By Tom Collins (for the Irish News)
For me, one of the most memorable moments on BBC’s Dragon’s Den happened about 10 years ago when the blunt-speaking dragon Hilary Devey uttered a simple five-word sentence now burned in my memory.
Giving feedback to a contestant, she said: “You make my foot itch.”
That phrase goes through my head every time I see Taoiseach Micheál Martin. He makes Leo Varadkar look like a statesman, and that takes some doing, and by god he makes my foot itch.
Martin suffers from an affliction common in the political class. Foot-in-the-Mouth disease. He showed signs of it again this week – one of the most important in the political calendar.
The eyes of the world are turned on Ireland. The Guinness is as green as the Chicago River on St Patrick’s Day, and politicians around the globe are celebrating a small nation that has influence far beyond its size.
And then in blunders Martin – blind to the current political realities.
The uncomfortable truth is we are a nation dangerously close to the precipice following England’s decision to take the United Kingdom out of Europe. There are ominous signs that the compact that has sustained peace in Ireland is under pressure. And we know there are those prepared to threaten that peace for their own political salvation.
I could fill a book on the reasons why Brexit was a monumental mistake. But we are where we are.
It is the job of political leaders to assess the new realities, and to chart a course that mitigates against the impact of England’s retreat from the world.
One impact is on the future of the UK itself. As part of the price of Brexit, Boris Johnson – enabled by the DUP – drew a border down the Irish Sea, making emphatic the separation between these islands.
Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it may be; but the word ‘and’ now signifies separation rather than union.
Earlier this month, Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford said the union was ‘not sustainable’; Scotland knows the writing is on the wall too. It is only a matter of time before it votes for independence. Northern nationalists have known for generations that partition is but a phase in Irish history; as do unionists – that is why their politics is built entirely on denial.
And Boris Johnson knows the union is tottering.
He is an oaf, but he is not stupid. Wrapping himself in the flag, the jingoistic boasting, and repressive legislation outlawing legitimate protest, are all signs of insecurity. A country that has to put a police guard on a statue of Winston Churchill is not a country at peace with itself.
The only person in these islands so lacking in political intelligence that he cannot see the new realities is An Taoiseach who this week dismissed calls to debate the future of this island, and the case for reunification.
On Monday Martin told the Brookings Institute in Washington that now was not the time to promote the cause of Irish unity. “I think it is divisive and puts people back into the trenches too early,” he said. ‘Reconciliation first’ appears to be his motto.
But the simple truth is that an open and honest discussion about Irish unity is the precursor to reconciliation – not a block.
Whatever Martin may think, people are in the trenches now. Irish unity is the best hope we have of getting them out of them.
Martin says he wants to work with the Northern Ireland Assembly and with the British government to build consensus.
The First Minister – toadying to loyalist paramilitaries - is unfit to govern, the executive is a shambles, the assembly is a joke; the British government is in breach of international law and its commitments to the Northern Ireland Protocol; and one of its leading ministers has repudiated Peter Brooke’s assertion that Britain does not have a selfish and strategic interest in Northern Ireland.
By their actions you shall know them. The British government is lobbing grenades at the peace process, and the taoiseach is kow-towing when he should be marshalling the support of Irish America, and President Joe Biden, to protect it.
The world has changed. Brexit has torn the bonds that once held the UK together. Northern Ireland and Scotland, let us not forget, voted remain.
A leader with vision would be acting now to promote a managed reworking of the constitutional arrangements in these islands.
Britain’s misfortune is to have Boris Johnson as prime minister. Ireland’s is to have Micheál Martin.