The Fintan O'Toole Interview: Boris, Brexit, bluff and bluster

Fintan O’Toole, one of Ireland’s best known and most influential journalists, says he believes Boris Johnson is trying to bluff the European Union on a no-deal Brexit. But, he says, that does not mean Britain will not ‘blunder’ into exactly that scenario. In an exclusive interview with Irish Echo editor Billy Cantwell ahead of his Australian visit, O’Toole shared his views on why he thinks the EU will not blink on Brexit, why Donald Trump is test marketing barbarism, how Ireland has a dysfunctional relationship with its diaspora and why Rupert Murdoch is a toxic influence on the world.

Brexit has created a ‘tectonic shift in the politics’ of Britain and Ireland, Fintan O’Toole says.

Brexit has created a ‘tectonic shift in the politics’ of Britain and Ireland, Fintan O’Toole says.

Fintan O’Toole has declared that the western world is being blooded for fascism. It’s a bold and controversial view but over his 35 year career the Dubliner has forged a reputation for speaking truth to power, informed by coherent, eloquent and well researched arguments. His skill as a commentator has earned the 61-year-old many awards and made him one of Europe’s most-read journalists.

Later this month he will be a guest of the Antidote Festival at the Sydney Opera House where he will join a panel discussion on ‘the state we’re in’.

As the author of the bestselling Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics Of Pain, O’Toole will be talking about the fallout from Britain’s momentous decision to leave the European Union. He sees it as “an act of national self-harm” motivated by self-pity, hubris and xenophobic nationalism.

So, now that a committed Brexiteer is in No 10 Downing St, how sure is he that the European Union will hold firm and has Boris Johnson not made the calculation that, in political terms, he will gain more from standing up to the Europeans than he will lose from the economic pain of a hard Brexit?

“I think those are great questions and go to the heart of the matter,” O’Toole says on the phone from his Dublin home. “I should say first of all that just because Johnson is bluffing - and I believe that he is - does not mean that he is not capable of blundering into a no-deal Brexit.

Boris Johnson. ‘It’s like a psychopath saying ‘stop me before I kill again’.

Boris Johnson. ‘It’s like a psychopath saying ‘stop me before I kill again’.

“I think his calculation is that he wants to be stopped. It’s like a psychopath saying ‘stop me before I kill again’. He wants parliament to stop him and he wants the Europeans to reject his demands. He knows they will be rejected. They’re so outrageous. And then his calculation is that if he does lose a vote of confidence and goes to the people on the basis that the Remainers, the Europeans, the Irish are all stopping the will of the British people so ‘I need an overwhelming mandate in order to show that we are a sovereign people and we’re going out on October 31st’. That is his plan in so far as there is one.”

The 2017 European Press Prize winner is not confident Johnson will succeed in getting the Europeans to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, which of course contains the bane of the Brexiteers, the Irish backstop.

“This will present Johnson with a dilemma,” he predicts.

“Does he decide, in his own terms, to polish a turd [as he called the Withdrawal Agreement]. Well, turds can be polished. Or does he decide to stick with ‘Plan A’ which is to pull the whole thing down and go for a very high risk strategy of a no-deal election.”

This, O’Toole says, “is incredibly risky from his point of view because if he loses it, he not just loses the prime ministership, he goes down in history as one of the laughable characters in British political history.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney should be planning for a united Ireland, O’Toole says.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney should be planning for a united Ireland, O’Toole says.

As for solidarity with Ireland, the veteran historian, biographer, literary critic and political commentator believes that the EU is, to use a phrase popularized by Margaret Thatcher, “not for turning”.

“I was very skeptical when this process began that the European Union would stand by Ireland,” he says. “But I was wrong about that. I don’t think the Europeans are going to sell out Ireland. I don’t think they can. Rhetorically they’ve gone so far with it that it would shatter the whole credibility of the EU to do so.”

O’Toole declared last December that he believed that there would be a second referendum on Brexit and while he now concedes that it is less likely, there are two ways it could still occur.

“Johnson will face a confidence vote in September and he could very well lose it,” O’Toole says. “If he loses that vote, it is not automatically a general election but there’s 14 days in which someone else can seek to put together a majority. Jeremy Corbyn would not win it but perhaps another Labour figure like Keir Starmer might. They could then seek an extension to the October 31 deadline and then, in that circumstance, you might see a second referendum.

“The other thing that could happen is that Johnson goes for an election and we wind up with a very fragmented parliament. And the more the deadlock continues, the more you’re left with no other option. They can’t do a deal and they can’t do a no-deal.”

One of the possible impacts of a no-deal Brexit will be to accelerate the reunification of Ireland and the possible break-up of the United Kingdom.

The Irish Times amd Guardian columnist believes that the Varadkar government should be preparing for such an eventuality but urges caution about jumping the gun on a so-called ‘border poll’ in Northern Ireland.

“The first thing I would do with this is urge caution,” he says.

O’Toole says we need “honest dialogue [about a possible united Ireland]. Not flag waving”.

O’Toole says we need “honest dialogue [about a possible united Ireland]. Not flag waving”.

“We’re in the middle of the tectonic shift in the political architecture of the two islands. Scottish independence is a live possibility. English nationalism has become a huge force. Welsh nationalism is on the rise and then you have all the Irish issues. I think we have to be very careful that we don’t end up being forced into a united Ireland because the UK is just falling apart and then we’re left to deal with all of the unresolved issues of the island of Ireland in a chaotic situation where you have huge amounts of anxiety and fear, you have economic collapse, you have civil conflict going on. Are those the circumstances in which anybody wants Ireland to be united? I don’t think so.”

