Boris Johnson’s appointment should prompt Leo Varadkar to reset the Irish Government’s Brexit stance

Boris Johnson’s appointment should prompt Leo Varadkar to reset the Irish Government’s Brexit stance

Last weekend Northern Ireland played host to the British Open for the first time since 1948. Irishman Shane Lowry won emphatically and as the week rolled on, the congratulations continued to roll in for the Offaly man. Naturally our media-savvy Taoiseach was quick with the praise and, as so often is the case, what was particularly interesting to see on Mr. Varadkar’s Twitter feed was not his congratulation but what lay below that – a seemingly innocuous tweet referencing a French minister’s pledge of Brexit solidarity with Ireland.

In fact, this is a symptom of something much greater and we don’t have to delve too deep into the recesses of our memories to the last time Mr. Varadkar stood by a promise from the French government.

When I cast my mind back to Leo and his trademark grin propping up the under-pressure Emmanuel Macron in March as he pledged his solidarity to the Irish, I wince. Only a couple of days later, the French leader was holding up Brexit extension talks to the detriment of the Irish. A No Deal and no plan on the Northern border meant Ireland would have temporarily been withdrawn from the customs union until such a time that we could verify all goods leaving Ireland had not come from the North.

At the time, Simon Coveney refused to entertain the notion of border checks and simultaneously refused to accept the possibility that Irish goods could be stopped in the Irish Sea before entering Europe through France or elsewhere – two contradictory ideas. The Irish Government sees Brexit as a zero-sum game and this is detrimental. 

Interestingly, as Brendan Simms pointed out last week, this approach by the Taoiseach and his Government may well be in breach of the Good Friday Agreement. Simms argues that if Varadkar insists on refusing to allow checks at the North-South Border, then equally he should refuse to create checks in the Irish Sea. As the border checks would affect Nationalists in Northern Ireland, the check in the Irish Sea would affect Unionists in Northern Ireland.

Therefore, Varadkar’s insistence on supporting nationalists and ignorance towards unionists is diametrically against the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, which acknowledges the rights of both Nationalists and Unionists. Therefore, it is in the interest of the Taoiseach to seek an outcome that satisfies this agreement and their zero-sum approach is particularly lacking.  

To borrow more thoughts from the Irish golfing success, it is interesting to note how many people delivered their praise while referencing how this result was “fantastic for such a small country”. Common among praise from Irish people was a sense of ‘aren’t we great punching above our weight?’.

However, I would vehemently disagree with such an affectation being attached to our success as a nation in any regard. Not only does Ireland produce a significant number of top-class sport stars (England’s Cricket World Cup-winning captain Eoin Morgan honed his cricket ability in my own school), we compete on the world stage on a number of levels – industry, arts and of course business.

We are a small island, but one that belongs on the world stage; we don’t momentarily appear on it. However, when our Taoiseach stands up and remarks that Boris Johnson’s claims are “not in the real world” and that he will not discuss any terms with the UK,  he perpetuates a small nation attitude. 

This has been the Taoiseach’s approach for some time now, as he regularly made jibes and slights at Theresa May’s expense. A nationalistic overture runs rapid through Mr. Varadkar’s Brexit rhetoric and, as I have discussed, this is damaging to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and all the good it does for people on the island of Ireland.

With Boris Johnson installed as the new Prime Minister and his new Cabinet now having been revealed, there is a chance for a new approach to Brexit for European leaders and, in particular, for Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney.

Ireland might be a geographically small country, but there is no need for us to behave like a small nation and, while the new Prime Minister may be accused of unfortunate comments in the past, we should never measure ourselves with someone else’s ruler. The changing Cabinet brings with it a chance for change and a chance to lift the deadlock on Brexit.