Taoiseach seeks to inject new dynamic into Brexit talks
Leo Varadkar’s hard line may be attempt to shock DUP into moving beyond its rhetoric
Vice-chancellor Richard English with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Queen’s University Belfast: “Who do we in Europe speak to when we want to speak to Belfast?” asked the Taoiseach. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s impatience not only with the lackadaisical British approach to the Brexit Border problem but also the political vacuum at the heart of Stormont was clearly on display in Belfast.
He departed slightly from his scripted speech at Queen’s University to transpose the question attributed to former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger – “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” – to a Northern Ireland context.
“Who do we in Europe speak to when we want to speak to Belfast?” he ad-libbed.
Time for reaching a Brexit deal that would not be detrimental to the Republic and Northern Ireland was running out, he said, so re-establishing the Stormont Executive to give a voice to 1.8 million northerners was now a matter of urgency. Mr Varadkar’s defiant assertion last week that the Government would not design an unwanted economic border on the island was squarely aimed at Westminster.
But did he underestimate the impact of his comments on the pro-Brexit DUP, which is propping up Theresa May’s Conservative government through a confidence and supply deal worth €1 billion to Northern Ireland?
Given all the diplomatic advice at his disposal, he could hardly have been so naive. His efforts to inject a new dynamic into Brexit discussions with his blunt comments have certainly left some northern unionists reeling. It is the shock of the new.
Varadkar’s hard line appears to be an attempt to shock the DUP into moving beyond rhetoric and soundbites.
The impatient young Taoiseach, with “only a limited recollection of the Border and the Troubles”, complained on Friday that 14 months had passed since the referendum which saw the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union.
Spelling out the consequences of Brexit for slow learners, as it were, he demanded those who want the UK to leave the custom union and the single market to outline their ideas at once.
He challenged Leavers to put down on paper and in detail exactly how they thought it would be possible to have some sort of technological or futuristic border that did not impact very seriously on normal life in Ireland and Britain.
Last week, he said it should not be up to his government to formulate ways to solve the Border conundrum, but on Friday he had a new message for the Brexiteers. “If they can’t come up with solutions well then maybe they might talk about mine,” he said.
He sketched out a number of potential scenarios in his speech, including the creation of an EU-UK customs union like the one the EU already has with Turkey or a free trade agreement between Britain and Europe.
And yet Varadkar insisted the Irish Government’s policy position had not changed from the days when his predecessor Enda Kenny was in charge. “If the language has changed it’s because we’re entering into a different phase,” he reasoned.
Politicians had a duty not only to respond to events, but to get ahead of them, he said.
With a changing of the guard at the top of Irish politics has come a fresher and perhaps brasher approach. Make no mistake, there has been nothing “off the cuff” about Varadkar’s interventions.
Back to the past
His tone has prompted Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to accuse the 1979-born Taoiseach of setting Anglo-Irish relations back to the sorry state they were in back in the 1970s and 1980s.
The 38-year-old Varadkar can only have a limited recollection of that Ireland, which he described as “confessional, inward looking and underdeveloped”.
The late Rev Ian Paisley, founder of the DUP, famously pledged to “never forsake the blue skies of Ulster for the grey mists of an Irish republic”.
The preacherman could hardly have predicted a future Taoiseach would cross the Border advocating acceptance for equal marriage in the North, after that right was enshrined in the Republic’s Constitution in 2015.
Having said earlier in the week in Dublin he would not compromise his belief in equality when asked if he was sensitive to the DUP’s stance, on Friday in Belfast Varadkar indicated that would be an issue for another day.
Already apparently fluent in peace process-speak, he said he accepted marriage equality was a “strand one” issue, meaning it relates to the internal affairs of Northern Ireland and was therefore a matter to be dealt with by the Stormont Assembly.
His appearance at the gay pride breakfast on Saturday morning would not be “an attempt to unsettle anyone”. Rather it “perhaps gives us hope as to what Northern Ireland might look like in the future”.
On the day that a rainbow flag was hoisted over a government building near the dormant Stormont for the first time, what would Dr Paisley have thought?