OK – let me be honest: I’ve always felt a bit iffy about Simon Coveney. He comes from one of the big merchant families of Cork. His brother Patrick is chief executive of Greencore, the largest sandwich manufacturer in the world. He attended Clongowes Wood College in Co Kildare which charges some £15,000 a year to attend and which features among its past pupils James Joyce, John Redmond and Paul McGuinness, former manager of U2.
But I’ve had at least a partial change of heart. I’m not particularly impressed by his change of heart over the abortion referendum in the south, but since he’s been put into bat for the south of Ireland (and, as logically follows, the north as well), he’s been playing a pretty impressive game.
He was on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC on Sunday, and he performed extremely well. Nick Robinson was presenting the show in Marr’s absence. Simon and Nick were seated knee-to-knee in two chairs in what looked like a large empty room; when it was over, Coveney looked to have added another six inches onto his already lanky frame.
The discussion was, of course, on Brexit and the border, and Nick Robinson wanted to know why the Irish government couldn’t be flexible about this matter: after all, flexibility had been called for after that December meeting between the EU and the UK. Like a minor magician, Coveney took Robinson’s criticism and turned it into a virtue.
“Flexible?” Coveney said. In order not to hold things up, the Fine Gael government had accepted Theresa May’s commitment to the back-stop. When March came, again the FG government had been flexible enough to allow trade talks to go on and accept that it’d be OK for the British to come up with concrete plans in June. At each point the Irish government had shown flexibility, allowed trade talks to proceed.
But what about an electronic border, Robinson wanted to know? With drones and number-plate reading and all that – wouldn’t that do? No it wouldn’t, Coveney told him. Because there is nowhere in the world that has this kind of invisible border.
Coveney wrapped the topic up by stating that as far as having a hard border on (the island of) Ireland, he was totally inflexible. Theresa May had committed to the back-stop position – that is, no border on the island of Ireland – and they would hold her to that promise.
Maybe it’s a little bit churlish, but I would like to have had Coveney emphasize the need to translate May’s letter of back-stop commitment into a legal document. Yes, it’s good the letter is there in black and white, but it’d be even better if we could have it produced as part of a legal document.
Coveney came across as an intelligent, articulate, pleasant man, one who has a firm grasp of his brief as Minister for Foreign Affairs. He also hit the “No economic border in Ireland” chord repeatedly and ringingly.
Did I ever think I’d live to see the day that the party once led by John Bruton, the man who almost fainted for love of Prince Charles when he visited these shores? I did not. But then again, did I expect Sylvia Hermon, widow of the late Jack the Torturer, to tell a TV interviewer that she expects a border poll at some point? It couldn’t be said often enough: Brexit has swept away the old certainties. And isn’t it thrilling that it has? But a note of caution: today’s Irish Times has an editorial headed “Irish Times view on Brexit poll: room for compromise. Public not as hug up on Border issue as might have been expected”. Coveney and Varadkar will have to dig their heels in to resist such West Brit leanings.