Taoiseach Leo Varadkar nailed British prime minister Boris Johnson to a form of Brexit that is about as good as we could expect, writes Fergus Finlay
I think it needs to be said, loud and clear. Our taoiseach did a great job for his country last week. His decision to fly to England and meet Boris Johnson on his own patch was a masterpiece of tactics and timing. And it’s absolutely clear that he persuaded Johnson to accept some bottom lines.
The customs agreement that emerged, and the agreement to replace the DUP veto with a simple (but entirely democratic) opt-out vote, rather than the opt-in already in place, were critical in ensuring that Ireland’s interests were as well served as they could possibly be. And, by the way, the interests of the North.
Waiting ’til the very end, as Leo Varadkar did, and then choosing to travel rather than require Johnson to come here, were both brilliant decisions. They were also high-risk. Leo could have come away with his tail between his legs and with nothing achieved by way of change. He’d have been roundly attacked here at home for looking weak if that had happened.
But what he has done instead is that he has nailed Johnson to a form of Brexit that’s about as good as we could expect. He was never going to persuade Johnson to change his mind about Brexit altogether — as self-serving as that man is, he has too much at stake for that. But he knows that there’s no point now in coming back for more. This is his agreement, and he has no choice but to try to get it passed.
Three things occurred to me in the aftermath. We (our taoiseach, that is) didn’t just get an agreement that protected our interests. We almost saved Johnson’s Brexit. You know what wouldn’t have gone amiss? A headline or two in the rabid Tory press and the British tabloids that acknowledged the crass stupidity of most of their previous coverage.
They have done their damndest to demonise our Government, and to paint Ireland as an ungrateful and unworthy barrier to England’s proud heritage. Every one of those sneers has been based on jingoism and chauvinism. Right now, they should be expressing gratitude.
The second thing that occurred to me — and I guess to most of us — is what in the name of all that’s holy is wrong with the DUP? The deal they are rejecting is the best possible outcome for Northern Irish business, agriculture, and jobs. If they had set out to negotiate the protection of the North in the face of an unwelcome Brexit, they couldn’t have done better than the Government has done on their behalf.
The DUP was founded in 1971 — in a couple of years’ time it will celebrate (if they’re not too miserable for a celebration) its 50th birthday. It was founded because the Ulster Unionist Party was beginning to seem a little reasonable in response to some of the brutality of the early years of the troubles.
And for that entire history (except for that couple of years when Ian Paisley was getting closer to the moment he was due to meet his maker), the DUP has been the leading exemplar in the entire world of zero sum politics. Zero sum has a very simple, and cast-iron, meaning. Your gain is my loss. I can only see myself as winning if you feel that you have lost.
The peace process in Ireland only happened because everyone else abandoned the concept of zero sum politics, and tried to negotiate a win-win settlement instead.
The power-sharing executive was only possible when Paisley — in an entirely out-of-character decision — briefly set zero sum politics to one side. And the failure to restore an executive is caused inconsiderable part by the DUP embracing zero sum as a core principle once again.
As a result, their entire constituency — every single element of it — is best served by the agreement they have rejected. And the only reason they have rejected it is because the Irish Government seems to like it. If we feel we’ve done well, they must have lost. Zero sum.
There’s only a few possibilities now. This Brexit will pass, somehow or other, and then we’ll know the shape of the medium-term future, and we can plan for it. If it does pass, we can look again at the Budget adopted a week or so ago, which set aside over €1bn as a hedge against a no-deal Brexit. There may well be room now, or in the immediate future, to make investments in education, health and childcare that we have foregone.
Or the Brexit deal won’t pass. In that event, there will surely have to be a general election in Britain in the imminent future. If Johnson wins, we know what the deal is, and now he’ll have a mandate for it.
If he loses — I hope he does, and I wouldn’t rule it out — the worst- case scenario will be a better deal, probably accompanied by another referendum. The question in that referendum will be, in all likelihood, vote for this or stay in Europe. And who knows the outcome of that?
That’s why I say the deal now agreed between the UK and Europe — and it won’t change — is the worst-case scenario. We will either be looking at a manageable Brexit or something better. We’ll know exactly what in the next three months. That, I think, is the true extent of Leo’s achievement.
And it would be silly and pointless to mention Leo without recognising the fact that his Government, and especially his tánaiste, Simon Coveney, have done an extraordinary job in building the strong alliances across Europe that have meant that every single European leader has examined every aspect of Brexit through an Irish lens, and through a peace lens. And I’m saying that has someone who has never voted Fine Gael in my life.
There is only one way, in my view, that Leo could tarnish this achievement. I’m hearing rumours now that there is a strong push within Fine Gael for an immediate general election. What a stupid mistake that would be.
Leo Varadkar’s image would change overnight if he were to choose that course. He’d go from statesman to chancer in the wink of an eye. And whatever we might feel now about a taoiseach and government that have worked might and main to protect their country, that sentiment would be well gone by the end of a three- or four-week campaign.
Varadkar is not the first Irish taoiseach to stand up to the Brits — he’s following in an honourable tradition that stretches back a long way. But he has shown amazing skill and fortitude along the way, and has genuinely delivered for the people — and the island — he represents. I’m hoping, and expecting, that he won’t blow it now.