Is it to distract from his domestic mess-ups down South that has Leo Varadkar putting the boot in on Ulster’s unionists again? Or is it to join forces with Sinn Fein and possibly outflank them? Or is just the loose tongue for which the young Taoiseach has become famous, especially when he leaves the Republic. Except this time maybe its loose talk with a purpose.
Yet again, Varadkar came in to Northern Ireland last week to lecture the local politicians on how to run their affairs and tell us how the unionists are social dinosaurs. They have been “left behind” he said and should get with his progressive agenda of gay marriage, abortion rights and the Irish language.
And he said all this at the very time when he is supposed to be helping to get Stormont up and running again. Indeed, on the day that Varadkar was giving his lecture, his deputy, the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, was also in Belfast trying to get inter-party talks moving.
But how can the biggest party involved here, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) possibly welcome this lecture from Leo, and his assault on their core values — of opposition to abortion and to increasing gay rights. These are beliefs that many others have held dear — including Varadkar himself, until recently!
To suggest that these issues are the reason why there is no government in Stormont is disingenuous. In which case, it is surely none of Varadkar’s business how the North runs its affairs. Unless he has bought into the Sinn Fein agenda that these are the new ‘demands’ for power sharing. It is certainly muddying the waters in terms of getting a renewed settlement in Northern Ireland.
It looks like a real kick in the teeth from another jurisdiction, and is a calculated insult to the DUP and other unionists. Perhaps Varadkar has given up on the careful choreography around the North and now feels that its all to play for, with Brexit throwing everything into the air.
Coming in the week when the Republic arrested — arrested! — two Northern Irish fishermen for fishing in southern waters, it doesn’t look good. And this at a time when the Republic has been banging on about “no hard border”. It’s so ridiculous to see: this hauling of two fishermen to the courts, where even the presiding judge and arresting gardai were apologetic. Who ordered this to happen, they must have wondered? But watch out, they seem to have a distracting function. Just like Varadkar’s intrusive lectures.
Ironically the Taoiseach’s remarks were made at the Alliance party’s annual conference where he rightly gave the centrist party credit for navigating a way through the North’s difficult and sectarian divisions, often with nimble diplomacy.
But nimble diplomacy is not what Varadakar himself showed when he demanded that the North adopt policies that he knows most of its voters (including many Catholics) reject, even if these issues represent the eye-catching liberal agenda that he himself has come late to.
Certainly, Northern Ireland offers a useful distraction from things down south where the Fine Gael government has got an amazing let off for allowing a children’s hospital estimated at a €500m cost to balloon to a projected budget of over two billion.
It almost puts Cash for Ash in the shade!
The projected cost of the Republic’s broadband roll-out is estimated to similarly soar. The Fine Gael government is incapable of keeping grip of capital finances. But they get a let off because Fianna Fail, the ostensible opposition party, is afraid of an election.
They wouldn’t even support a Sinn Fein motion calling for the Health Minister to resign. The mishaps keep piling up but Leo just carries on, and let’s off steam by coming into the North to kick its backward citizens.
Amazingly, in his Belfast speech, Varadkar said that it was a real pity that these issues (of abortion and gay rights) had got caught up in the tussle between unionism and nationalism, and between orange and green.
But in saying this, he himself is actually making it an Orange/Green issue! Does he not see that?
“I believe the right to marry the person you love,” the Taoiseach continued “and the right of a woman to make choices about her own body, and the right to have your native language respected should not be about Orange and Green.”
This is an extraordinary statement, for it suggests that the only reason that DUP voters are against such things are because of their orange identity. But such voters are opposed to them for the reason that millions of other people are, including many supporters of his own Fine Gael party, because of strong social and moral objections.
Varadkar omitted to mention that he himself was opposed to abortion, until relatively recently.
As was his Tanaiste Simon Coveney right up until the eve of the referendum to introduce abortion.
So was the Republic’s Health Minister Simon Harris, who led this campaign. But there was an amazing turnaround by all of these politicians, including the Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin, who never really explained his change of view. None of them did, in fact.
Varadkar was even opposed to gay marriage but we’re in a different situation now, and Governments need to be formed.
He would say that he was young but as you get older one’s perception of such issues change. But why should the DUP, and its voters, change as easily as he appeared to do.
“I consider myself to be pro-life in that I accept that the unborn child is a human life with rights,” said Varadkar in 2011 and even last year when he was asked whether he would use ‘foetus’ or ‘baby’ to describe a pregnancy, he admitted that it would be more common to ask a pregnant woman “when is your baby due?”.
Varadkar used to remind people that there were two rights at work here, the reproductive rights of the mother, but also the rights of the unborn. However, that qualification seems to be gone.
Speaking in Belfast, he speaks only about “the right of a woman to make choices about her own body”. You’ll forgive voters for being cynical about all this, especially Northern voters who value consistency and strong principles!
As for the Irish language not “being respected” in the North, this is just pure opportunistic tribalism and straight out of the Sinn Fein playbook — and another new-found cause that the Taoiseach has found to beat the unionists with. It’s all very strange, and not in any way calculated to bring about peace and harmony between the different peoples on the island, or soften the consequences of Brexit division.
Varadkar concluded by telling his Northern audience that these issues were universal rights and personal freedoms which should “apply everywhere”.
Perhaps Varadkar’s personal mission for spreading his liberal agenda internationally trumps his desire and responsibility to find a sensitive way forward for the North, and for respecting the independence and integrity of its political process.
But with Brexit looming and a growing vacuum at Stormont, it is an insensitivity that the Taoiseach may yet come to regret.
Eamon Delaney is a former Irish diplomat, author and commentator