Frank and open discussion, honest dialogue and citizens conventions are the best pathways towards a reunited Ireland, he believes.

“The way that this unfolds has to be very consensual, it has to be very open. Do we need to be preparing? Absolutely. We need very honest dialogue. Not flag waving. Not saying ‘we want a border poll now’. We need to have citizens conventions which has been a good model for the abortion and same sex marriage referenda. We need to engage the public in thinking about or talking about these issues and being honest and up-front about this stuff.

“We need to ask the obvious questions like ‘is the population of the Republic prepared to pay higher taxes to subvent a better health service than people have in Northern Ireland?’.”

He describes living in the Republic of Ireland right now as like being in an “oasis”, free of the far right intolerance of much of the western world. Ireland has, he says, moved “radically towards a more liberal, open, tolerant, complex sense of its own identity” something he connects with a balance between immigration and emigration.

“Ireland is different,” O’Toole says, “in that it is both an immigrant society and an emigrant society”.

“Ireland is different,” O’Toole says, “in that it is both an immigrant society and an emigrant society”.

“Ireland is different in that it is both an immigrant society and an emigrant society. As you well know, Irish people have not stopped leaving. Seventeen per cent of people resident in Ireland were born somewhere else while seventeen per cent of Irish-born people have lived outside of Ireland. That does create a very interesting and complex identity where its harder to get large-scale anti-immigrant feeling going. We all know that our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunties are immigrants themselves somewhere else.”

Despite the significance of the diaspora to Irish culture and identity, he observes there has been much hypocrisy in Ireland’s attempts to embrace its global family.

He is “not at all confident” that the forthcoming referendum on allowing all Irish citizens to vote in presidential elections will “pass easily”.

“I think it’s really important that this referendum needs to be fought,” he says.

“It can’t be just taken as something that is more likely to pass because we have warm feelings towards the diaspora. Once it gets down to the referendum debate, it will have to be concrete. It is going to be won and lost in the way that the last two referendums were won and lost which is about personal stories. So, what will affect people will be hearing the voices of people like yourself, who have a strong connection with Ireland and who want to have that sense of identity being endorsed.”

Brexit will also play a role in the debate, he believes, as many British citizens are applying for Irish citizenship as “a convenience to maintain a connection with the European Union”.

“Very large numbers of people in England are taking out Irish citizenship and therefore would be entitled to vote in the presidential election,” he says.

“Many of these people, and I’m sure they would say this themselves, have no connection to Ireland, they’ve never been in the country and they don’t really think of themselves as Irish. Irish citizenship has become a convenience to maintain a connection with the European Union.”

Donald Trump is test marketing barbarism, according to Fintan O’Toole.

Donald Trump is test marketing barbarism, according to Fintan O’Toole.

A year ago, O’Toole wrote a controversial column in which he declared that the world was in a ‘pre-fascist’ phase and that millions of Europeans and Americans were being “given the taste for savagery”. Elections were being “rigged”, moral boundaries were being “undermined” and that people were “learning to think the unthinkable”.

The piece was widely lauded as a wake-up call for the western world while others derided it as an outlandish conspiracy theory. A year on, does he still believe the world is descending into fascism and how can we get off this path?  

“Trump is test marketing this kind of barbarism,” he says.

“What was appalling a year ago is suddenly less appalling now. This pre-fascist moment is about normalizing inhumanity and the degradation of other human beings to an extent that people begin to accept it.

“What we do about it is fight it. That political fight also has to be an economic fight. You have to address inequality and injustice. [There is a ] profound sense of economic insecurity which millions and millions of people feel and the reality that the fruits of economic growth are going overwhelmingly to the top one per cent. If you don’t address those things, there are reasons to be very pessimistic. But those things can be addressed.”

Crucial to shifting the global political dial will be the defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. But does O’Toole believe he will be defeated and who, from the Democrat side, is in the best position to defeat him?

Rupert Murdoch, O’Toole says, is “one of the most negative forces in the world”.

Rupert Murdoch, O’Toole says, is “one of the most negative forces in the world”.

“I think Trump will do what Trump does which is up the ante. Its going to be extraordinarily brutal and vicious. But I think he can be defeated.”

In terms of candidates, he said the best candidate for the Democrats was Trump himself.

“Trump will do more for Democratic turnout than anyone else will,” he says.

But he challenged what he called the ‘mainstream liberal narrative of middle America’ which says that you need a “bland father figure like Joe Biden’.

“I think Trump would slaughter Biden. I would look at someone like Elizabeth Warren, who has incredible credentials, is very, very smart. To me, it has to be someone who is coming somewhat from the Left so they can really address the issues of injustice and inequality.”

O’Toole, who nominates artist Sidney Nolan and writer Peter Carey as his Aussie heroes, says he is well aware of Australia’s “extreme” policies regarding asylum seekers, the country’s “long history of racist migration policies” and what he calls the “toxic” influence of Rupert Murdoch on the political landscape.

He described the Australian-born media mogul as “one of the most negative forces in the world.”

“Over the last 30 years, Murdoch has pumped so much toxic waste into political and social culture around the world,” he said. “Murdoch’s partisanship in Australia mirrors a lot of what’s happened in the United States and in Britain. But perhaps what’s happened in the US and Britain is mirroring Australia.”