A very different Irish leader is playing hardball with Britain

Posted By: August 09, 2017

Distributed by Irish National Caucus
“An important article—by an important Irish historian— for Members of Congress and their Staff.”
—Fr. Sean McManus

The new Taoiseach has no intention of making Brexit easy for Theresa May or assuaging the DUP

Professor Roy Foster.The Evening Standard. London. Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Roy Foster is Emeritus Professor of Irish History at Oxford and Professor of Irish History and Literature at the Queen Mary University of London, and author of Vivid Faces: the Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923 (Penguin).

Eamon de Valera, dominant figure in Irish politics for much of the 20th century, devout Catholic and resolute Puritan, must have spun in his grave last week when his latest successor as Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, turned up at the Gay Pride festivities in Belfast. 

Varadkar came out as gay in a remarkably unfussed way, before taking over as leader of the Fine Gael party; it didn’t get in his way, and nor did his half-Indian ancestry. More interesting to the Irish political world is the extent to which he will define a new identity for his party. He may well shift it further to the Right: early on, he said he was in politics to represent “people who get up in the morning”. More immediately, his own form of early rising seems to mean a new approach to diplomatic relations, British-Irish and North-South.

Varadkar’s Friday speech in Belfast followed hard on a carefully primed statement expressing impatience with the shambolic nature of the British Government’s approach to Brexit, especially as it affects the Irish border. In contrast to the gentler approach of his predecessor Enda Kenny, who gave the impression that he would like to help get Britain off the hook, Varadkar has sharply said that the British have created this mess and it’s not his job to oblige them by suggesting a way out of it: though on Friday he outlined some possible forms of customs union or the prospect of rejoining EFTA. 

Closer to home, Varadkar’s plainspokenness has infuriated Mrs. May’s backwoods allies in Northern Ireland’s DUP. (Irritating them may also have been in Mr. Varadkar’s mind when he supported the gay festivities, as the DUP have consistently blocked any steps to equal marriage — which was decisively embraced by the Irish electorate, against all the jeremiads of their own ayatollahs.) 

DUP member Jeffrey Donaldson has already written an article ticking off Varadkar and telling him that the Republic will have to wait until the Brexiteers reveal their plan for a frictionless border. Given the dearth of specific suggestions and the mental incapacity displayed by the floundering trio of Davis, Fox, and Johnson, this may be some time.

Moreover, since Donaldson apparently believes that speed-trap technology for photographing car registrations is a useful and relevant precedent for searching trucks, checking visas, confirming import/export documentation and all the endless complications attendant upon the restored hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, his animadversions will not carry much weight in Dublin. 

The considerable intellectual firepower of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs knows it will have to look elsewhere for a reasonable and constructive approach to the question. As several Irish diplomats warned early on, an inevitable knock-on effect of Brexit would be a threat to Anglo-Irish relations, as well as upon the North-South relationships forged with so much effort through the peace process. Mrs. May’s shoddy bargain with the DUP has brought this into sharp focus, and it seems that Varadkar has decided to play hardball.

In articulating his growing impatience with British Havering, the Irish leader is falling into line with the recent remarks by Romano Prodi, Michel Barnier, Angela Merkel and other European figures who have stressed that in the interests of the EU’s future, Britain cannot be given an easy ride. 

The asinine promise of having one’s cake and eating it has long been exposed for what it was. And another rhetorical Brexiteer assumption, that the EU was a failed entity anyway, has also been exploded, as French and German politics restabilise under Macron and Merkel, and the euro zone economy markedly improves. Meanwhile, British growth struggles at a much lower level and the pound is still well down on pre-Brexit levels, which has already had an adverse impact on Ireland’s vitally important export trade to the sterling area. 

Here, too, Varadkar is aligning Ireland with its EU co-members, as Irish growth figures are now the highest in Europe, emigration is reversing, and Dublin’s commercial property boom is fuelled by international financial institutions transferring operations there. Last week a Eurobarometer poll showed that Irish people declare an astonishingly high level of commitment to Europe, and identify strongly as Europeans — despite the traumas of the austerity policies imposed by the European bail-out of the Irish economy 10 years ago. This pro-Europeanism reflects deeper cultural and historical affinities than just doing well out of the CAP and European inward investment since 1973 (though that record is not irrelevant). 

This is an identity that members of the DUP would find hard to understand, or to stomach; their political DNA is after all rooted in a claim on Britishness. (This is one reason why the idea of a “sea border” around Northern Ireland for EU purposes rather than the land border with the Republic, floated by one of Varadkar’s colleagues, is utterly unacceptable up North.) 

The relationship between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, like the border itself, was creatively adapted and diluted by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Sadly, it becomes clearer by the day that this is another kind of “freedom of movement” that will be removed by the politics of Brexit. Leo Varadkar has recognized this and decided not to facilitate it. 

Early on in the post-Brexit fall-out, some maverick Irish voices declared that Ireland too might have to follow Britain out of the EU, but they are rarely heard now. Varadkar’s hard line charts the future; if he were succeeded by a Fianna Fáil administration under Michael Martin, things would look little different. 

Varadkar has refreshingly confounded the usual stereotypes of the Irish politician; he is following this through by not bothering to do what the Irish call plámás, a strategy of getting your way through flattery and charm. It is to be hoped that the closeness of Anglo-Irish relations highlighted by the remarkable royal and presidential visits a few years ago will remain. But we are in a different world now.