Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Varadkar's dismissal of the 'precious Union' is symptomatic of a Taoiseach who plays to his audience

Attitudes like the Fine Gael leader's send all the wrong signals about their imperious approach to their nearest neighbours, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Leo Varadkar made disparaging remarks about the DUP regarding their attitude to Brexit
Leo Varadkar made disparaging remarks about the DUP regarding their attitude to Brexit

It was the smirk that did it. Throughout his address to the Dail on Wednesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's face bore a simpering smile as he expressed his frustration at dealing with the DUP over Brexit, declaring, in effect, that the only thing they cared about was "the precious Union". He smirks a lot, but this one told a tale.

It was a signal to fellow TDs in the Irish parliament that said: "I know they're ridiculous, lads, but what can you do?"

There's nothing wrong with calling the Union "precious"; unionists wouldn't hesitate to do so. It was Varadkar's sneaky, sarcastic use of the word which should raise hackles.

Two years ago, nationalists in Ireland commemorated the centenary of the Easter Rising with due pomp and ceremony. Imagine the furore back then if Arlene Foster had grinned as she snidely wondered why the Irish were so attached to their "precious Republic".

Critics would have called it an outrageous act of discourtesy. And they'd have been right.

In a way, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar has simply reaffirmed what everyone knows - that unionists are from Mars and nationalists from Venus and, however much they try to see things from each others' points of view, there will always be a deep chasm of misunderstanding between them. Brexit didn't create, but has widened, that ancient divide.

The mystery is why the Taoiseach thought it appropriate, at this delicate point in cross-border relations, to stand on one edge of the gorge, taunting those on the other side.

Only days ago, UUP leader Robin Swann was telling a side event at the Fine Gael ard fheis in the Irish capital that certain recent comments by politicians in Dublin had been "a poke in the eye to unionists".

It's almost as if Leo heard that warning and secretly thought: "Just wait till you hear what I'm going to say next week."

Fine Gael would have everyone believe they're above such sectarian spats. It's certainly hard to imagine previous leaders of the party - from Enda Kenny and John Bruton to Garret FitzGerald - blundering in so clumsily to this contested territory.

Such belligerence is doing Leo no harm in the polls. Fine Gael remains well on course to be the largest faction in the next government, as it is in this one. Standing up to the Brits over Brexit has been a popular, populist move.

But when dealing with Northern Ireland, it's not voters in the Republic that any Taoiseach has to worry about. It's ones north of the border whose opinions matter most.

That it's Leo Varadkar who has thrown diplomacy to the winds is surprising on one level, because his appeal has always been as a solid centrist; a safe pair of hands.

Being young, gay, urban, and of mixed race, he ticks all the right boxes for our liberal age, but without being any threat to the status quo.

In another sense, it's not surprising at all, because Varadkar is also - how shall we put this? - a teensy bit shallow.

He's got a sharp political brain when it comes to calculating what works in the party and in elections, but he doesn't have an overflow of ideas.

He attaches himself to certain lines of thought, but doesn't generate them himself.

Even the tough position he's adopted on Northern Ireland since becoming leader last year doesn't seem particularly organic. It feels more like one he took on board from his rival for the Fine Gael leadership, Simon Coveney, now Minister for Foreign Affairs, who was always much more "green" in his outlook.

That, in itself, has caused frequent issues. What's becoming more problematic by the hour is that the Taoiseach has simultaneously attached himself enthusiastically to the federalist European project in order to distance the country from the UK as it leaves.

Currying favour in Brussels, he's clearly decided, will reap dividends - and that's an entirely logical conclusion; but it does mean that, not only has he aligned with the enemies of unionism in Ireland, he's now further lined up with the increasingly bitter opponents of Britain inside the EU and he's not sufficiently adept to know how to do that without alienating unionist opinion in Northern Ireland. He simply vacillates between competing needs in a haphazard way.

Wednesday's performance in the Dail was the latest example of his making it up as he goes along, telling one audience what it wants to hear without considering the effect on a different audience.

He's like a toddler who covers his eyes and can't see anything and, therefore, presumes no one can see him either. Did he really think unionists wouldn't notice what he said?

"Precious union" was derisive enough, but his disparaging interpretation of where the DUP stands in relation to the Withdrawal Agreement between Britain and the EU was even more condescending.

Varadkar said that Irish politicians may have "tried to persuade" Arlene Foster that Northern Ireland would have "the best of both worlds" under the agreement, but that "it's not the best of both worlds that the DUP wants ... and if that means a lesser world, that's acceptable provided that the integrity of the Union is upheld".

The haughtiness dripping from those words was quite something. The implication, which he clearly expected his audience of fellow deputies to share, was that unionists are so stupid they can't even recognise a good deal when they see one.

This is the sort of thinking which has made the Brexit debate so toxic. Underlying everything is the assumption that the other side is being pig-headed, rather than just seeing things from a different perspective.

The DUP is not holding out against the Withdrawal Agreement despite knowing that it offers them the best of both worlds. They're against it because they don't think it offers the best of any world.

More than that, they're certain that the so-called "backstop", once implemented, would incrementally weaken Northern Ireland's constitutional position.

They may be right about that, or wrong, but that's what they think. Nor are they alone in doing so. Scottish Nationalists obviously feel likewise, which is why they want the same half-in, half-out relationship with the EU which is currently being dangled in front of Northern Ireland. That's because they hope it would fatally weaken the Union, too.

Regardless of what happens next, grandees in Dublin sneering at unionists for being so obsessed with "the precious Union" that they'd mulishly embrace a "lesser world" sends all the wrong signals about their imperious attitude to their neighbours. Nationalists - of all people - should know exactly what that condescension feels like: they were on the receiving end of it from London for long enough.

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