Sunday 20 October 2019

Eoghan Harris: Like many lucky generals, Leo Varadkar has a flaky side too

Eoghan Harris cartoon
Eoghan Harris cartoon
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

When Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach, I warned him against too many foreign trips for two reasons.

First, while you're away, the Tanaiste can mess up things at home or, worse still, do fine - as Simon Coveney did last week.

Second, being glad-handed by your hosts can make you light-headed and inclined to laxity in after-dinner remarks.

Personally, I don't have a problem with Leo Varadkar taking a swipe at the media - not least because I take a lot of swipes myself.

Besides, on the back of Theresa May's soft Brexit proposal the media will be back throwing confetti again this weekend.

And it's hard to take media sensitivity seriously given that most pundits played down Varadkar's credibility problems with Brexit and Sinn Fein.

But as I said a few weeks ago, Leo Varadkar is a lucky general, and the Chequers proposal buys him time on Brexit.

No matter how that pans out, however, basic questions remain about his judgment, which is flawed by green flaggery and flakiness.

Basically, his Brexit strategy was built on getting the Brits to force the unionists into a customs union.

The Brits are big enough to take the blows but bullying the unionists has badly damaged the trust built up by Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny.

Now I know most of my readers think the DUP should do what we want them to do. But, like Leo Varadkar and Theresa May, they put their own interests first. And they have two good reasons for saying no to our plans for them.

First, they are a minority on the island and so ultra-sensitive to any hint of being bullied. Second, as their major trading partner is the UK, it is reasonable for them to put this first.

I believe that instead of using Brussels to pressurise the Brits and the DUP, we should have shown the British Brexiteers the big stick behind closed doors but privately and publicly talked decently to the DUP.

That way we could have done a local deal on the kind of soft border Michel Barnier has in mind when he talks of digital technology and tariff arrangements.

But that needs the goodwill of both the British and the unionists, not green grandstanding.

Last week, Eamon Dunphy bravely criticised Leo Varadkar's green flag policy on The Tonight Show. "It may be popular but it is wrong."

Instead of going on about the north-south aspect, Dunphy reminded us of the east-west link. "The UK's trade and business are hugely important to us."

Dunphy's truth- telling may not have gone down well with the naff nationalists but his economic view echoed a report by the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers.

Carefully keeping the green flag wrapped tightly around him, ICMSA boss Pat McCormack still told us the hard facts.

The Republic's trade with the UK is worth about €65bn a year and sustains more than 400,000 jobs on both islands. But in 2016 only 1pc of the Republic's exports went North.

He accepted that the Irish Government was entitled to prioritise a soft border but he also wanted to point to the price to be paid. "It is incredibly important to acknowledge that this emphasis effectively prioritised the political over the economic."

That said, the Taoiseach has got a breathing space on Brexit. But he still has a credibility problem about a post-election Sinn Fein deal.

This would be a much bigger problem if the political correspondents didn't keep covering for him.

Two examples show The Irish Times, in particular, finds it hard to face the fact that a Fianna Fail leader has a more pluralist position than a Fine Gael Taoiseach.

Last Wednesday, Marie O'Halloran reported Micheal Martin tormenting the Tanaiste about the Fine Gael-Sinn Fein love-ins.

She recorded Coveney replying that Martin should look to his own front bench as his were sound on Sinn Fein.

But she missed the pay-off when Coveney looked to his left for confirmation. Because the only two ministers present, Regina Doherty and Jim Daly, have both said they had no problem in doing a coalition deal with Sinn Fein.

A second small example. Last Thursday, David Raleigh, a local reporter, gave a full account in the Irish Independent of Micheal Martin's Limerick attack on Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald.

Raleigh's report also appeared in The Irish Times - where he shared a byline with Sarah Bardon - but this time there was no mention of Martin's attack on Sinn Fein.

These are small omissions but they add up to a daily drip of delusion.

Not fully reporting Martin's hard line on Sinn Fein lets The Irish Times' readers bask in the delusion that Martin is as likely as Varadkar to do a deal.

The Irish Times also let Mary Lou McDonald off the hook on Drew Harris by not digging into why she cast a cloud over his appointment.

Few observers believe that McDonald would have taken that line if she had been a free agent.

But instead of enquiring if McDonald took dictation from Belfast, The Irish Times drafted in northern nationalist pundit Brian Feeney to add to the cloud.

Feeney damned Drew Harris with faint praise, calling to mind Alexander Pope's line: "Just hint a fault and hesitate dislike."

Charlie Flanagan gave short shrift to Trot whining about Drew Harris in the Dail by quoting Tom Kelly, a former aide to Seamus Mallon, writing in the Irish News last week.

"Drew Harris is not an 'outsider'. He is a policeman. He is an Ulsterman. He is an Irishman."

Does anybody believe a Fine Gael-Sinn Fein coalition would have been able to appoint Harris? No.

That being so, Micheal Martin's repeated refusal to do business with a party whose strings are pulled outside the Republic makes a lot of sense.

Time our lax media challenged the naff nationalism which infuses so many issues, from major ones like Brexit to minor ones like Leo Varadkar saying he supported Belgium against England in the World Cup.

But as Matt Cooper pointed out on Tonight, he himself, and many Irish fans on social media, wanted England to win.

Too often the Taoiseach takes up what he thinks are popular stands only to reveal the flaky side of his persona. Enough already.


Thankfully I will spend a few days next week away from Dail politics at the Percy French Festival in Castlecoote House, Co Roscommon.

But it won't be a break from politics and culture in the best and broadest sense.

Kevin Finnerty, who founded the festival, is holding firm to his policy of showing the much-loved songs of the pluralist Roscommon Protestant, Percy French, will always have something fresh to say to modern Ireland.

Caitriona Clear gave one of the best accounts of his life in a 2016 review in the Dublin Review of Books, of Alan Tongue's The Love Letters of Percy French and Berrie O'Neill's Tones that are Tender (Lilliput).

Google it for the rare joy of reading an academic with a sense of humour who has not lost the run of herself.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss