Pat Leahy: Varadkar ends 2017 on a high thanks to Brexit talks

Taoiseach’s judgment in Fitzgerald episode overlooked by public amid Brexit gains

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. “He will go to Brussels next week with his stature enhanced both domestically and in Europe.” Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. “He will go to Brussels next week with his stature enhanced both domestically and in Europe.” Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

 

You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. Toughness is a necessary quality in a political leader, but judgment is essential. The last topsy-turvy three weeks in Irish politics have been testament to that.

Toughness is necessary, but not sufficient. From the outset of the Frances Fitzgerald email controversy, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was intent on demonstrating – to his party, to voters, to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin – that he would not back down, that he would assert his authority. There was a political logic to that, but because he failed to see the wider political context, Varadkar’s resolve clouded his judgment. The episode ended in a humiliating climbdown and a political defeat of much greater proportions than was necessary had he exhibited better judgment and seen the inevitable from the start. For the first time, it shook his party’s confidence in him.

But in the negotiations with the British government and the European Union that have dominated political events since, the Taoiseach has shown similar resolve but combined it with better judgment. Perhaps this is because he has been listening to senior officials – who have played an utter blinder on the Brexit talks – more than he was during the Fitzgerald controversy. Whatever the reason, he has achieved as good an outcome as could reasonably have been expected, and better than might have been likely.

Fundamental contradiction

The Government is not there yet on Brexit, of course, not by a long shot. Nobody is. Much high-wire stuff awaits in the future. At the heart of the agreed approach outlined so far and enshrined yesterday is a fundamental contradiction – on the one hand that there will be no hard border, but on the other Britain will leave the customs union and single market. By the end of the process, either one of those two objectives will be abandoned, or the meaning of one of those two statements will have to change.

Leaving the customs union and single market could be defined by the British as some sort of external association that includes tariff and customs free access to the European market

It is possible that a “hard border” could be defined by the British to exclude electronic customs checks, tariffs and trusted trader schemes that would enforce a trade and customs border without any hard infrastructure. But that is unlikely to be accepted by Ireland and the EU.

Or it is possible that leaving the customs union and the single market could be defined by the British as some sort of external association that includes tariff and customs free access to the European market. But because this would require British to apply the rules of the single market without any say in their formulation, and to pay contributions to the EU, it is likely to be unacceptable to British Brexiteers.

But the two imperatives – leaving the customs union and avoiding a hard border – cannot sit together as they are currently understood.

Paeans to upholding the Belfast Agreement by both sides are fine but only go so far. The agreement created a context in which the Border was opened for security purposes. But as Oxford economist Kevin O’Rourke pointed out in The Irish Times during the week, it was the creation of the EU’s single market that removed the customs posts.

That contradiction will have to be faced up to at some stage. Fudge is useful and at times vital. But it will get you only so far. Constructive ambiguity has been employed to get everyone over this hurdle, but sooner or later a decision will have to be made. That decision will be faced by the British when they answer – for everyone and themselves – the question: what kind of Brexit do you want?

Because the EU’s position is pretty clear: its norms will be upheld. It will not reinvent the single market and the customs union to suit the Brexiteers.

The British government has had a crash course in reality and in the asymmetrical nature of these negotiations in the past few weeks – London has conceded on every major point so far. The structure and timetable of the negotiations, the transition phase, the money, citizens’ rights and now the Irish Border – the British have caved to the EU position on everything.

As one British commentator noted early yesterday, if this is victory, I’d hate to see what defeat looks like.

Voters appear to have forgiven, forgotten or not noticed in the first place the shambles that was Varadkar’s handling of the Fitzgerald affair.

The Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, have managed this process well so far, even if Monday morning’s announcements of victory were ill-advised and premature. They got over that, and by and large they have demonstrated judgment and toughness, skill and strategy.

Rebuilding relationships

Other political skills will now be required. There is a pressing need to rebuild relationships with the DUP and the British government. Repairing the damage done in recent weeks – some of it necessary, but not all – will take patience, empathy and understanding.

In the midst of the political drama of the past week, the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll sent two important signals. Voters appear to have forgiven, forgotten or not noticed in the first place the shambles that was Varadkar’s handling of the Fitzgerald affair.

They noticed his strong stance in Ireland’s interests in the Brexit negotiations (endorsed by both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin) and favoured himself, his party and his Government in the best set of polling numbers Fine Gael has seen for years.

Perhaps the message is that the electorate will ignore bad politics and reward good government. You’d certainly like to think so.

So 2017 ends on a high for Varadkar. He will go to Brussels next week with his stature enhanced both domestically and in Europe. But the unresolved questions at the centre of the Brexit process means that 2018 will bring even more substantial challenges for the young Taoiseach.

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