The BBC’s flagship news programme Today was coming this morning from Grafton Street (not ‘Grafton Road’, as presenter Nick Robinson called it at one point). Why so? Well, Ireland is at the heart of the problem that could mean years of economic damage in Ireland, in the UK and in Europe. And there may be only a little over three weeks to solve it.
Britain faces a mass of problems when dealing with Ireland. For a start, it has difficulty in naming the two sections of Ireland – but then most southern and many northern politicians have the same difficulty. I’m not talking about the North/Northern Ireland/Ulster/the Six Counties. I’m talking about the Republic of Ireland. Calling it Ireland as so many commentators and politicians do is to miss the core point: the North of Ireland is just that, the north of Ireland; and the South of Ireland is just that, the south of Ireland. Efforts to make Ireland ‘the island’ by repeating ‘island’ over and over don’t change the facts. Only when Nick Robinson and Paschal Donohoe get that straight is there any chance of addressing the Irish question.
Another deep-seated problem is one of attitude. Irish people in the past have had a tendency to be over-awed when facing Britain. That’s understandable, since Britain was an empire and still is a great deal bigger and a great deal more powerful than Ireland. In recent years Irish people north and south have begun to escape the cultural cringe position and are comfortable in their skins when dealing with Britain. This was clear in the words and body language of Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and today Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. Britain, however, still has some way to go. Their politicians can’t understand why the Irish tail is wagging the British dog, why can’t we be friends as well as reasonable, and do sit down, there’s a good chap, and we’ll have a good old chinwag and work this one out, shall we?
Recognise the tone? It’s the affable headmaster talking to a fairly bright student, it’s the boss chatting with a commendable junior. The adult in the room is Britain, the adolescent is Ireland.
There is one other mistake that Britain is making. They appear to believe that it is within Ireland’s power to abandon the backstop, or at least accept a time-limited (four years?) version of it. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It is the EU which will decide if the backstop stays in its present form or is made to operate for, say, seven to ten years (four is absurd) when it might be looked at again. This is the integrity of the EU we’re talking about, the need not to allow even the smallest of holes to be punched in the EU aircraft, for if there is, the whole EU project is in serious danger. So Nick Robinson would be better employed chatting to Angela Merkel and ridding himself of the stupid, stupid Leavers cartoon from yesterday, showing Angela Merkel doing a Nazi-style salute beside the words “We didn’t win two World Wars to be told what to do by a kraut’.
Finally and importantly: I think the EU should agree to a seven-to-ten-year life for the backstop. Because by the time seven, eight, nine or ten years come, Ireland will be well on the way to becoming an independent unitary state. Ergo, no border, ergo no need for a backstop.
After centuries of waiting, our day will indeed come. And soon.