Leo Varadkar is acting against Ireland’s interests on the border issue

Leo Varadkar is acting against Ireland’s interests on the border issue

The Republic of Ireland are right to view Brexit in universally negative terms. For them Brexit represents a total disaster with no upside worth mentioning. They are going to suffer a trade barrier with their largest trading partner, they’ve to grapple with uncomfortable constitutional questions arising out of their border with the UK, and as European integration speeds up in the UK’s absence, they will likely swallow bitter pills on their tax regime and an EU army.

The priority of the Irish Government should be to minimise the damage to their interests by ensuring an orderly transition whilst securing a favourable deal that maximises their access to the UK market. In this respect our interests are closely aligned with that of the Republic of Ireland.

However, Leo Varadkar – the recently elevated Irish Taoiseach – is acting very clearly against Ireland’s interests by rejecting any sensible compromise that would lead to a frictionless border. Such a compromise was set out in the Smart Border 2.0 document prepared for the European Parliament. I don’t agree with everything in this document but the Taoiseach’s outright rejection of a pre-registration scheme which would severely cut down on border checks is telling.

I suspect that Mr Varadkar is hoping that by rejecting any compromise on the border issue that he can either force the UK to keep regulatory alignment with the EU, force the UK to remain in the Customs Union or make the situation politically impossible for Theresa May in the hope of precipitating a general election. Any of the above options would represent a good outcome for the Irish Government at this time.

However, Mr Varadkar is playing a very dangerous game as he risks forcing the UK into a no-deal scenario. Should a sensible deal on the Irish border become impossible, the Prime Minister will be left with a stark choice between effectively keeping the UK in the EU or leaving Northern Ireland behind when the UK leaves if she wants to secure a post-Brexit relationship with the EU.

Neither of these options is open to the Prime Minister as she would lose the support of either the DUP or the Brexit hardliners in Parliament. Both are essential to her continued leadership. The Prime Minister may be forced into a no-deal scenario with disastrous consequences for the Republic of Ireland. A hard border and no deal on access to the EU’s market would be a dire result for the UK. However, it would be even more disastrous for the Republic of Ireland whose economy is very closely aligned with that of the UK.

To understand the approach of the Irish Taoiseach to this issue you need to understand Mr Varadkar. The Taoiseach has been lambasted by his domestic opponents for being obsessed by spin and public image. He was recently embroiled in disputes about his Government’s Ireland 2040 plan, which faced accusations of spending vast sums of public money planting government advertorials masquerading as impartial commentary.

The Taoiseach has also faced criticism for public spending on his “Strategic Communications Unit” which has been likened by opposition figures to a propaganda unit, with one TD, Labour’s Alan Kelly, even labelling it as “akin to something from the Third Reich, Goebbels territory”. Whilst the criticism above is getting into the realms of hyperbole, it rings true about the Taoiseach’s motivations.

It must be remembered that the Taoiseach does not have his own mandate and is keeping one eye on an inevitable Irish general election. Mr Varadkar is aware that Brexit is intensely unpopular amongst the Irish electorate and there is political gain from being seen to oppose it. Mr Varadkar is also stinging from a backlash at the beginning of his premiership when he was accused of being too close to Theresa May. Comparisons were drawn to the film Love Actually when the premiers were photographed at Downing Street. Given the antipathy with which UK Conservatives are viewed in the Republic of Ireland, this was particularly damaging.

There is also the issue of the Taoiseach’s republican credentials. Fine Gael have always been accused of being lukewarm on the issue of Irish unification. This criticism dates back to the party’s foundation out of the pro-treaty, pro-partition faction that was victorious in the Irish Civil War.

Mr Varadkar may be seeking to refute any suggestion by republican rivals Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein that he is prepared to sell out the nationalists of Northern Ireland (who voted overwhelmingly against Brexit) by adopting an obstructive attitude to the border. It’s important to remember that the Taoiseach would find it very hard to sell even very limited friction at the border given that a large majority of Irish parliamentarians don’t believe the border should exist at all.

Mr Varadkar appears to have decided that the politically safe option is to cosy up to the EU leadership in the hope that Ireland will be rewarded in future for its acquiescence. Donald Tusk’s comments about “Ireland First” represent the EU throwing the Taoiseach a bone which he can hold up as evidence of placing Ireland’s interests at the heart of the EU’s negotiating position.

The sad reality is that Mr Varadkar is the EU’s useful idiot. Instead of focusing on a sensible compromise on the Irish border that would protect the Republic of Ireland’s economic interests and the long-term interests of the Irish border community, he is instead facilitating a high stakes game of chicken between the EU and Theresa May.

Should neither side blink and a no-deal scenario result, the Republic of Ireland would be amongst the biggest losers.

A mantra amongst Irish Republicans has always been “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”. This is a lie and is born out of anti-English prejudice. The UK and Ireland are co-dependent and bound by enormously strong cultural, economic and social links. The sooner this is realised and the UK and Ireland come together and agree a Brexit compromise that suits their needs, the happier everyone will be.