Belfast Telegraph

Varadkar focusing on practicalities of trade, not the fourth green field

Leo Varadkar
Leo Varadkar
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Just a month ago Arlene Foster stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Taoiseach at a Remembrance Day event in Enniskillen. Leo Varadkar laid a wreath at the war memorial in the town.

A few days earlier in the Dail he'd worn a shamrock poppy lapel pin designed by the Royal British Legion, a first for any Fine Gael leader even though the party has always been more sympathetic to unionists and Britain than its rivals.

You wouldn't have guessed that listening to Nigel Dodds in the House of Commons yesterday.

He accused Dublin of risking Anglo-Irish relations and co-operation in Northern Ireland with its "reckless and dangerous" attitude to Brexit talks.

Its approach was "aggressive and anti-unionist", the DUP deputy leader said. The Taoiseach's antipathy for Sinn Fein is clear for all to see in the Dail. He hasn't been transformed into a republican with one eye on the fourth green field over the past month.

Rather, Mr Varadkar's stance this week is based solely on protecting the Southern economy. This is about trade practicalities, not advancing any ideological agenda.

Britain is Ireland's biggest trading partner (whereas Ireland is only the fifth most important market for British exports), so the stakes couldn't be higher.

Being hit in the pocket will cause far greater outrage in the Republic than shoot-to-kill policies or supergrass trials on the other side of the border ever did.

Despite the Taoiseach's tough talk at the moment, no deal will be substantially more disastrous for Dublin than London with World Trade Organisation rules coming into play. Mr Varadkar was restrained when commenting on Theresa May's rowing back from the text she agreed with him on Monday.

But if the Prime Minister doesn't find a solution that satisfies the Irish Government, it will get nasty. The megaphone diplomacy of the 1970s and early 1980s as a result of the political turbulence in Northern Ireland will be minor in comparison.

Previous tensions over Bloody Sunday and the 1981 hunger strikes will pale into insignificance because it's economic interests that are in jeopardy.

Until now we have been living in a golden age of British-Irish relations. The 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement ushered in an era of closer co-operation and consultation between the two states, which was cemented 13 years later by the Good Friday Agreement.

A warning of how the situation could change was made by Fine Gael MEP and European Parliament vice-president Mairead McGuinness in August. Brexit had the potential to impact more on Anglo-Irish relations than the Easter Rising or Ireland's War of Independence, she said.

That's a huge over-statement, but you get the drift. If there's a hard border - and I personally believe that will be avoided - anti-British and anti-unionist sentiment will be on the rise in the Republic in the immediate aftermath.

Ray Bassett, former Irish ambassador to Canada who was also joint secretary to the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Belfast, has suggested an 'Irexit' as a solution. But that idea is currently heresy in Dublin as the Irish Government grapples with the Brexit bombshell.

Belfast Telegraph


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