Wednesday 16 January 2019

Varadkar's naked politics will eventually backfire

Taoiseach is flying too close to sun in negotiations with Micheal Martin and on Brexit. He will be scorched sooner or later, writes Jody Corcoran

CRITICAL: Micheal Martin is at odds with the Taoiseach over his political style. Photo: Gerry Mooney
CRITICAL: Micheal Martin is at odds with the Taoiseach over his political style. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

'There is a lack of substance there," Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said about Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last week.

In the normal course of events such criticism could be dismissed as politics as usual, but current events are far from normal.

The country is at the centre of two unprecedented events: the approaching end of a minority government underpinned by a confidence and supply agreement; and the looming exit of our nearest and most significant trading partner from the European Union.

This is not the first time that Martin has so criticised Varadkar. For some time now the Fianna Fail leader has been genuinely at odds with the Taoiseach over the manner in which Leo Varadkar conducts the business of politics.

Indeed, it would be fair to suggest that he and others believe Varadkar to be the most overtly 'political' Taoiseach in a long time, perhaps in living memory.

The risk is that Varadkar has become too political, or too transparently so at any rate.

Martin's criticism related to a meeting between them, and their closest two advisers, at the end of the Dail term for summer the week before last.

According to simultaneous media releases from Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, there were four items on the agenda: Brexit, the forthcoming budget, upcoming referendums and the confidence and supply arrangement.

Within 24 hours, either Varadkar, or somebody at his behest or within his confidence, leaked to the media a proposal made by the Taoiseach at the meeting - that Fianna Fail should extend the contentious confidence and supply deal by two years up to the summer of 2020.

And believe me, at the core of the grassroots in Fianna Fail there are now few things more contentious than the confidence and supply deal.

In large part Varadkar's proposal was wrapped up in the context of Brexit, the withdrawal agreement deadline for which is rapidly approaching, at the end of March.

That deadline is reached three months after a "review" of the confidence and supply deal is scheduled to take place. The timing could hardly be more intriguing.

Martin subsequently said that Varadkar's proposal was "thrown out" at the meeting: "It wasn't discussed. He threw it out, but there wasn't any serious discussion."

In other words, Martin believed that Varadkar had made a tactical proposal, with a view to it being subsequently leaked to the media.

The Fianna Fail leader said: "For the Taoiseach then to leak one aspect of [the talks] betrays and illustrates a certain dimension to how he operates. It's all about optics, it's all about spinning. There's a lack of substance there."

Varadkar subsequently confirmed that he had made the "serious" proposal, but denied that he was "chancing his arm".

Whatever his motivations, from the Taoiseach's standpoint the outcome of the meeting could be deemed a success.

Fianna Fail is now interpreted as being on the back foot and under pressure to continue to underpin the minority Government for another two years while the uncertainties of Brexit abound.

That is one interpretation - and a relatively short-term one at that.

A wider interpretation is that there really is something high-risk, even unpalatable, about the way in which the Taoiseach conducts his politics.

There are those, and they are many - look at the opinion polls - who remain excited, even thrilled at Varadkar's modus operandi.

But as I have said before, his high-risk strategies will backfire sooner or later. He has this tendency to fly far too closely to the sun.

There are those who argue that in such an approach to Brexit, Icarus cannot fail. He has the full support of the European Union, after all. And it is Ireland and Europe against 70 or so hard-line Brexiteers and the DUP, goes the argument. No contest.

There is merit in the argument.

Yet as we approach D-day for a withdrawal agreement, there is also contemplation of what would be a disastrous no-deal Brexit.

A no-deal would be a damning indictment of all sides in these negotiations, but particularly the super-charged approach taken by Varadkar's Government in its dealings with the UK.

That reality seems to have dropped slowly with the Government. Now, nine months to D-day, there is a tentative about-turn at senior Government level.

Now there is increasing emphasis on a key provision laid out in Article 50 to allow for an extension of negotiations on withdrawal, such would be the disastrous consequences for Ireland, in particular, of a no-deal.

However, an extension can only occur with the agreement of the European Council and all EU27 member states.

But there is no guarantee that all 27 would agree. Consider what might be the motivations of certain Eastern Europe countries, Poland and Hungary for example.

So more than ever before, the question is being asked: will this "certain dimension" to how the Taoiseach "operates" ultimately backfire with disastrous consequences for the country?

All manner of experts will tell you 'no', that Varadkar is playing a 'can't lose' master game on Brexit.

The opinion polls show this to be also the public's view.

If anything, the Taoiseach's standing has been enhanced by his pro-nationalist, even anti-British, rhetoric.

In essence, this is how he explains his no-holds-barred approach to the UK, as outlined by him in the Sunday Independent last week: "Our over-riding policy is to ensure that Ireland and the Irish people do not once again become collateral damage in a British policy decision."

Into this strategy last week came, again, the man Micheal Martin has recently accused of "sympathy trolling " Fianna Fail: Minister of State Patrick O'Donovan.

In reaction to Fianna Fail TDs' criticism of Varadkar's leaking of details of his meeting with Martin, O'Donovan accused Fianna Fail of being "more concerned with internal party angst rather than the country's future".

There is an element of truth in the accusation, but a large part of Fianna Fail still sees the future of party and country as entwined.

O'Donovan also went even further than Varadkar, to suggest that Fianna Fail support the minority Government "beyond 2020".

"The country needs reassurances there will not be a general election until Brexit and its aftermath is well off the agenda. Clearly, that will not occur until well beyond 2020," he said.

Another Fine Gael young turk, Neale Richmond, chimed in, taking issue with Martin's criticism, and the Government's Brexit negotiation strategy. He accused Fianna Fail of "muddled thinking".

Richmond's attack related to Fianna Fail's proposal for a special economic zone to resolve the issue of Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations.

He accused the party of developing a "catchphrase, not a policy" to resolve the issues at the heart of the proposed backstop.

This was the deal so dramatically proclaimed as "bulletproof" by the Government last December, but which does not look so bulletproof now.

Actually last week Micheal Martin did put some flesh on the bones of Fianna Fail's proposal.

Instead of seeing Brexit just as a threat to be minimised, which it undoubtedly was, he said, we had to also find a mechanism for securing a "new development agenda" for Northern Ireland.

"I believe that a special economic zone status offers the best opportunity," he said, citing Shannon in the south west of Ireland as an example.

In Northern Ireland's case it would, in effect, benefit from the best of both worlds - full access to the UK and EU markets, and not be forced to choose between them.

Later last week he took aim at Richmond - "a junior senator" - for reinforcing a "lack of understanding of how you reach agreement across communities in Northern Ireland".

This was a subtle reference to Fianna Fail's perceived ownership of the Good Friday Agreement and its belief that it, better than Fine Gael, can manage relations with parties in Northern Ireland and UK.

What these increasingly antagonistic interactions between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail really confirm is that Brexit, deal or no deal, will be at the heart of the next election, whenever that may be called.

It remains my view that Fianna Fail will not support the current arrangement to 2020 never mind "beyond"; and that Micheal Martin would also have great difficulty securing party support for even a one-year extension, although secure it he probably would.

But what it also advises us is that Varadkar's naked politicking has started to militate against his stated aim of providing stable Government.

Maybe that is his real, if unstated intention all along - to provoke and then blame Fianna Fail for causing an election.

Were the potential downsides limited to just that...

The greater concern is that a "certain dimension" to how the Leo Varadkar "operates" will ultimately deliver a poor-deal, or worse still a no-deal Brexit.

Sunday Independent

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