Saturday 19 October 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Not many votes for Leo in getting one over on Boris'

The Taoiseach's stumbling interview on Morning Ireland hardly inspired confidence, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with British Prime Minister Boris Johnston at Government Buildings. Photo: Damien Eagers
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with British Prime Minister Boris Johnston at Government Buildings. Photo: Damien Eagers

Eilis O'Hanlon

It could be that the Taoiseach was just trolling Boris Johnson when he suggested calling an election in Ireland in May next year. The British prime minister is unable to go to the country, having been blocked by parliament in his request for a snap poll in October. The opposition are forcing him to carry on, in power in name only, unable to command a working majority. Leo Varadkar can call an election any time he likes.

He appears to have forgotten, though, that the end game is to convince Irish voters he knows what he's doing, not get one over on Boris.

Leo's interview on last Friday's Morning Ireland won't have helped in that regard. Speaking from the Fine Gael 'think-in' at the Garryvoe Hotel in East Cork, the Taoiseach began as smoothly as a talk show host, thanking RTE for "making the journey to this beautiful part of the country".

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He wasn't at ease for long. Varadkar quickly became rattled when pressed on whether he was choosing to protect the single market over the Belfast Agreement, since any border checks of the sort now being envisaged by the Government in the event of Britain leaving the EU without a deal arguably threaten the peace accord.

The Irish position all along has been that it was the British push to ditch the backstop which put the Belfast Agreement under pressure. Suddenly the Taoiseach was having to confront the accusation that he was about to do the same. The minister for foreign affairs has pledged that any checks on goods going in and out of the Republic would only be temporary, and that the intention will be to carry out most of the inspections "close to" rather than actually on the Border. But it's still a shift in position, and Leo sounded last Friday as if he was just realising it for the first time.

He certainly didn't come up with a convincing response, except to say that "we have no choice" and "that's the position we've been put in". Tellingly, he also felt the need to point out that the Brits were threatening the Belfast Agreement, too, by pursuing a no-deal Brexit. In political terms, this is the equivalent of saying in the middle of a blazing row: "Well, you started it."

That he didn't have a satisfactory answer to the charge that his own policy might also threaten a seamless border does suggest that Leo Varadkar failed to adequately consider the possibility that the EU wasn't being honest with Ireland when it said that an open Border was sacrosanct, despite pledges made by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker last year when he addressed a joint sitting of the Oireachtas.

Solidarity-People Before Profit's Richard Boyd Barrett asked him straight: "If negotiations fail with the Tory government on the exit agreement and those negotiations collapse, will you give us a clear commitment that the European Union will not impose a border, customs posts or any other infrastructure on the frontier?" Juncker's answer was immediate and firm: "Yes."

Now it's clear that this was never the case, and the wriggle room is shrinking fast. Did Leo know the EU was being economical with the truth? Logic suggests he must have done. Transport Minister Shane Ross certainly knew it, and had to be slapped down in January for admitting that a truck travelling from the UK to Ireland via the North would face checks. "Once you start talking about checks anywhere near the Border," the Tanaiste corrected him in an overheard private conversation, "all of a sudden we'll be the Government that reintroduced a physical border on the island of Ireland".

Leo's hesitancy on Morning Ireland suggested the Government still hasn't worked out a strategy for dealing with this conundrum, beyond waffling about his preferred "intention" in a "hypothetical" situation.

It was a telling moment. Too much journalism now concentrates on creating "gotcha" moments, where politicians are tricked into getting tangled up in the contradictions of their own positions. It can be knockabout fun, but also tiresome, more suited to soap opera than serious inquiry. Friday's Morning Ireland wasn't like that. Interviewer Gavin Jennings was measured and restrained. He played fair by the Taoiseach. It so happened Leo Varadkar's lack of answers was exposed.

That was nowhere more evident than when he was asked why, considering the long list of Government failures, including homelessness and hospital waiting lists, he was confident that he could win an election next May anyway.

"What's the question, sorry?" the Taoiseach floundered.

He was then forced to admit that, in light of his assertion that Fianna Fail had done the right thing at a time of national crisis by agreeing to prop up the Government, Fine Gael "would have to be willing" to agree a confidence and supply agreement with Micheal Martin if the tables were turned next year.

These are all matters the Taoiseach will need to explain during a general election campaign. One might have expected him to be getting match fit in advance. Instead he seemed surprised by each new line of questioning.

The one ray of sunshine is that the Government is considering an election so soon.

Leo told the party meeting in Cork that, "we should by then have secured a Brexit deal or have guided the country through the worst of no deal". At his press conference with Boris Johnson at the start of last week, the Taoiseach seemed to suggest the fallout from no deal would drag on for months, if not years. The finance minister added to those fears a few days later by warning that money would have to be set aside to cope with possible job losses caused by no deal, severely restricting his scope for generosity in next month's Budget.

Right now, facing into the unknown this winter, most people would surely regard an updated timeline in which the worst is over by next May as the optimum outcome.

Unfortunately, while dangling the prospect of an election in front of voters raised hopes of a return to normal, day-to-day domestic politics in a world in which Brexit has been put to bed, his comments about Northern Ireland undid all that good work by seeming to echo the European Union's ambition to keep a part of the UK within its domain.

Leo quoted former Taoiseach John Bruton at the 'think-in' that "the Good Friday Agreement is all about convergence". Convergence is a provocative word. Despite what Leo said on radio, it doesn't mean "bringing people together in Northern Ireland, bringing north and south closer together, bringing Britain and Ireland closer together". It means moving towards union, and has a specific interpretation in an EU context. The word doesn't feature anywhere in the more than 11,000 words of the 1998 treaty; and to be blunt, there would have been no Belfast Agreement at all if Dublin had insisted that the word "convergence" be included.

As for the Taoiseach's assertion that the partnership envisaged by the Agreement is "all in the context of the European Union", that's extraordinary revisionism.

The EU was not involved in the negotiations, and there is no European "strand" to the institutions set up afterwards. Under the treaty, the North South Ministerial Council is merely required to "consider the European Union dimension of relevant matters", and there's some vague language about cross-border cooperation as "friendly neighbours and as partners in the EU". To effectively claim the Belfast Agreement for the EU in retrospect is hardly helpful.

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