Lesley Riddoch: BBC attitude towards Irish politicians highlights Westminster’s Brexit panic

Ireland's deputy premier Simon Coveney.
Ireland's deputy premier Simon Coveney.
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In the face of last-minute Brexit panic, giving the politicians in Eire a hard time is not the solution, writes Lesley Riddoch

Rudeness towards the Irish seems de rigeur on BBC TV as last minute panic over Brexit grows.

In the face of constant interuption by Andrew Marr on Sunday, the Irish Deputy Prime Minister, Simon Coveney, explained that no renegotiation of the Good Friday agreement, the backstop or the overall Withdrawal Agreement is now possible. He made clear; “The backstop is already a compromise... it was designed around British red lines.”

In another world, this could have been probed as containing a possible way forward for Theresa May. Instead Andrew Marr seemed irked by a smart, articulate Irish minister giving straight answers to fairly daft questions, driven by the near-collapse of the British political system.

Last week, there was outrage online when the Today programme’s John Humphrys told Ireland’s Europe Minister Helen McEntee that Britain accounts for 50 per cent of Irish trade and insisted; “Instead of Dublin telling this country we have to stay within the single market etc, why doesn’t the Republic of Ireland leave the EU and throw in their lot with this country?”

It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad, disrespectful and plain inaccurate.

It’s inaccurate because Irish exports to Britain now represent just 14 not 50 per cent of the total – 33 per cent is now with the rest of the European Union and the Irish are building new port facilities to ensure goods can bypass British ports completely.

It’s disrespectful because the Irish could easily ask why Britain refuses to accept the will of the Irish people who ratified the Good Friday Agreement in two referendums with whopping majorities of 71 per cent north of the border and 94 per cent south of it. It’s sad, because intelligent, experienced British broadcasters approach representatives of the Irish state with an air of bemused contempt and can apparently think of no other style of interview.

Indeed the main thing accomplished by these toe-curlingly awful interviews is soaring admiration for Irish politicians. Look at the demeanour, intensity and sheer ability of Coveney. Neither he nor Leo Varadkar are scared of any threat Britain can issue because they have almost a century of independence under their belt and support from the EU27, from voters across the whole of Ireland and from onlooking Remainers who wish the architects of Brexit could face similarly tough questioning about their own investments being shifted to EU countries.

As commentator Jonathan Lis tweeted; “Behind stunned disbelief at Ireland’s disobedience is the unhealable wound [that] it could ever have sought to shake off British rule.”

Importantly though, in his Marr interview, Coveney may have touched on a possible (though difficult) solution for Theresa May – namely that the backstop should apply only to Northern Ireland, thus creating a border in the Irish Sea not the Irish mainland. The EU initially pushed for this but Theresa May refused, saying Northern Ireland couldn’t have different customs rules to the rest of the UK. Let’s be honest – that was essentially the opinion of the DUP, weaponised by the Tories wafer-thin majority.

Of course, shifting the border to the Irish Sea would rightly allow Nicola Sturgeon to ask why remaining inside the EU Customs Union and Single Market isn’t an option for every Remain-voting nation. Furthermore, making frictionless trade across the Irish border more important than trade with rUK only strengthens the case for Irish re-unification. But Britain rarely worries about the long term and political survival is a more immediate priority.

In her hour of need, Theresa May could calculate that losing the DUP and weakening the Union is a small price to pay for losing the troublesome backstop. Since party discipline has dissolved at Westminster she might expect support from some Labour and Lib Dem MPs, from EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and the Irish Government. Indeed this might be what Coveney was hinting at when he told Andrew Marr; “The backstop is already a compromise... designed around British red lines.” If the complexity of pan-Irish opinion was of the slightest interest to flagship political programmes, this comment might have been explored. Indeed, Coveney himself made the point that British broadcasters act as if the DUP represents the whole of opinion in Northern Ireland. This, of course, is aided by Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy and the absence of a functioning, multi-party Assembly at Stormont. But politics in Northern Ireland is still active as last week’s historic cooperation agreement between Fianna Fail and the SDLP amply demonstrates. Ignoring such important non-DUP initiatives produces the un-nuanced, “No Surrender” agenda regularly served up on the BBC.

Of course, even if the parliamentary arithmetic stacks up for Theresa May to dump the DUP and opt for an Irish Sea border – there are still big problems.

Firstly, a technological fix isn’t judged workable by the EU in regard to Irish land crossings but can apparently work with Irish Sea crossings. Is that credible? There are far fewer ports than miles of land border, but the EU might be wary about handing control over trade to member state Ireland, to the British whose rules and standards may quickly diverge from EU norms post-Brexit.

Secondly the Irish backstop is just the most obvious problem with Theresa May’s deal and the easiest to scapegoat. If the Irish border issue is resolved, others will become centre stage. A Yougov survey earlier this month found 59 per cent of Tory Party members oppose their leader’s deal and prefer a No Deal Brexit.

That’s a problem, because fundamentally it’s not possible for Britain to have “frictionless” EU trade without Single Market and Customs Union membership.

So a hard truth remains. Brexit was a vote for a border between the EU and the UK, which can be across Ireland or in the Irish Sea. The only way to avoid both scenarios is to stay in the customs union, which means abiding by EU regulations signing no unilateral free trade agreements and thus having less clout negotiating new trade agreements over services.

If these alternatives seem unpalatable, two questions may occur to Scots voters. Why are we not staying in the EU as full members? Would independence give us the same steely determination, EU membership and thus international support as the plucky Irish?

One day soon, the answer to these questions will have the political weight it deserves.