Newton Emerson: Why nationalism needs a Tory Taoiseach

Leo Varadkar’s centre-right economic views essential to securing a united Ireland

From the Eight amendment to the Garda crisis, new leader of Fine Gael Leo Varadkar, has a lot of policy decisions to make. Mary Minihan looks at the direction he's likely to go in.


I once asked a distinguished Dublin journalist to explain the editorial line of the Sunday Business Post, whose mix of Tory economics and republican politics struck me as intriguingly novel.

“Oh that’s easy,” he replied. “It’s our money and we want it back; it’s our country and we want it back.”

That simple formulation must strike chords all over Ireland. It appeals to patriotism and individualism, without invoking the blood and soil spectre of right-wing nationalism – a spectre southerners associate with “the Blueshirts” and northern unionists associate with Charlie Haughey in his Charvet shirts.

Leo Varadkar does not seem to be aiming for a Tory-republican synthesis. He has gone through the motions of advocating a united Ireland, yet says Sinn Féin is “the greatest threat to our democracy” and restoring devolution to Stormont is his immediate priority.

Each of these positions may be reasonable in isolation but taking them together suggests a view of Northern Ireland as a permanently parallel universe.

The incoming taoiseach can hardly be blamed for not extending his appeal across the Border. Nationalist politics in the North has leant entirely to the left for 50 years, with the rise of Sinn Féin only making this more pronounced. The pantomime villain status of the UK Conservative Party has been exacerbated by Brexit, the recent spate of elections plus a lengthy welfare reform crisis at Stormont, all of which have led Sinn Féin and the SDLP to campaign against each other over who is the most “anti-Tory”.

Northern opprobrium

From the moment the dreaded Tory label attached to Varadkar, he attracted northern opprobrium – not just from Sinn Féin but from moderate nationalist voices, many of whom would certainly allege racism and homophobia if the same hostility was shown towards a politician on the left.

The late Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, Archbishop of Armagh, said unionists practise religious bigotry and nationalists practise political bigotry. No doubt some grotesque DUP insult to Varadkar is in the scriptural works – but in the meantime, he is experiencing nationalist intolerance for failing to conform to “progressive” stereotype. Sinn Féin denounced early recruits to the PSNI as “the wrong sort of Catholics”. Likewise, it is being made abundantly clear that the new taoiseach is the wrong sort of half-Indian gay man. All the rhetoric northern nationalists have built up around respect for minorities evaporates at the slightest hint of someone holding mainstream centre-right economic views.

Among the many absurdities of this position is that Varadkar’s economic views would be essential to securing a united Ireland. Nobody can seriously pretend they do not know this. The Celtic Cuba model of a 32-county socialist republic is considered a joke even in the staunchest Sinn Féin heartlands. The Celtic Tiger demonstrated Ireland’s true potential, while the move to devolve corporation tax to Stormont shows that northern nationalists have taken that lesson on board.

Sinn Féin study

Since 2015, the centrepiece of Sinn Féin’s economic case for unity has been an academic study it commissioned showing a €36 billion boost North and South within eight years.

This study made heroic assumptions about Northern Ireland’s annual subvention – essentially forgiving its citizens all the debts and responsibilities of belonging to any nation state. However, beyond that it made only routine assumptions about a low-tax, free-trade open economy – in other words, a Tory island. To a surprising extent, this is already northern nationalism’s policy on unification. It is hard to avoid an impression that the Tory-republican synthesis is more acceptable when white people come up with it.

Varadkar’s critics on the left deny any accusations of racist or sexual prejudice. Some even say their criticism shows Ireland has entered an age of postidentity politics. That would be a significant development in the North if it applied beyond transgressing Tories – although there is no sign of that whatsoever.

Nor is there any recognition of the broadest advantage of centre-right politics to Irish unity – namely, that smaller government should mean less arguing over who is governing whom, and how the spoils are divided.


The meddling behemoth of a state nationalists have sought in the North since the Belfast Agreement could be excused as a special arrangement, protecting a divided population in transition.

But the left-wing philosophy behind it runs too deep to imagine it would be readily dismantled. Rights and equality have come to mean action by the state, rather than freedom from the state. The legitimacy of everything is measured by funding and everybody’s funding must be exactly the same.

In terms of a united Ireland, there should be no such thing as this society – and it may take a Tory taoiseach to say so.

According to reports, Varadkar brings one final, personal gift to Irish nationalism. Sources claim he can be distant, private, impatient with glad-handing and awkward in social situations. What a breath of fresh air.

Any country planning to take one million unionists on board should get used to it.

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