Mark Durkan’s candidacy is Varadkar’s alternative to border poll
Choosing former SDLP leader for European election reflects view Brexit will not lead to united Ireland
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Mark Durkan. By selecting the former SDLP leader as a candidate, he has demonstrated an appreciation of nationalist frustration with politics in Belfast and London. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
The idea that Northern Ireland’s political representatives should be elected outside Northern Ireland has much to recommend it. As a resident of north Belfast I would much prefer my MP to be elected in, for example, Windsor, a Tory remain constituency with a resident monarch, two branches of Waitrose and almost no history of rioting.
Now nationalists have a chance to delegate their votes to their betters. Former SDLP leader Mark Durkan is to run as a Fine Gael candidate for Europe in Dublin.
The premise Leo Varadkar has given for this is extraordinary.
“Instead of a border poll, I’m asking the people of Dublin to cast a more important vote, to vote as if there was no border,” the Taoiseach said.
In what he admitted was “a big ask”, he told Dubliners to don the “green jersey” and in effect elect Durkan as the sole MEP for Northern Ireland, so that the North’s Irish citizens in particular will “never be left behind again”.
This is not quite as weird as it appears, if viewed from a sufficiently serene distance. The Northern Secretary, who represents Northern Ireland in the UK cabinet, is invariably an MP from Britain. Unionists find this perfectly acceptable.
If the Irish Government nominates Durkan to one of the EU committees planned to deal with post-Brexit Ireland, he could arguably be as important or unimportant as the Northern Secretary, with no more displaced a mandate.
Predictably, none of this has washed with Sinn Féin. It commissioned “legal opinion” last year proposing Northern Ireland retain MEPs after Brexit by the Republic allocating its two new European seats to an extra-territorial Northern constituency, where every resident would have a vote.
Other opinion, less concerned with Sinn Féin always winning one of those seats, suggested the Republic could move to a single constituency for European elections then enfranchise Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, in parallel with the referendum on extending presidential voting rights to the diaspora.
There is no evidence the Irish Government has entertained any of this for a moment, despite it being theoretically possible and not a big ask from Brussels.
In Northern Ireland, Durkan’s bizarre candidacy is being compared to those alternative European voting proposals and found democratically wanting. It is also being compared to the Fianna Fáil-SDLP partnership, with questions being asked about what sort of short-term party game Fine Gael is playing.
No doubt such games are afoot, but the comparison being missed is the one the Taoiseach made clear: Durkan’s candidacy is the alternative to a border poll.
This is such a bizarre equivalence it is unsurprising it has not registered. On the face of it, there is nothing a vote for a united Ireland and Dubliners electing an MEP have in common, even if the candidate intends to keep living in Derry.
However, the conviction seizing Northern nationalists that they can win a border poll is becoming a general blockage. It is why nationalists are giving up on devolution, without accepting this can only end in direct rule.
It is why they see no need to humour the practicalities of making even the softest Brexit work, and why they are increasingly demanding the Irish Government address Brexit and Stormont issues by planning for an imminent united Ireland.
This hope is based entirely on a small number of opinion polls that have been interpreted as showing majority support for unification under a no-deal Brexit. The company behind them has explained this interpretation is incorrect and no border poll is justified under the terms of the Belfast Agreement. However, wishful thinking in a vacuum has carried the day, encouraged by party and non-party campaigning.
Northern Ireland is stuck in a dangerous stand-off until this notion is debunked. It may take a border poll to do so, which carries dangers of its own.
The message Varadkar sent North when he announced Durkan’s candidacy was, to paraphrase: “you’re not going to win a border poll, so have a proxy MEP instead. It’s less bizarre than thinking a united Ireland is just around a corner”.
The Taoiseach came as close as he probably could to saying that explicitly without being accused of donning an orange jersey. He has demonstrated an appreciation of nationalist frustration with politics in Belfast and London. But the offer of a proxy MEP will not even begin to address this frustration. It is almost insultingly inadequate.
The timing of May’s European election, in the middle of an expected article 50 extension period, may have left Fine Gael with little choice but to do something now, however imperfect.
If and when a withdrawal agreement passes, the far harder tasks must begin of bringing Northern nationalism in off the ledge and back into Stormont, of pressurising London and the DUP to make devolution work and of keeping Brexit bearable as negotiations grind on.
For those purposes, a Dublin MEP for Northern Ireland can certainly do no harm.