When, late last year, Taoisech Leo Varadkar met British prime minister Boris Johnson in Thornton Manor, outside Liverpool, to try to resolve a Brexit difficulty — the prospect of a hard border — there was a positive response to the outcome.
This was epitomised by then EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who said: “That was the key moment when I understood there was a joint will to advance on most key issues.”
A few months and two general elections later, Mr Varadkar may, like so many of those who once trusted Mr Johnson, feel regret.
Like so many others, he may feel used and fear that he will be betrayed when commitment stands in the way of Mr Johnson’s ambition. Weekend reports that Mr Johnson’s Brexit team has been told to find ways to “get around” the Northern Ireland protocol suggest a spectacular, but unsurprising, level of duplicity and disdain for the withdrawal agreement.
British officials are working in secret on proposals to try to contrive a circumstance where there will be no checks on goods passing between Britain and Northern Ireland. This moves the prospect of a hard border back centre stage.
The UK’s new attorney general, Suella Braverman, hopes to find legal advice to support the move. She, tellingly, succeeded Geoffrey Cox, who was not prepared to work on such a sleight of hand. Mr Varadkar responded: “The agreement clearly says if there have to be checks anywhere, they would happen at the ports and airports in Northern Ireland, rather than on the land border between north and south.”
It would not be surprising if Mr Varadkar’s remarks were ignored, as there has been a perceptible hardening on many issues since Mr Johnson shuffled his cabinet to make it more manageable.
The deeply hypocritical hardening of rules on immigration, championed by home secretary Priti Patel, the daughter of immigrants, is one example.
The refusal by environment secretary George Eustice to rule out chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef imports from the US is another. The replacement of the effective Julian Smith as NI secretary by Brandon Lewis is a third.
Yet another is the fact that Tánaiste Simon Coveney felt it necessary, at his first meeting with Mr Lewis yesterday, to insist that commitments on legacy issues be implemented in full.
These issues play out just as Ireland crossed a Rubicon. This weekend, Ireland took part in the first EU leaders’ summit without the support of a powerful neighbour.
We were reminded that we are a rich EU country and expected to contribute in a way that reflects that. The €12bn-a-year Brexit shortfall tightens that garrotte. Budget talks considered a blueprint, with steep cuts in farm and regional funding and ways to fund climate goals.
Though rejected, it is unlikely any final agreement will be radically different. Mr Varadkar has promised to make up any cut in farm subsidies from domestic funds, though how that would be politically, or socially, possible is unclear.
These pressures may make Fine Gael suggestions about enjoying opposition seem almost plausible, but that would ignore the reality that Mr Johnson is not the only politician to say one thing but mean another.