Monday 21 October 2019

Jody Corcoran: 'High-stakes gambler Varadkar goes all in and rolls the dice on our future'

Bad faith and politics, with traps laid by both sides - Jody Corcoran details how Brexit negotiations were set up to fail from the start

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Reuters
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Reuters
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Leo Varadkar is in a bind. We know this because by now, three years on, there is a certain pattern to his behaviour. Whenever he is under pressure, he ratchets up, rather than dials down the rhetoric. This is the mark of an outrageous political gambler, and last week Varadkar went all in. At stake is the future prosperity of Ireland.

In Sweden, the Taoiseach said there were five ways to avoid a hard Border post-Brexit, one of which was a united Ireland.

As you ask, the others were Ireland re-joining the UK; the UK remaining in the single market and customs union; his Border backstop; or the UK reversing Brexit. At least four of the five would be acceptable to his Government, he said.

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Let us leave aside his view that a re-run of the referendum would reverse Brexit. There is no real evidence to back up that assertion. Presumably, Ireland re-joining the UK was unacceptable to him and his Government.

So, Varadkar has declared the re-unification of Ireland an acceptable solution to Brexit. To so declare, at this time, in this way, is antagonism writ large.

He was not being serious. At least we do not think he was. It had to be pure rhetoric, red rag stuff to the DUP/UK bull, and red meat to nationalists everywhere, most of all to Sinn Fein.

At such a moment in the Brexit process, though, you have to ask, what did Varadkar's intervention positively contribute to finding a solution? Absolutely nothing: it was at best counter-productive, and, as such, a pointless - even reckless - intervention.

To have looked at, and listened to him last week you may have formed the impression that he is calm and in control. He is not. We can divine this from the patterns of his personality. We have been here before, at moments when he can seem decidedly odd. Last week was such a moment. Hence the hubris, his rolling of the dice, the high-stakes gamble. At such moments, you also have to ask, is this any way to run a country?

When eventually he calms, Varadkar may get around to deciding what to do next, to help bring some sort of resolution to the madness. So, what will he do - a deal with Boris Johnson or stand back and let the UK crash out?

Neither, actually. Even before certain documents were disclosed in Scotland on Friday, it seemed to me that Varadkar had already decided what to do.

He will gamble on an election in the UK. Why? At best it will buy him more time, as he prepares to face the electorate at home, and more than anything else, that is what is on his mind - the general election here.

But there is no knowing how the election in the UK will turn out - probably in favour of Boris Johnson. Then what? Varadkar may not even be around to pick up the pieces.

It is all a long way from the glory days at the end of 2017...

The question will eventually be asked: how was Brexit allowed to come to this point - how did the madness take hold?

The answer is bad politics and bad faith: in a word, traps, badly set and set to backfire. As such, the Brexit negotiations were set up to fail from the start. It has been a shabby business, indeed. And Ireland is not blame-free.

Right now, everybody will be telling Leo Varadkar that Boris Johnson's offer last week is a trap. On the face of it, it is a trap - as much a trap as when the shoe was on the other foot, when Varadkar was the darling of Northern nationalists and his stock soared in the opinion polls.

"You will never again be left behind by an Irish Government," he said back then, on December 8, 2017, when the UK government's commitment to avoid a hard Border was deemed by him to be "politically bullet-proof".

Consider this though: when the shoe was on the other foot, Ireland and the EU expected the UK and unionists to take Europe's word: the backstop was an insurance policy, they said. Sure, it probably won't be needed at all, they said, as soon as we negotiate a free trade deal. The DUP smelt a trap. More than that, an anti-democratic trap, and now they believe Varadkar's intervention vindicates that view. There is some validity to that belief.

Under Theresa May's deal, initially the North, but as it transpired the entire UK, could have been permanently "trapped" by the EU; unable to strike out on its own to negotiate trade deals, and bound by the strictures of Brussels.

So they baulked. That is the DUP for you. Or so the criticism here goes. Ulster says No. Everybody tut-tutted, sighed, cursed, cried and condemned the DUP. Typical, they said. How are we supposed to negotiate, when they won't wilfully fall into our trap?

Now the shoe is on the other foot: Boris Johnson has replaced Theresa May and put forward an alternative proposal, the upshot of which is, Ireland and the EU are being asked to trust the DUP - and to go on trusting every four years - that the DUP will not use its Stormont veto to leave the single market and run back into the warm embrace of Britain's wonderful new trade deals.

"The EU would then be trapped with no backstop to preserve the single market after Brexit," chief negotiator Michel Barnier is said to have bewailed behind-closed-doors in Brussels last week, without a hint of irony.

He is right, as much as the DUP is also right when it fears the backstop could permanently tie Belfast to Dublin, and to the EU's terms and conditions.

So, what will Leo do? He cannot accept the new UK proposal: customs checks will be interpreted by his rivals as 'leaving nationalists behind' even when there is also to be a border down the Irish Sea.

Varadkar's other problem is the unionist veto. Further negotiations could square that circle, if there was a mind in Dublin to negotiate. But there is no such mind. There never has been. Brexit has been a game of crime and punishment, of opportunism and opportunity squandered, by both sides. Traps set and avoided.

No, Varadkar's instinct will be to gamble. He is nothing if not a gambler. His entire position on Brexit - and that of the EU - has been a gamble, admittedly a reasonably safe bet considering the UK's red lines and the then prime minister behind them.

But the Taoiseach is running out of cards. Boris Johnson has called his bluff and raised him. In effect, Johnson has offered what will be imposed on Ireland anyway in a no deal - with the added lure of a border down the Irish Sea for four, eight, 12 years, depending on the DUP, democracy and long-term demographics in the North.

So Varadkar no longer holds all the aces. The unpredictability of Johnson has changed the game. Wise counsel would suggest there is room to negotiate, or fudge. There is still a deal to be done. But Varadkar wants a win.

So, he will go for broke - all in, if you like. That's him pushing his chips across the green baize. He will bank on Johnson upholding the law, a further extension; and an election in the UK - a new deck of cards - to change the game. But will it change? There can be no guarantee. That's the thrill.

In due course, we will get around to asking the question: how was it allowed get to this? Boris Johnson has called it a failure of statecraft. That's true. When Johnson first said this, on the steps of Government Buildings in Dublin, Leo Varadkar stood alongside him, nodding his head. As well he might.

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