By accepting his errors on the Protocol, the Irish PM is adapting to the new realities of Ireland’s politics
Published: 3 January 2023
In his second chance as Ireland’s Taoiseach, a job he recovered in mid-December, Leo Varadkar has finally indicated that he’s learned from some of his misjudgments the first time around in dealing with the Northern Ireland Protocol. “I’m sure we’ve all made mistakes in the handling of Brexit”, he said this week. “There was no road map, no manual, it wasn’t something that we expected would happen and we’ve all done our best to deal with it.”
It’s a radical change in tone, given that Varadkar has until now shown a tin-ear for unionist concerns and an obsession with pleasing the EU that had him cynically surfing the post-Brexit Anglophobic tide. But it would be a mistake to read it as a principled mea culpa. Varadkar is merely adapting to the starkly different shape of Irish politics today.
In 2020, in a joint enterprise to scupper the chances of a Sinn Fein government, which they believed threatened Irish democracy, the two old civil war parties did a deal that replaced Varadkar, the leader of Fine Gael, with Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin for two years, after which they would swap. In his time as Taoiseach, Martin impressed unionists. As an historian, he showed understanding and respect, never shouted about Irish unity, and instigated an eminently practical Shared Island initiative that aimed to use the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement “to enhance cooperation, connection and mutual understanding on the island and engage with all communities and traditions to build consensus around a shared future.”
It was quite the contrast with Varadkar, who unionists viewed as a shallow member of a metropolitan élite. He and his party deputy and minister for foreign affairs Simon Coveney – focused on the electoral threat from Sinn Fein in 2025, polishing their Irish nationalist credentials and keeping their options open for senior EU jobs in the future – had made a series of gaffes about Northern Ireland that made unionists feel they were seen as road kill. Coveney is now safely tucked away in a domestic ministry, with Martin taking his foreign affairs job, but the distrust for Varadkar had not gone away.
It would seem now, though, that the penny has dropped in Irish official circles that disdaining unionists always puts them into “No surrender” mode. What’s more, the electoral threat posed by Sinn Fein has changed. They are desperate to capture the centre ground and have taken on board the opinion polls that show the Irish public is preoccupied with housing and the cost of living and doesn’t care about Northern Ireland. They are also plagued by embarrassing links to notorious criminals and are majoring on appearing respectable.
They are still the same subversive party, but for now their rhetoric is about dialogue and trust. So Varadkar, with a supportive deputy prime minister and a muzzled Coveney, has the political room to be conciliatory.
There are also the positives from the removal of Boris (whom the Irish government distrusted) and Liz Truss (whom they feared), and their replacement by Rishi Sunak, who is an unknown quantity whom so far no one dislikes. Rather than insisting on the removal of the protocol, meanwhile, the DUP is talking of “replacing it with arrangements that unionists can support and thus restore genuine power-sharing.” And breathing heavily in the background is Joe Biden, who wants to be in Ireland in April to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Agreement, but won’t be if the protocol problems have not been resolved. He has despatched American royalty to Northern Ireland in the shape of Joseph Kennedy III, as a Special Envoy. The EU, which is now deeply dependent on the US, is also using placatory language.
Gradually, the mood music is shifting: it is being recognised that the protocol is about practicalities rather than principle and therefore resolvable by politicians.
Varadkar accepts that Brexit is a reality. He has listed his red lines as avoiding a hard border on the island, and making sure that human rights in Northern Ireland are upheld and the European single market is protected. “The backstop, the protocol, were just mechanisms to achieve those objectives and, so long as we can achieve them, I’ll be as flexible and reasonable as I can be.” Varadkar wants to be standing beside Biden in April in front of a global audience. It’s all to play for.