Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has launched a blistering attack on Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, saying his criticism of EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan was “bad-tempered” and “ill-judged”.
Mr Martin said on Thursday that Mr Hogan, a former Fine Gael minister, toshould “stay out of domestic politics” for the next week. The comments have drawn a sharp response from the Taoiseach.
His intervention comes as the UK’s formal departure from the EU occurred at 11pm last night.
In an interview with the Irish Examiner, Mr Varadkar accused his main rival for the role of taoiseach of taking “potshots” at Mr Hogan, who is likely to be “pivotal” to Ireland’s chances of achieving a successful Brexit deal.
“I think it was ill-judged and bad tempered of Deputy Martin to be taking potshots at Phil Hogan,” said Mr Varadkar. “I don’t see what was achieved by that.
“I just don’t think it is realistic to expect the EU trade commissioner to say nothing about Brexit the day before it happens. If he had been handing out leaflets for us or overtly calling for people to vote one way or the other, he [Mr Martin] may have had a case. But he actually didn’t do that.
“Phil Hogan is the EU cCommissioner for tTrade, he is going to be a pivotal person for Ireland in the next couple of months and years. He has been appointed as EU trade commissioner by Ursula von der Leyen. He is the sort of person the incoming taoiseach — hopefully me — will have to have a close relationship with.”
Mr Varadkar is in Cork to canvass in Kinsale and Ballincollig today. During a visit to the Irish Examiner’s head office yesterday evening, he accused the opposition, particularly Mr Martin, of playing down the dangers Brexit continues to pose.
“What the opposition are trying to do, and what Fianna Fáil are certainly trying to do, is to try and make out that everything that happens from now on, when it comes to Brexit, is some form of automated process and it doesn’t matter who is in charge and that it will all just work out.
“I guarantee you that is not the case. What is not resolved is the economic and trading relationship between Britain and Ireland and what will happen with our fisheries, for example, which is going to be particularly sensitive.
“Fianna Fáil would like to make out that, when it comes to economic issues or European issues or foreign policy issues, these things will sort themselves out automatically and the government is only involved in areas like health and housing, which is just not accurate.”
The Taoiseach also rejected Mr Martin’s claims that Fine Gael is seeking to scare people into voting for them under the cover of Brexit.
“The only thing we have done when it comes to Brexit is to tell the people the truth,” he said. “Just the facts. If Fianna Fáil don’t want the people to know, why don’t they want the people to know the facts?”
Mr Martin had accused Mr Varadkar of calling the general election to coincide with Brexit because he thought it would return him to power. Mr Martin insisted Brexit is not coming up on the doors, and accused Fine Gael of a “desperate” bid to put the issue centre stage in a campaign dominated by housing and health.
Meanwhile, Mr Martin suffered his first real setback of the campaign during a below-par interview with RTÉ broadcaster Bryan Dobson last night.
Mr Martin blamed unnamed people in Fianna Fáil headquarters for signing a pledge to introduce a rent freeze, and appeared to struggle on several other questions about his track record in previous governments.
He then said there was a typo in his manifesto “which was explained to journalists”, where it claimed that up to 250,000 new homes would be built, only to later state 200,000 would be built.