How Boris Johnson helped change Leo Varadkar’s attitude to Brexit

How Boris Johnson helped change Leo Varadkar’s attitude to Brexit

People, not policies, win elections, and last week’s general election in the UK was no different. Boris Johnson’s clear message won over the British electorate, allowing him to win a majority at Westminster.

With this majority comes cause for celebration on both sides of the Irish Sea. This was evident from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s coast-to-coast grin when he spoke to the media on Friday, particularly at the prospect of a “mighty new economic partnership between the EU and UK”, as he put it.

Prudently, the Taoiseach didn’t pitch his tent in either camp for this election; however, he did note how devastating a result it would be if there were another hung parliament. Far from a declaration of support for Boris Johnson, however, it was certainly an indication of the Taoiseach’s desire to move forward – something that has become increasingly more apparent as the year has worn on.

In January I was moved to write a piece for BrexitCentral condemning Varadkar’s comments on the Northern Irish border. Now I am quietly optimistic that the Taoiseach’s change of tack will have played a significant role in breaking the Brexit deadlock and getting a deal through the House of Commons. But why the sudden change of heart from Mr Varadkar? I think personality had a hand to play. 

It wasn’t just Theresa May’s approach to Brexit that made it difficult for the Taoiseach, it was her persona. Mr. Varadkar is a personality and maintains an astute public image: he rarely misses a chance for a good photo opportunity and understand optics. However, this didn’t correspond to the former Prime Minister’s clunky public persona. It was hard to rally around Theresa May and it’s clear to see they weren’t a personality match. Hence, during the first half of this year, Varadkar hung his hat on the EU and stood by French President Emmanuel Macron as he pledged to support us – we all know how that ended…

As the summer wore on and Boris Johnson took up residency in No. 10, the penny seems to have dropped for the Taoiseach. Initially Varadkar maintained his stoic position on Brexit and the possibility of a new deal, but faith in the French was wilting. Macron’s machismo had risked a no-deal Brexit too many times. This would cause huge problems for Ireland and could potentially see us taken out of the Single Market until we could verify that any goods we brought into the EU hadn’t come from Northern Ireland or see a hard border with Northern Ireland. Obviously, the latter is not an option and we had to work together to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

Cue Boris Johnson’s promise to leave come October 31st, deal or no deal, and the picture became clearer: we had to work with our neighbours. Not only was it clear that the new Prime Minister really intended to leave, but his charismatic personality was galvanising support. These factors combined to convince the Taoiseach that the UK and Ireland wanted an agreement in the interests of all parties and suddenly we had a pathway to a new deal. We cannot doubt the importance of Johnson’s character in this meeting – and it is this character and their future relationship that is only going to become more important as we move into 2020.

As far as last week’s general election is concerned, the most important results – with regard to Anglo-Irish relations – came from Northern Ireland. Not only did Nigel Dodds of the DUP lose his seat in Belfast, but this was the first time that the majority of seats in Northern Ireland did not elect a unionist. And with Sinn Fein building momentum and the border issue set to be a major talking point over the coming year, measured diplomacy is crucial for both sides.

Early signs suggest Mr. Varadkar is well aware of this as he stated he was “relieved for my country and I am also relieved for the UK”. Our shared economic prospects are well documented and hopefully reason will prevail here. The border has been a pain point of negotiations up until now, but with the Government now enjoying a majority in the House of Commons, it does seem like there will be movement.

With any luck Stormont will sit again and we will have progress in Northern Ireland. After all, the Good Friday Agreement followed Tony Blair’s majority victory in 1997; is this majority victory a good omen? It certainly can be, and the Taoiseach’s new approach will do no harm.