Who will put a stop to Leo’s hard-line tactics?

A dangerous complacency is taking hold.

Who will put a stop to Leo’s hard-line tactics?

A dangerous complacency is taking hold.

The ‘green jersey’ agenda is alive again and in full swing.

Ten years ago, it was called upon in a bid to salvage our bust banks.

mock checkpoint manned by actors dressed as soldiers and customs officers during an anti-Brexit rally at the Irish border near Carrickcarnan, Co Louth. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA.
mock checkpoint manned by actors dressed as soldiers and customs officers during an anti-Brexit rally at the Irish border near Carrickcarnan, Co Louth. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA.

Now it is being exercised in the context of Brexit.

In a week where Government anger at the antics of the British government and the DUP peaked, the lack of criticism at Dublin’s role in the Brexit debacle is truly shocking.

The Opposition and the media, by and large, have been willing to give Taoiseach Leo Varadkar a free pass when it comes to his hardline approach with the British in terms of the backstop arrangement, which has

become the main Brexit battleground.

“For the majority parties, the wider public, and the media, there has been a reasonable agenda so far of ‘wearing the green jersey’. The focus of criticism has been on the shambles in

London,” Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin told the Dáil days before Christmas, giving voice to the malaise on the backstop issue.

This week, even Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald affirmed her support for Varadkar’s hardline stance.

“We established that we are of one mind on the backstop,” she said in the Dáil.

“We expect that Dublin will remain firm in its resolve and that whatever happens in London, the Taoiseach will not be convinced, cajoled or pressured to give way on the very basic protections that are required for Irish interests.”

I have always said that the cheers of victory from Dublin in December at the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement would count for nothing if British prime minister Theresa May could not sell the deal to the House of Commons.

By being so hardline, Varadkar forced the EU to back a deal that was never going to pass muster in Westminster.

And it didn’t, rejected so overwhelmingly by MPs two weeks ago.

Dublin’s victory was pyrrhic.

Now that May has reneged on her commitment to the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop, Ireland and its border with the UK stand badly exposed.

By pressing so hard to deliver a mechanism to avoid a hard border, Varadkar the implacable has made it more likely. He, on his watch, has allowed relations with the unionist community to sour significantly, which is a major concern in the absence of a Stormont Assembly.

The Opposition has been too meek and feeble by accepting the premise that Varadkar’s hardline approach was the only way. Where has been the critical analysis of where it would bring us? It simply didn’t happen.

The stark reality is that the presence of the backstop is allowing the environment for a disorderly Brexit to develop.

Where are the alternatives?

Another concern in Dublin is that the Tory/DUP nexis is a toxic one both in terms of the stalemate in the North at present and in the wider context of Brexit.

Government ministers, speaking privately in recent weeks, have made known their disquiet at the actions of the Sammy Wilsons and Nigel Dodds of this world.

“Their actions are despicable. It is entirely reckless, what they are doing. Other colleagues would say worse about them,” one minister told me.

While not the official view of the Government, nor the view of Tánaiste Simon Coveney, the evocative quote does reflect growing angst at the power held by the DUP over events in London.

However, while that anger at May’s U-turn is understandable in the short term, to move beyond the impasse it is worth examining why she did it.

On Tuesday, May backed the amendment tabled by Graham Brady, which advocated support for the Withdrawal Agreement minus the backstop. The motion called for alternative arrangements to be found in time to avoid a crash out on March 29.

Rather than seek a consensus across the middle ground in the Commons, May retreated into her hardline Brexiteer base in order to stand to fight another day.

What has been seen as a betrayal in Dublin, perhaps somewhat unhelpfully, was a political necessity for May.

Battered, bruised, and weak, May had very few options.

But, within minutes of the Commons result, EU leaders from across the continent were responding in unison.

There can be no renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement, full stop, was the response.

But in the Irish domestic political context, Varadkar, since taking office, has adopted a far more aggressive approach to the unionist community than either Bertie Ahern or Enda Kenny.

He has ratcheted up nationalistic rhetoric at the expense of genuine inclusion with moderate and not so moderate unionists.

The DUP, most of the time, does not help itself.

It all too often prioritises its own narrow ideology and loyalty to a union that doesn’t want it over the clear economic benefit of its own people in the embattled province it claims to represent.

But it is the largest party in the North, and has a mandate which must be respected.

In the Dáil, Varadkar has succeeded in entrapping the Opposition — Fianna Fail, Sinn Féin and Labour — into backing his backstop arrangement.

If it succeeds he can, as the incumbent, claim the credit but if it fails he can spread the blame to the others.

Such is the meekness on this issue, the Government and its spin merchants feel confident enough to try and lean on journalists not to print sensitive material for fear of rocking the boat at this delicate time when Anglo-Irish relations are under strain.

It has been suggested in some corners that Varadkar’s hard line has more to do with opinion polls than the national interest and, given his obsession with spin and his image, such accusations are worthy of examination.

The problem with his strategy is that he is gambling with very high stakes. Not Brexit, but something more important. Peace on this island.

Last weekend’s Sunday Business Post poll would show his strategy is paying off, as support for Fine Gael remains solid while Fianna Fáil had a sharp

reverse.

Despite a decidedly rocky period in office (CervicalCheck, children’s hospital, homelessness), Varadkar’s party, on 32%, now holds a 10-point lead on Fianna Fail on 22%.

With time running short and a no-deal Brexit becoming an increasing reality, Varadkar and Coveney must step back and question whether their strategy was the correct one.

The job of the Opposition is to oppose, vehemently and with intellectual rigour.

The lack of critical analysis on Varadkar’s stance both in the Opposition and in many corners of the media is alarming.

So I beg to ask — have we got it all wrong and by trying too hard to avoid a hard border, could we have forced the circumstances where it becomes unavoidable?

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