-case scenario, you don’t ignore the actual worst-case scenario and hope it doesn’t happen.
I understand there is some logic in being reluctant to give voice to such plans, because by doing so you signal it is something you will accept, but, on the other hand, insisting you are not preparing for it is simply not true. And the truth always outs.
After an extended show of solidarity from the EU toward Ireland on the border issue, over the past two years, cracks are beginning to show.
It leads one to conclude that Europe will not think twice about screwing Ireland, if it has to, in order to screw Britain. We are so small and peripheral to the grander scheme of things that when push comes to shove, in October, or whenever, will the Irish veto still apply?
I wouldn’t hold my breath.
A tribute to Tadhg
On a sad note, this morning I will travel to Mount Merrion to pay a final farewell to Tadhg De Brun, historian, musician and RTÉ stalwart, who sadly died earlier this week.
Tadhg was an enormous influence on me and introduced me, in a visceral way, to Michael Collins. He composed the music for an RTÉ documentary by Colm Connolly, called the Shadow of Béal Na Blath, and in the days when houses had fewer than five VHS tapes, that recording was played endlessly by me and cemented my lifelong interest in that period of Irish history.
His composition of a funeral march for the programme is one of a few pieces on the piano I can still play. Unfortunately, I saw less of him in recent years, but I am forever in his debt.