Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Going to Hell in a handcart - inflammatory rhetoric an unforgivable lapse

With just 49 days to go until March 29, and still no clear idea what Brexit will look like, Donald Tusk's inflammatory rhetoric was an unforgivable lapse into megaphone diplomacy, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

The controversial remark by European Council president Donald Tusk that there's a "special place in Hell" for those who embarked on Brexit without the faintest idea how to deliver it drew a stinging response from former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.

He has his own painful experience of dealing with European Union negotiators, who forced Athens to adopt a crippling austerity programme in return for financial help.

After hearing Tusk's latest remarks, Varoufakis took to Twitter to comment that the same place in Hell might well be reserved for those at the helm of the EU project who embarked on monetary union without sufficient planning and then imposed huge banking losses on the weakest members of the community. Rejoinders don't come much more savage than that.

It also illustrated, though, the danger of embarking on this form of megaphone diplomacy. It's all too easy to get into a tit-for-tat spiral of sniping. International diplomacy should not be turned into an epic rap battle, with both sides trading insults in an effort to metaphorically knock the other out.

That this is where negotiations over Brexit have ended up, a mere seven weeks before Britain is set to leave the EU, tells its own tale.

It wasn't just Tusk, either. Guy Verhofstadt, the EU's chief Brexit co-ordinator, declared that Lucifer himself wouldn't welcome Brexiteers because "they'd even manage to divide Hell". Then there was the sight of European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker showing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar a card which he'd received from a well-wisher in Dublin, thanking the EU for its support and declaring, provocatively, that "Britain does not care about peace in Northern Ireland".

And all that was in just one day.

It was probably as well that the British Government didn't respond in kind, or the situation may have escalated to the mutual expulsion of ambassadors by now.

Some backbench MPs and commentators got merrily stuck in to the fray, but the only Cabinet ministers to rise to the bait contented themselves with chiding Tusk for his bad manners, rather than joining in.

Leo Varadkar should watch and learn. He certainly ought to know better than to get dragged into this schoolyard spat. It was at a joint Press conference with the Taoiseach that Tusk uttered those words about Brexiteers going to Hell.

Perhaps thinking that the microphones were off, Varadkar chortled breezily: "They will give you terrible trouble in the British Press for this, but you're right." To which Tusk, following the tradition that a man will rarely disagree if told that he's right, reportedly "smirked" and said: "I know."

It's astonishing that anyone who purports to care about the possible consequences for peace on this island should an agreement not be reached in the next few weeks would ever consider such pettiness appropriate, or that they wouldn't immediately have tried to calm troubled waters by apologising.

Right now, what cool headedness exists is not coming from the leaders of the Irish government, or the EU, but from different sources. Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin responded to Tusk's remark on BBC's Newsnight by warning: "It's time for people to cool the jets. We need calm, reflective engagement. The stakes are too high."

With anti-British sentiment in Ireland riding so high at the moment - an online poll found that 78% of people thought Tusk was right to say what he did, with just 18% saying he was not - his interview demonstrated an admirable willingness to take some punches for the greater good.

Sure enough, users on social media were soon accusing Martin of siding with the Brexiteers. "The days of forelock-tugging are over," railed one self-described Sinn Fein aide. "The Croppies aren't lying down." It would be comical if it wasn't so serious.

DUP leader Arlene Foster added her own voice to those urging calm, saying: "Rather than cast insults, now is the time to concentrate on genuine diplomacy and solutions." She also - rightly - criticised those who've indulged of late in loose talk about a return of barbed wire, watchtowers and soldiers to the border.

This is the great contradiction at the heart of the debate about the Withdrawal Agreement. Those most supportive of the backstop insist that their biggest priority is not letting a hard border threaten peace, but, by insisting on a demand that may not be deliverable, they could end up bringing about the very hard border which the backstop is meant to avoid.

An even greater irony is that those who warn most loudly about a return to violence post-Brexit seem quite happy to dial up the Troubles-era rhetoric in order to do so. Have they never heard of self-fulfilling prophecies?

Sinn Fein's ludicrous antics at the border, with actors dressed as British squaddies, and Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill taking up sledgehammers to knock down a section of hastily-constructed wall, might have been expected; but what excuse do the whited sepulchres in more moderate parties have for turning up the temperature with war talk?

It's cynical at best and downright irresponsible at worst, especially with some influential MEPs admitting to German newspaper Der Spiegel this week that the protection of the EU's single market was their foremost concern and that, if peace in Ireland was the price to pay to protect it, so be it.

As she ups the stakes by denouncing the DUP as "wreckers", Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill would do well to remember that there are plenty of other forces whose obstinacy could take a wrecking ball to peace.

There are too many ways that things can still go wrong to put them in further jeopardy with self-indulgent stunts. The failure to restart Stormont should have taught everyone that.

It's particularly telling that Donald Tusk was prepared to take the risk of souring the atmosphere this week. The former Polish PM has always been regarded as one of the least anglophobic of the eurocrats and, asked whether it was possible to see the UK staying in Europe, once quoted John Lennon: "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one". This week would seem to suggest that he's no longer dreaming.

As in all divorces, sometimes the mutual recrimination just gets too messy and there's no chance of reconciliation. It's still important to keep things civil for the sake of the children.

Whatever the eventual outcome on March 29, from "no deal" to May's deal to no Brexit, there's nothing to be gained from allowing relations to deteriorate so badly that figuratively consigning one's opponents to Hell is considered an appropriate negotiating tactic.

Belfast Telegraph

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