Miriam Lord: Usual suspects engage in vicious backstop backstabbing

Varadkar and McDonald savage each other over Border during Leaders’ Questions

A fiery exchange between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald took place in the Dail as Varadkar defended his remarks that he is open to considering a review clause in the Brexit withdrawal agreement. Video: Oireachtas TV


To their credit, our politicians are mounting an impressive show of solidarity in front of the neighbours.

Unity of purpose required and understood.

Presenting a united front to the British.

Holding the line.

Stately sovereign swans to their headless chickens.

That’s the ticket.

But it’s more difficult behind closed doors, where the kitchen-sink dramas of domestic politics play out as usual. Leo hates Mary Lou. Mary Lou despises Leo. That sort of thing.

Just because our TDs are (Downing) street angels doesn’t mean they can’t be (Leinster) house devils.

The latest fear among Opposition TDs is that the Government might unwittingly backtrack on the Brexit backstop and find itself backed into a corner by European Union and UK backstabbers who will sneak a hard border back into Ireland through the back door and then when the smoke clears there is no way back.

There was a vicious outbreak of Backstop Backstabbing in the Dáil on Tuesday, involving the usual suspects – Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald, who are constantly at loggerheads in the chamber.

Where the Taoiseach sees a backstop, Sinn Féin fears a backstab.

The pair of them savaged each other during Leaders’ Questions, before getting stuck in again during departmental questions to the Taoiseach.

Optimistic British leaks

This Brexit business has everyone a little edgy in the Dáil. Party leaders stand squarely behind the Government’s determination to keep that solid belt-and-braces backstop in place before any Brexit deal is signed, but they worry something might go wrong. As negotiations continue between Britain and the EU, with Ireland appearing to hold the whip hand on the border outcome, optimistic leaks from the British camp about novel negotiating deals designed to free them from their backstop problem have unsettled the United Irish.

People Before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett is sick to the back teeth with the Brexit backstop carry-on and he had some advice for the Taoiseach.

“Can I suggest to you that it would strengthen our hand in a situation where these intractable arguments go on and on and we have backstops and longstops and back longstops and long backstops, that we need to put a bit of a full stop to this rather tedious discussion by making it clear that this is not up for negotiation.”

“That sounds like American football,” remarked Labour’s Brendan Howlin.

The Fianna Fáil leader, while fully supporting the Government, was worried about “megaphone diplomacy” playing a damaging role in the continuing negotiations.

“It’s never constructive for leaks and tweets to play a major part yet it seems that both Governments are at it nearly every day.” If it isn’t the Brexit secretary of state Dominic Raab [nicked Raab C Brexit across the water] indulging in “tendentious leaks and hardline statements”, it is the Taoiseach and Tánaiste as they continue “to engage in an ongoing, public back and forth” with their unhelpful tweets, chided Micheál Martin.

Backstop review

The big cause of disquiet has been talk of having “reviews” of the backstop situation after Brexit and the possible implication that it might then be decided it could tolerate a little tinkering. The UK is very keen on this.

But that suggestion had the famous phrase of soccer commentator George Hamilton screaming in opposition heads: “Danger here!”

Mary Lou McDonald was absolutely astonished that the Taoiseach would even countenance such a move. What about the declaration last December that the Irish had secured a “rock-solid” and “cast-iron” and “bulletproof” backstop.

She was in “we told you so” default mode. Many people took him at this word back then, but not Sinn Féin. They knew better “and our caution was well placed. The British started rowing back.”

This could spell catastrophe for Ireland, north and south. Leo had promised a border backstop with “no ifs, no buts or conditions” and with “a permanent guarantee”.

And now, at the most crucial time, he had shifted position and agreed to a “reckless change” at the most sensitive juncture in negotiations.

His announcement on Monday that he was open to a review “was a cock-up, plain and simple”.

The Taoiseach said his Government’s position remained completely unchanged. No expiry date or exit clause for the backdrop, otherwise it isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

But he said he wanted to see an agreement. And to do that “you sometimes need to be creative and you have to be open to creative solutions and creative language”. The likes of the Belfast Agreement and all the many EU treaties wouldn’t have happened without that approach.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar accused Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald of being “too extreme”. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar accused Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald of being “too extreme”. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

“But I have to say, Deputy McDonald, I think it is a very good thing that you are not leading these negotiations. You hold the world record for failing to negotiate a coalition agreement in Northern Ireland – now more than two years. And the truth is, and we can see from your performance here today, you are too extreme, you are too uncompromising, you are too bullying.

And you would turn our friends into enemies within months and it is very good thing that you are not handling these negotiations.”


Mary Lou fought back. Hard.

He had backtracked on his declared negotiation position. Blinked when Sinn Féin urged him to hold firm.

“I don’t know if you have lost your nerve. I really hope for the sake of this country that you have not.”

She urged him not to lose his nerve and not to blink now. “How on Earth at such a sensitive time in a negotiation you would commit yourself to a review clause?”

It all about being open to creative solutions and language. That how to get agreements that you want across the line.

To this end, the Irish team will be negotiating through the medium of interpretative dance this week.

The row continued into the questions on the Taoiseach’s department.

Mary Lou was seething over Leo’s earlier takedown.

“I think it says everything about you that when your competence in the discharge of your duties is questioned, you lash out,” she began.

“So, in an exchange here today you accuse me of being too radical.”

“Ouch!” she said, witheringly.

“And, apparently, being a bully.”

“Ouch! Ouch!” she dripped again.

And he had the cheek to call her these names when “when the Brexit negotiations are at a sensitive point and you have taken your eye off the ball or you have lost your nerve”.

Letter from nationalists

She then asked about a letter to a newspaper in Northern Ireland signed by 1,000 nationalists seeking assurances on language rights, rights around marriage equality and other issues. What had the Taoiseach to say to them?”

“That’s them, it’s not me, so if you find me too radical” he could pitch his answer to them, not to her. She paused and said in a pitying tone “God help you, you poor delicate soul” before pondering on how he is “a bit challenged at the fact that you are challenged on the floor of the Dáil.”

In return, Leo let fly. They really don’t get on, these two.

“For the record I didn’t say that Deputy McDonald was too radical, I said she was and indeed she is. And I noted earlier she accused me of constantly lashing out. In fairness, dep McDonald, lashing out is your signature performance piece – whether it’s me, whether it’s the British government, whether it’s the DUP a minute ago, Mrs May a minute ago, Fianna Fáil on occasions – you’re constantly lashing out. What you don’t do is come up with workable solutions and alternatives. And that is what a responsible Opposition party would do.”

Great to see everyone getting on.

At least in front of the neighbours.

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