Belfast Telegraph

Love Actually revisited as Leo Varadkar opts for 'Ireland first'

By Kevin Doyle

It appears Leo Varadkar has been bingeing on his Love Actually DVD again.

Towards the end of the movie there's a scene where the British Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) and the US president (Billy Bob Thornton) hold a joint press conference to convince people that relations between the two countries are top notch.

A smarmy Thornton confidently tells reporters "our special relationship is still very special", but Grant stuns the room by interjecting that he fears "this has become a bad relationship".

"A relationship based on the president taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to Britain. We may be a small country but we're a great one too," he says.

The parallels to the new Taoiseach's performance yesterday are striking.

There was no joint press briefing but Mr Varadkar played the role of Grant with aplomb. His message was that the Republic of Ireland might be a small country but he won't bend to Brexiteer bullies.

He invited political correspondents to Government Buildings for an hour-long briefing on his plans for the months ahead.

Standing at a podium he breezed through questions on a range of matters, but when it came to Brexit there was a noticeable change of tone.

For some reason the UK media yesterday picked up on comments made by Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney last month in which he indicated that a 'smart Border' based on technology would not be a runner for the Irish Government.

As the story grew legs, Mr Coveney conferred with the Taoiseach to ensure they were on the same page. Mr Varadkar assured him they were and that he would be setting out the position in no uncertain terms.

While Enda Kenny had played along with Theresa May's friendly photocalls, the time had come to lay Ireland's cards on the table.

Sources say there has been a sense in Government for some time that Britain doesn't have a workable plan for Anglo-Irish relations in the post-Brexit era.

The lack of an Assembly in Northern Ireland is exacerbating the problem with a "crunch point" coming.

Shortly after taking over as Taoiseach, Mr Varadkar held phone conversations with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones.

He told them both that he would advocate on their behalf at the highest level in Europe "to keep the door open for the UK to allow them stay in the customs union and single market if they want to".

In return the SNP and Labour politicians promised "to try to push the UK towards a soft Brexit".

By contrast, when it came to Northern Ireland, Mr Varadkar had "nobody to ring".

He will travel north for two days next week to meet whichever political leaders aren't on summer holidays - and in light of his latest Brexit comments it's likely they will have plenty to discuss.

For better or worse Mr Varadkar turned up the rhetoric in the full knowledge that he was bound to upset unionists and Downing Street. He didn't care.

"It is the British and the Brexiteers who are leaving, so if anyone should be angry it's us quite frankly," he said serenely, enjoying his Hugh Grant moment.

The move stunned senior politicians in the UK as the message clearly translated into 'get over yourselves and start facing up to the hard realities of Brexit'.

In a surprisingly frank fashion, Mr Varadkar answered a question about what the 'borders of the future' might look like.

"We don't want one," Mr Varadkar said.

"They are the ones who want a border, it is up to them to say what it is, to say how it would work and to first of all convince their own people, their own voters, that this is actually a good idea," he said.

"So let them put forward their proposals as to how they think a border should operate and then we'll ask them if they really think this is such a good idea because I think it will have a very severe impact on their economy if they decide to go down that route."

The reaction was brisk.

Former Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble said the Taoiseach needed to "calm down" or he would do "enormous damage" to the relationship between Belfast and Dublin.

He told Sky News that Ireland joined the EU at the same time as the UK and "should seriously consider following us out".

Of course, Mr Trimble is partly right. Mr Varadkar can't sit back and wait for the British Government to come up with solutions.

The process to date suggests it doesn't have any.

Placing a border in the Irish Sea will never work for unionists. The prospect of DUP leader Arlene Foster having to show her passport at the airport before flying to the 'mainland' is a bridge too far - even if it would protect cross-border trade.

At the same time the notion of having Theresa May's invisible border points at 400 road crossings is ambitious at best.

The stakes are high and Mr Varadkar issued a wake-up call to everybody involved.

Ireland was supposed to be the UK's closest ally in the Brexit talks, albeit while on the side of the EU.

But since taking office, Mr Varadkar has obviously decided the prime minister is trying to take exactly what she wants from Brexit and casually ignoring Irish needs.

The relationship is at risk of turning sour.

The only problem is that this particular drama has years to run and is unlikely to have a happy ending for anybody.

Belfast Telegraph


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