Varadkar challenge a game changer for unity debate

Posted By: June 19, 2024



Distributed to Congress by Irish National Caucus


June 19, 2024

“I am on record of praising former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for promising Nationalists/Republicans/Catholics that they would never again be abandoned by the Dublin Government. And now it’s good to see he is calling on the Dublin Government to make the unification of Ireland a ‘political objective,’ as Brian Feeney explains in this excellent article.”—Fr. Sean McManus.

Varadkar challenge a game changer for unity debate

Brian Feeney. Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Taken together, Leo Varadkar’s remarks in his interview with Jim Fitzpatrick at the Ireland’s Future conference on Saturday constitute a game changer, a moment of significance.

Up to this point, all Taoisigh [all Prime Ministers], including incumbent Simon Harris, thought all they had to do was intone, as he did, “I believe in a united Ireland, and my political aspiration is that we would see one in my lifetime,” then move swiftly on.

On Saturday, Harris’s predecessor Varadkar threw down a challenge to the next Irish government, which is likely to be elected this autumn. He said: “What I hope we’ll see happen in the next government, no matter which parties are in it, is that we’ll see what is a long-standing political aspiration towards unification become a political objective.” He went on: “It means actively working towards it, preparing the ground for it.”

He proposed that the government sets up a State- fund now to allocate money from current budget surpluses that will be available to pay for a united Ireland later.

Varadkar also had something to say about the process for calling a referendum, stating that it’s “wrong there really aren’t any criteria as to what constitutes the right conditions”. He suggested that there should be “conversations” between the Irish and British governments about the criteria and conditions for holding a referendum.

That’s pretty obvious, given that there will be two referendums, north and south, but it’s the first time a senior Irish politician has proposed that the Irish government be consulted about the criteria.

A number of political consequences flow from the former Taoiseach’s remarks.

First, they have to have an effect on the manifestos of all parties in the south for the coming general election. Will the Fine Gael manifesto ignore Varadkar’s suggestions? Unlikely, because every journalist in every election interview is going to ask why and how the party differs from its former leader.

Secondly, and with Leo Varadkar’s finely tuned political antennae, he could not have been unaware that he was staking a claim to the large gap Micheál Martin’s apostasy on the national question has left.

Tánaiste and Fianna Fáil leader Martin can’t even bring himself to say reunification. He now talks of ‘other political arrangements’ on the island. Concentrating on relationships and reconciliation, Martin seems to be taking the scenic route on the national question, whereas Varadkar advocates, as Bunreacht na hÉireann does, reunification as a political objective.

If you have an objective, as any good officer will tell you, you need a plan to achieve it, and Varadkar sketched some preliminary outlines on Saturday. Fundamentally differing from Martin’s scenic route, Varadkar said reconciliation and reunification can be pursued in parallel.

A third political consequence is that Leo Varadkar is effectively framing the South’s next election as a contest between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. If Fine Gael follows his advice and includes reunification in its manifesto, then Sinn Féin will no longer be the only party advocating a referendum in the next decade, or indeed the only party asking for a government green paper on the subject and preparations through a Citizens Assembly or All-Party Forum.

Varadkar’s imaginative and innovative suggestion of a sovereign fund to help pay for reunification has, in fact, stolen a march on Sinn Féin. He said he had intended to develop a policy on reunification when he became Taoiseach in 2017, but, like everything else, his plans were knocked sideways by Brexit.

However, he cautioned against moving until you can be sure of winning. Why is the process becoming viable now? The answer was given in another crucial presentation on Saturday.

Prof Brendan O’Leary laid out the three elements constituting the ‘tipping point’ in the north: demographic, electoral, and the consequences of Brexit.

They are all interconnected, but combined, these three factors create an irreversible change in the North’s constitutional future.

The 2021 census, which showed Catholics outnumbering Protestants for the first time, was already out of date when its results became public in 2022. The rapidly growing nationalist voter numbers became evident in the 2022 and 2023 elections.

The breakdown of first preference votes in 2023 was 44% nationalist, 40% unionist, and 16% other, not the 40–40–20 that three-bloc advocates claim. The gap will widen.

Immigration may have an effect, but The North’s political complexion has irrevocably changed.

Brexit will continue to damage Britain, with GDP hit for years ahead, inevitably impoverishing and destabilizing The North further.

O’Leary’s figures and projections provide the statistical background for Varadkar’s political propositions. Ireland’s future beckons.