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Old 21-09-2019, 07:07 AM
Happyhonkaman Happyhonkaman is offline
Join Date: Apr 2014
Posts: 20,580

FinnY summons Caligula

Fintan O’Toole: We must let Boris Johnson declare his genius

A version of the Northern Ireland-only backstop would be a triumph of Irish diplomacy

about an hour ago
Last Sunday, if you bought Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times north of the Border or in Britain, you would have had the pleasure of reading Rod Liddle’s column on an opinion poll suggesting there might be a majority in Northern Ireland for a united Ireland.

“I’m all for that if it means a united Ireland under British control. I think the Irish would be delighted to reacquaint themselves with the immeasurable benefits of rule from Westminster. I suppose it is possible, if improbable, that the poll meant a united Ireland under Dublin’s control, but I find that hard to believe. Even if some commentators have suggested, darkly, that this was the intention of the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, all along, his unneighbourly intransigence and spite designed to reignite the issue.”

But if you bought the Sunday Times south of the Border, you would have missed this treat. You’d have had to settle instead for the considered and coherent thoughts of the paper’s superb Irish columnist, Justine McCarthy.

There is nothing especially unusual in this cynical tailoring of messages to different audiences. (Though it does, incidentally, remind us that the right-wing provocation that parades under the banner of “free speech” is in fact carefully shaped to the commercial interests of media owners.)

Yet it usefully illustrates a truth that may become increasingly important in the coming weeks – there are different audiences for any discourse about Brexit. And just as Murdoch, in his infinite tenderness, shields his readers in the Republic from certain aspects of English opinion, we may have to govern our own tongues if Boris Johnson is to get a deal through parliament.

I’ve suggested before that the British government will eventually end up with the Caligula option. That famously mad Roman emperor now seems a model of good governance compared with the antics in Whitehall and Westminster,

Johnson, as a classicist, surely remembers what he did when he needed to declare a great triumph. He marched his legions to northern France, apparently in readiness to invade Britain. But he got fed up with the whole business and instead ordered them to line up along the shore. He told them to fill their helmets and tunic laps with seashells which were, he declared, “plunder from the ocean”.

Glorious triumph

He then granted himself a glorious triumph which was lavishly celebrated in Rome.

The Caligula option for Johnson is some version of the Northern Ireland-only backstop with some mechanism for involving the Stormont assembly. One might, perhaps, add an international commission of experts to examine the viability of alternative technological solutions.

It is by no means clear that Johnson has the capacity to make such a deal – and the 30 days he granted himself on August 21st to come up with his solution to the backstop elapsed without a squeak yesterday. But what happens if he does?

Any deal can be politically viable – in other words, get through parliament – only if Johnson can return with his helmet full of seashells and declare a historic triumph. And for that to be possible, the Irish government will have to exercise heroic self-restraint. Leo Varadkar will have to be like the host on a tacky game show, applauding the contestant who is going home, not with a million pounds, but with a hideous plaster bust of Winston Churchill – ooh, didn’t he do well!

At the heart of this necessity is that strange human imperative: saving face. The great problem of Brexit has always been that it presented a choice between unpalatable alternatives: carry on towards self-harm or climb down. You either let the hot air balloon of warlike rhetoric fly you over the cliff or you deflate it with as much dignity as you can manage.

The second option is clearly the lesser of two evils but it is hard to execute. There are two big obstacles, one psychological, one political.

The psychological obstacle is humiliation. It has been a constant cry throughout this whole saga – if Britain is not getting everything it demands, it is being humiliated. (The apogee of humiliation was reached on Monday, when Johnson was mocked by mighty Luxembourg.)

Framing of Brexit

The idea is embedded in the framing of Brexit as a replay of the second World War: you either win the war or you are defeated and forced to surrender. Thus Johnson (presumably under instruction from Dominic Cummings) repeatedly refers to the act of parliament that stops him crashing out with no deal as the “surrender Bill”. It is hard to retreat when you have defined retreat as surrender.

And the underlying political obstacle is that, in one sense, the Brexiteers are right: any negotiable deal is a bad deal for the UK because it is demonstrably worse than the status quo. It swaps first-class EU membership for second-class EU membership, and however you dress that up it is a pretty miserable outcome.

So how can Johnson save face? Only by deploying his great talent for bluff and bluster. He can’t sell a compromise as a compromise – he has to sell it as a victory. And that won’t work if the Irish government is also declaring victory.

What needs to happen is what happened in 1998 with the Belfast Agreement. The agreement held because each side was allowed to tell its own followers that they had won – and neither side directly contradicted the other.

The IRA had surrendered; the IRA had been vindicated. A united Ireland was coming; the Union had been copperfastened. There were, on the Sunday Times model, two different editions of the truth, and there was a tacit agreement that each side would ignore the other’s. This was not pleasant – responsible politicians had to button their lips while the irresponsible ones threw self-congratulatory shapes.

But a repeat of this manoeuvre will be very tricky for the Irish government, not least because, if we do end up with the Northern Ireland-only backstop with knobs on, it will be a genuine triumph for Irish diplomacy.

How do you look mildly gloomy when you’ve got what you wanted? Especially when, with a general election in the air, the temptation to claim a historic win for a government that has performed so poorly in so many other areas, will be well nigh irresistible.

But resist it they must. For once, the existence of two different audiences may be a benefit – the Irish government will have to speak very quietly and calmly to its domestic audience while hoping it is not overheard across the Irish Sea.

And it will have to perfect a saintly patience and a rueful look as Johnson waves his seashells around Westminster: oh, Boris, that conch is really impressive and you’re so clever to be able to blow so hard on it.
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