By refusing to budge on the backstop, Leo Varadkar is now in a weaker position

Posted By: July 28, 2019

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, July 27, 2019

Leo Varadkar has made what might be described as an Ian Paisley mistake. No, I do not mean that he went on a foreign holiday, funded by someone else, and failed to declare it. It is not that Ian Paisley.

I am referring to the late Rev Ian Paisley, who would not budge an inch. He refused to share power with the SDLP and finished up having to budge several miles by sharing power with Sinn Féin.

Leo Varadkar now finds himself in a similar position. He would not make a Brexit deal with Theresa May, so he now has to deal with Boris Johnson, whose inconsistency, self-infatuation and general arrogance makes him an unpredictable political negotiator.

Leo’s mistake was not knowing when he was well off, but then we have all met people like that. Through his own actions, he is now in a weaker position.

His problem was his refusal to consider changes to the backstop, which states that whatever happens during the negotiations between the EU and UK, the border will remain open. But an open border would mean that Britain could not control the flow of goods between the UK and the EU, without constructing a new border within the UK.

Not our problem, said Leo, Britain must find a solution. But Boris Johnson’s solution is to leave the EU without a deal, thereby creating a significantly harder border than anything Theresa May envisaged.

When historians unravel the complex factors which propelled Boris into office, Leo Varadkar’s name is likely to feature. He helped to push Boris over the line, by making Theresa May’s job impossible.

Since Johnson was likely to succeed May, an Irish taoiseach might have been expected to try to keep her in office. But Leo wrapped himself in the green flag and, urged on by Dublin commentators who had only recently discovered the border, he went to Europe and dined for Ireland.

For former taoiseach, Enda Kenny, the backstop was technical rather than political, but Leo nearly made it into a song for the Wolfe Tones. (It was surprising that he did not hold a referendum to have it included in the constitution.)

In seeking political refuge in the EU, he displayed that historic Irish syndrome of being submissive to foreign rule provided it was not from Britain. A more politically aware taoiseach would have positioned Ireland as a friendly negotiator between the EU and the UK, including laying the basis for the return of Stormont.

Sinn Féin marched behind Leo’s green flag, even though anyone with a sense of history or politics would know to stay clear of a Fine Gael taoiseach claiming to be Mise Éire.

The SDLP went further, saying, “the European Union will not sacrifice the interests of Ireland” in discussions with Boris. Those words may come back to haunt them. (Politics exam, question 1: Is there such a thing as Ireland’s interests, or do different social and economic classes in Ireland have competing interests?)

The obvious ploy to keep Theresa May in office (and she had few redeeming features) was to agree a time limit to the backstop and negotiate a way forward, including designating the north, or even a 20-mile zone on each side of the border, as a tariff-free economic development zone. Politics, like life, is about turning difficulty into an opportunity.

Instead, nationalists led a procession of EU leaders to look at and mock the border, even though all nationalist parties had previously agreed to enshrine that same border in international law under the Good Friday Agreement. (That’s another Irish condition – short memory syndrome.)

In December, Leo said that the Dublin government would never again leave northern nationalists behind. But Dublin has now indirectly helped to make Boris Johnson the north’s prime minister. He heads the most right-wing cabinet in modern British history, which means that the north is now facing even greater austerity. Sometimes green flags are not the answer.