PRESS FOCUS – The green jersey may turn out to be a bad fit

Official Ireland’s rigid approach to the Brexit backstop shows we are incapable of learning from our Celtic tiger mistakes, David Quinn writes in the Sunday Times

This is getting very puzzling. When an English newspaper publishes an article attacking the Irish government and Ireland, it stirs up anti-Irish feeling, apparently. However, when our own newspapers publish articles attacking the British government and England, it’s perfectly acceptable.

We are now three years into non-stop attacks on the British government and anyone who voted for Brexit. The Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole regularly appears in The Guardian or on Channel 4 News to pour scorn on the British government and the Tories who supported leaving the EU.

In a recent column, he spoke of “a reckless and decadent [British] ruling class for whom everything is desperate but nothing is serious”. Many English commentators feel the same, and we have heard plenty from them on this side of the Irish Sea too. When Britain voted to leave the European Union, the Guardian writer Polly Toynbee raised the spectre of her country expelling foreigners: “What dark place does Britain for the British take us to?”

“We are diminished,” wrote the columnist Gary Younge in the same paper. “Our politics are poisoned, our discourse is fragile, our leaders are discredited.”

The pop superstar Elton John said of Britain: “I’m ashamed of my country for what it has done. It’s torn people apart . . . I am sick to death of politicians, especially British politicians. I am sick to death of Brexit. I am a European. I am not a stupid, colonial, imperialist English idiot.”

Strong stuff, but all accepted as fair comment. When the tables are turned, however, it’s another matter. Attacks in the “Tory press” on Ireland are roundly condemned, and when one of these is penned by an Englishman who has lived here for decades, it’s worse.

In an opinion piece for the Daily Telegraph last week, the former Irish Independent columnist Bruce Arnold launched a scathing attack on what he sees as the Irish government’s anti-British Brexit strategy. Arnold slammed the “ridiculous behaviour of the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and his foreign minister, Simon Coveney”, saying they were “trying to destroy, like wilful children, relations with an ancient and friendly neighbour”. He accused “little Ireland and the huge EU” of “refusing to recognise the democratic decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union”.

Arnold then delivered an inflammatory coup de grace: “The ridiculous country in which I live is helping Europe in this abuse.”

Coveney quickly reacted. On Twitter, he said: “Looks like we’ll have to live with inaccurate, divisive articles like this for next few weeks, aimed at unsettling people — best ignored.” But he didn’t ignore it, did he?

Academics such as Brigid Laffan of the EU-backed European University Institute joined the attack on Arnold, as did some of his former journalistic colleagues.

Official Ireland’s use of a three-line whip to keep everyone in order was also in evidence a few days earlier, when Fianna Fail’s Timmy Dooley tweeted that the “stand off” with the UK was a “direct result of taoiseach Varadkar’s failure to engage in basic diplomacy over the past two years”.

The attacks on Dooley rolled in from across the political spectrum and he was even taken to task by his party leader, Micheál Martin. On Twitter, Martin laid the full blame for the current British-Irish impasse on Boris Johnson. Chastened, Dooley removed his tweet.

Maybe Martin should really have chastised himself, as in a front-page interview in this newspaper last summer he accused Varadkar of preferring “megaphone diplomacy over substantive engagement” with the UK. He claimed the taoiseach had dragged down British-Irish relations to their lowest ebb since before the signing of the Good Friday agreement.

Martin’s volte-face in 12 months is a sure sign of how touchy and panicky our leaders have become since Johnson became the British prime minister.

A common criticism of Dooley was that he had removed the “green jersey” every Irish politician is being forced to wear as part of a united front against Johnson and his attacks on the backstop.

Fine Gael senator Neale Richmond, responding to Dooley, said: “Up to now, Fianna Fail has supported the Irish government’s strong and consistent approach to the Brexit negotiations. In fact, all Irish political parties have donned the green jersey in a united approach in the interests of the country.”

We’re in dangerous waters here. In Britain, the Remain and Leave voters ought to have an equal claim to the Union flag. In Ireland, those who want to criticise the backstop strategy should have as much right to wear the “green jersey” as anyone else.

The last occasion when people were forced to wear the “green jersey” was during the banking crisis. The financial regulator in 2008 allegedly told bank executives to “don the green jersey” and help each other out. And we know how that ended.

We also had to wear it during the preceding property boom. The entire economy and political system were staked on keeping the bubble going as long as possible. It fuelled huge public spending hikes; countless jobs depended on it directly or indirectly; and untold numbers took out huge debts to invest in property. Those who feared it would end in disaster were denounced. We know how that ended, too.

We seem incapable of learning from past mistakes. We are playing for high stakes with the high-risk backstop strategy. It could easily fail and result in the very thing it is intended to prevent, namely a “hard border”.

No political party questions the strategy, and few in the media do so either. As we saw, those who have raised doubts are roundly attacked. The approach is that we win big, or we lose big, but by sticking together, no one can be singled out for blame if it all goes horribly wrong.

During the Celtic tiger era, we inflated a massive property bubble. Now a huge “backstop bubble” is inflating before our very eyes.

The Sunday Times, August 4 2019