An island that has forgotten the art of the backroom deal

‘Since the referendum, the attitude of the Irish government to the result—contemptuous, disbelieving, disrespectful—has grated. Leo Varadkar, a conformist individual, was in office at just the time when a fixer was what was needed’

Guest Speaker
Michel Barnier (left) and Leo Varadkar (European People's Party)

Being a Brexiteer in mixed society in London means keeping your trap shut; being an Irish Brexiteer or even professing in Ireland that you can see the point of Brexit is right up there with being opposed to gay marriage or keen on Donald Trump . . . an indication of a fundamentally problematic mindset, an impermissible view. In the local newsagent, I have a running battle with the proprietor over Brexit. “Boris Johnson, he’s an admirer of Churchill . . . but Churchill was no friend of Ireland,” he says sagely. Another old friend is blunter: “Antichrist,” he says tersely of Boris.

In fact, rather than itemise the people who’ve bitten my head off on this subject—at a funeral, on the Irish ferry, in the homes of my dearest friends—it’s easier to count on one hand the two and a half people who express sympathy with the impulses behind Brexit. One, an elderly man of fundamentally republican sympathies, surprised me by saying that Ireland was freer under the British than under Europe. The other, my apolitical hairdresser, said reflectively that “Ireland will never be independent again”. The half dissenter is my cousin, who says the atmosphere in Ireland of outright hysteria is overblown. “It’s going to be like the Millennium Bug,” she says. “We thought that there’d be mayhem with the fridges and the computers all collapsing. It was fine then, it’ll be fine now.”

One of the reasons I felt sympathy with Brexit was precisely because of what I might call the EU mindset in Ireland. It’s the freely expressed sentiment (whether true or false) that you can’t do X or Y—sell beef suet or control fishing grounds—because They Won’t Let You. “They” represent Europe as distant unchallengeable authority. Obviously every country compromises its autonomy in all sorts of ways by participating in international bodies—no country is an island, not even the actual island that is Ireland—but it was the general acceptance that sovereignty was a thing of the past which I disliked.

The experience of Ireland during the financial crisis of 2008 had an effect on me too. Famously, Ireland, as profligate with credit before the crash as a drunk in a bar, was a model to the rest of the EU when it came to fulfilling the terms of its bailout: austerity was embraced as a national project. But I was frankly shocked when it turned out that an Irish budget was approved in Berlin before it was submitted to the Irish parliament. Taking Back Control seemed like a good idea.

Back then, the financial regulator told the banks it was their responsibility to “don the green jersey”—in other words, sign up for the national team and help each other out. Disturbingly that same metaphor has now been adopted to crush any dissent from the official line on Brexit: when one opposition Fianna Fail TD tweeted a criticism of the failure of Irish diplomacy on Brexit during the last three years, a government senator, Neale Richmond took him to task: “All Irish political parties have donned the green jersey in a united approach in the interests of the country.”

Since the referendum, the attitude of the Irish government to the result—contemptuous, disbelieving, disrespectful—has grated. It’s unfortunate that Leo Varadkar, a conformist individual, was in office at just the time when a fixer was what was needed.

The former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, a politician of the old school, would have taken a radically different approach, even though he has been co-opted by Remainers. His initial impulse that he’d have used technology on the border to deal with the big stuff and would have turned a blind eye to the small, was the kind of pragmatic approach that Ireland would once have found natural. If a deal was needed, preferably a backroom deal, that is precisely what would have been agreed. In fact, Leo Varadkar’s predecessor, Enda Kenny, has been a good deal more sympathetic to the impulses behind Brexit than Varadkar, totem of the modern, post-nationalist Ireland.

For him, deference to Europe, the insistence that there was no scope for any kind of bilateral deal to stitch up a workable arrangement between Britain and Ireland regarding the border, has been symptomatic of the new order, the one that thinks it better to be a fraction of a whole, 1/27,  than to be a victim of history and geography and in hock to Britain.

And I’m a bit tired of fetishising the backstop, the means to prevent a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. On this, Varadkar has gone beyond the terms agreed between Theresa May and the EU which would have allowed for technical and administrative solutions to avoid customs posts at the border.

Instead, as one Irish Times columnist, Newton Emerson, observed,  he has “effectively ruled out addressing the backstop during the transition period or replacing it with a future trading arrangement, driving as much of a coach and horses through the withdrawal agreement as [Boris] Johnson.” Intransigence is now government policy.

Modern Ireland is in fact a conformist place. Journalism is monotonal, with most Irish journalists channelling the Guardian; there is no nonconformist equivalent of spiky British journalists such as Rod Liddle or Dominic Lawson. In fact, I can think of about two columnists who take dissident views on Brexit: David Quinn, of the Irish Sunday Times and Bruce Arnold, formerly of the Irish Independent. That doesn’t make for decent journalism, let alone robust political debate about what is in the best interests of Ireland when it comes to Brexit.

Ireland has changed; everyone agrees on that. What Brexit has made clear is the extent to which it has not changed for the better: it’s more subject to groupthink, more deferential to a bigger entity, less independent than at any time since independence.

An Irish Brexiteer sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Yet, it’s precisely being Irish that made me sympathetic to Brexit in the first place.