Tuesday 20 February 2018

Varadkar: my 'Brexit Cabinet'

Ministers to be put on 'war footing'

Leo Varadkar at Government Buildings Photo: Tom Burke
Leo Varadkar at Government Buildings Photo: Tom Burke
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar will this week unveil what he is calling a 'Brexit Cabinet' aimed at effectively putting the Government on a war footing after the UK election result caused further uncertainty over Britain's decision to leave the EU.

The Sunday Independent also understands that leadership rival Simon Coveney is set to cause a major headache for Mr Varadkar by seeking to be appointed as Minister for Foreign Affairs and to lead the charge on Brexit.

It can also be revealed that Mr Varadkar wants to create two new 'super junior' ministries to focus on the Brexit challenge, one based in the Taoiseach's office and the other in the Department of Finance.

Mr Varadkar is expected to be elected Taoiseach in the Dail this week.

Last night, a source close to the Taoiseach-in-waiting said Brexit was "the key challenge" for the new Government: "We are entering into a period of unparalleled complexity, risk and opportunity," the source said.

Mr Varadkar will tell his Cabinet ministers to build new relationships with their counterparts in EU member states while also ensuring government departments are prepared for the problems posed by Brexit.

"They will be required to minimise the downsides by adopting creative policy initiatives, for example developing new markets or expanding existing ones, as well as protecting the Common Travel Area," the source said.

Mr Varadkar's focus on 'Brexit Cabinet' appointments follows last week's UK election which saw the Conservative Party being forced to look for support to form a minority government. Yesterday, Theresa May's chief whip Gavin Williamson went to Belfast where he secured a "confidence and supply" deal with the Democratic Unionist Party.

That news comes as Fianna Fail Brexit spokesman Stephen Donnelly warns in today's Sunday Independent that a Conservative government in the UK supported by the DUP increases the likelihood of Britain failing to reach a deal with Brussels on leaving the EU.

This in turn would mean high trade tariffs and restrictions on travel between Ireland and the UK: "No deal would be a disaster for Ireland, and very damaging to the UK," Mr Donnelly writes.

Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar's advisers are currently exploring the constitutionality of creating two super juniors in the Taoiseach's office.

The Defence portfolio in the Taoiseach's office is currently a 'super junior' position held by Paul Kehoe, who sits but does not vote at Cabinet.

The European Affairs portfolio, currently held by Dara Murphy, is a junior ministry, but Mr Varadkar wants to also make this a 'super junior' position.

He is also exploring the possibility of increasing the powers of the junior ministry in the Department of Finance. This would involve moving some trade responsibilities from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to the junior finance ministry currently held by Eoghan Murphy.

Sources close to Mr Varadkar yesterday predicted there would be "many disappointments" among colleagues - even those who are appointed to ministerial roles - when he announces his Cabinet.

Last week, ministers continued to scramble for positions as the soon-to-be-elected Taoiseach prepared to name his new Cabinet.

Paschal Donohoe is widely expected to oversee the Department of Finance and Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

However, Education Minister Richard Bruton is understood to be anxious to be appointed to an economic portfolio. Mr Bruton is not interested in being appointed as Minister for Justice as has been proposed by Mr Varadkar's advisers.

Mr Coveney is understood to want to leave the Department of Housing for the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Last week, his supporters said he was anxious to take on the responsibilities of Brexit. However, Mr Coveney's main demand is to be appointed Tanaiste.

Yesterday, both Mr Coveney and Mr Varadkar refused to comment on speculation the Housing Minster would be appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs. The current Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan also said he did not want to comment on "rumours" before appointments were announced.

However, Mr Flanagan called on DUP leader Arlene Foster to use her "position of great influence" to ensure there is no hard border in Northern Ireland during negotiations with UK Prime Minister Theresa May.

"Arlene Foster knows the significance of the border more than most - she represents a border constituency," Mr Flanagan told the Sunday Independent.

"She knows the level of trade between the North and South," he added.

Last night, it also emerged Mr Varadkar's victory in the Fine Gael leadership contest resulted in no significant opinion poll bounce for the party ahead of his appointment as Taoiseach next week.

The first poll since Mr Varadkar's election shows Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are neck-and-neck among voters with both parties at 29pc. In fact, Fianna Fail is up two points compared to Fine Gael which is up just one point in the Behaviour and Attitudes poll for the Sunday Times.

Meanwhile, Micheal Martin became embroiled in a war of words with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams after he attacked Sinn Fein's policy of refusing to take up their seats in Westminster. In a statement, Mr Adams said: "Instead of constantly sniping, he should allow his party to stand candidates in Northern elections and seek a mandate from the people."

A senior Fianna Fail source said every vote the Tories win by seven or fewer votes will have been "directly enabled by Sinn Fein" as they did not take their seats.

The Sunday Independent also understands that Fianna Fail intends to field candidates in the 2019 Northern Ireland local elections.

A Fianna Fail source said a "significant number" of candidates could contest the election should a decision to expand the party north of the border be ratified at an ard fheis.

It is understood Fianna Fail's foreign affairs spokesman Darragh O'Brien has held discussions with potential candidates in the North.

Sunday Independent

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