Our next-door neighbour is in the biggest mess it has been in peacetime... Fergus Finlay says you couldn’t make it up.
WHO’D be a pundit these days? Even if you had a crystal ball, or all the talents of the three witches in Macbeth, you couldn’t possibly have a clue what’s going to happen next. And you certainly can’t attempt to predict the future on the basis of past performance.
On Sunday on the radio I was invited by Ivan Yates to speculate on what’s going to happen next when it comes to Britain and Northern Ireland and Brexit, and then on what kind of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is going to be. I failed to measure up, because I’ve come to the view that it’s now pretty well impossible to predict the next turn in the political road. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone in a year from now.
Of course, nobody in any event can match Ivan’s certainty about everything. I did try to tease him by wondering how soon it would be before he broadcast that Leo had to go. He laughed and said “give me a couple of weeks anyway”. He’s a bit like Vincent Browne in that respect.
Over the course of his illustrious career, sooner or later Vincent always ends up writing a column whose opening line is “this is the worst government in the history of the State”. I think he’s written that column about every government since Jack Lynch was taoiseach. (Occasionally, of course, when you do that you turn out to be right.) But how to be right in a time of astonishing political uncertainty?
As I write this, Theresa May looks doomed. One senior backbencher was quoted in the Guardian newspaper over the weekend as saying she would have to give a “barnstorming” performance at the so-called 1922 Committee (effectively a meeting of the backbenchers of the party) if she is to survive. If there’s one thing she doesn’t appear to be capable of, on the evidence of the last few weeks, it’s a barnstorming performance.
I can’t remember the last time a party leader in the UK was so found out as a consequence of her own decisions. Throughout the election campaign she called, Ms May was revealed as being little more than an empty shell.
I have to say I thought that was the big surprise of the election. Whether I like them or dislike them, senior British politicians, at least on the media, always come across as people of substance. They don’t shirk interviews as Ms May did, and they generally manage to give a good account of themselves. She didn’t do interviews, it’s now clear, because she couldn’t. She had been rehearsed in a few sound-bites, and was clearly incapable of going beyond that.
I suspect now, if they decide to keep her, it will be for one reason and one reason only. The fear of Boris. I find it impossible to think that a responsible political party in the heart of the democratic world would choose as its leader someone who is so palpably vain, so clearly narcissistic, who has such a cavalier relationship with the truth, who has a track record as a bully.
And that will tell you what a poor pundit I am. Because of course, another political party in a proud democracy has already allowed that to happen. It must only be a matter of time before Boris joins Donald as the leaders of the strangest alliance in the history of the world. And where will we be then?
In democratic terms, the rest of us are going to have to choose between right-wing leaders who are bombastic, dishonest and populist, and right-wing leaders who have demonstrated a potential for decency and consistency. The world, at least our bit of it, will have to choose between the Boris and Donald axis, or rest all our hopes in the embryonic Germany/France relationship between Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. And that, of course, assumes that Angela will survive her own election this year.
There is one ray of light in the middle of all this. Jeremy Corbyn. Utterly reviled by the majority of the British media, nominated to the leadership of his own party as a sort of joke, a career-long history of disloyalty to whoever was the leader of his party — all these things were replaced in this election by a fresh and value-based campaign based on a manifesto that resonated with thousands of people.
Corbyn emerged, as Sanders did in the States, as the hope of thousands of young people. Along the way, he demonstrated there is real potential in the medium term for an honest, inspiring and challenging left-wing vision, properly communicated and fought for with conviction. I can’t help wonderingif there is a way to heal the divisions on the left in Ireland, and develop as compelling a vision as that?
But to come back to the immediate situation. Today, Arlene Foster and Theresa May are meeting in London. By teatime we’ll know the basis of the deal with which Theresa May hopes to cling to power. It will deal with all sorts of stuff, and will give the DUP a status that they wouldn’t have dreamed possible weeks ago. But how long will it be, I wonder, before someone challenges their deal in the courts.
The Good Friday Agreement, to which the British government is committed, is utterly clear on one thing. On its first substantive page, it says the British government will exercise its power in the North “with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions”. It commits the government, in clear language, to “the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities”.
There was no such agreement in place when John Major had to depend on James Molyneaux and the Ulster Unionists. But it’s there now, and I reckon it’s at least arguable that a clause like that prevents the British government from entering into an agreement with any party in Northern Ireland to the exclusion of others. How do you square “rigorous impartiality” with a sweetheart deal with one of the parties in Northern Ireland?
So, much as it pains me as a pundit to say it, the only thing possible to predict right now is unpredictability. It seems to me that our next door neighbour is in the biggest mess it has been in peacetime. They don’t seem to have the personnel to negotiate their way through Brexit, never mind any kind of strategy. It’s entirely possible that the election result was actually a message from the people that they’re maybe not that keen on Brexit after all.
And in the middle of all that, there is the real possibility that someone will look at the amazing array of complex and intricate problems they’ve created for themselves, and decide that the answer is Boris. As a friend of mine often says at moments like this, you couldn’t make it up.
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