In the first News Letter interview with a serving taoiseach, Political Editor SAM McBRIDE asks Leo Varadkar about Brexit, the border and Irish unity
When the News Letter last headed off to do a sit-down interview with a serving taoiseach, the world was a very different place.
Mervyn Pauley, this newspaper’s respected political editor for decades, recalls travelling to Dublin about half a century ago on what was then a slow journey on poor roads.
He believed that he was going there for what was to be the paper’s first sit-down interview with any leader of the Irish Republic. But when he arrived, to his dismay he found that the interview with the then taoiseach Jack Lynch had been turned into a press conference and he had largely wasted his time.
It was Lynch who took the Republic into the EU on the same day as the UK joined in 1973 – arguably Ireland’s single most transformative decision since partition.
The outbreak of the Troubles meant that Lynch’s policy towards Northern Ireland defined much of his tenure, and although the current Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, only took up office two years ago and is only 40, Brexit is already almost certain to define his time in office.
His robust strategy of insisting that the UK commits to a backstop which treats Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK if Britain is to leave the customs union and single market now looks like it could have the unintended consequence of contributing to the UK leaving without any deal at all – a major economic threat to Ireland.
Two weeks ago a poll found that a minority of the Irish public (43%) back his Brexit strategy. The stakes are high not just for the Fine Gael leader, but for his nation.
Sitting in the modern offices of the de facto Irish embassy in Belfast – the Irish Secretariat on Linenhall Street – if Mr Varadkar has misgivings, he doesn’t show them.
With relentless message discipline, he repeats the Irish government’s stance, insisting that it will not give up the backstop and if a no-deal Brexit happens then it will be London’s choice.
Mr Varadkar is a cautious interviewee, choosing words carefully and often appearing to say little beyond what has already been said. Even when asked when he first visited Northern Ireland (as a child travelling through on his way to holiday in Donegal, and then as a student coming to an interview at Queen’s University), there is a sense that he is always thinking politically, delicately selecting his words.
Did Northern Ireland at that time feel like an entirely different country or society?
“No. No. It definitely felt different, and is different, but certainly not foreign. I’ve always liked Belfast as a city and Queen’s in particular as a campus.”
Again, when asked whether British-Irish relations are at their lowest point since the 1998 Belfast Agreement – which seems obvious – he is coy, saying that relations between people in Britain and Ireland are “pretty good”, while “definitely Brexit has strained relations between the two governments ... and has created a very difficult environment for the parties in Northern Ireland”.
But on Brexit there are subtle linguistic changes which hint at how the situation is changing. In January, he said that “even in a no-deal, there will not be a return to a border”. Now, he implicitly accepts that no-deal will mean that there will be an economic border – although he hopes it can be enforced away from the border itself.
However, he is clear that regardless of what happens – deal or no-deal, backstop or no backstop – the movement of people around the island will be unimpeded. Despite some people’s fears that no-deal would mean a border, impeding the movement of people crossing the border to shop, visit relatives or go to school, Mr Varadkar is clear that will not be the case.
Highlighting how the UK and the Republic have given firm commitments to retain the common travel area, he says he is “confident” that will continue, along with access to each other’s labour markets, housing, education, welfare and pensions “as though we were citizens of both Britain and Ireland”.
“We’ve agreed to keep that in place – so as long as the British and Irish governments commit to keep that in place, that will stay in place and our commitment to that is absolute and solid. I would hope that down the line the British government doesn’t decide that taking control of our borders means in any way diluting the common travel area – certainly we won’t.”
His one caveat to that is that it is impossible to be certain of what “may happen down the line ... a lot of the reasons for the checks during the Troubles were security-related and I would certainly hope that the security situation would not deteriorate”.
He stresses that violence at any future border is not inevitable “but I think we would be doing a disservice to our citizens north and south if we didn’t understand that it is a potential outcome”.
Last week Arlene Foster – once Mr Varadkar’s opposite number as Stormont tourism minister and from whom he accepted an invitation to attend the Twelfth in Enniskillen seven years ago – accused him of being “very truculent” and refusing to engage in “sensible bilateral” discussions with the UK. She said he “hides behind the apron strings of the EU ... and he won’t speak to those of us who have a very big interest in finding a way forward”.
When those comments are put to the taoiseach, he smiles, saying: “Yeah, I heard that and I’m conscious that it was Arlene Foster only last week who was advising me to dial down the rhetoric.
“I don’t think in two years as taoiseach and in eight years in the Irish government I’ve ever made a pejorative comment about any unionist politician.”
In a time of crisis in Northern Ireland 50 years ago, Jack Lynch’s solution was simple: “The reunification of the national territory can provide the only permanent solution for the problem.”
Although Irish unity is more seriously talked about now than for many years, Mr Varadkar’s responses to questions around unity reveal a reluctance to rapidly move towards such a prospect.
Asked whether the classic Irish nationalist idea of unity – an Irish unitary state – is a realistic or achievable prospect in the medium term, he said: “I would really not like to see the Brexit debate becoming a constitutional one. I fear that if you have a no-deal hard Brexit, that that will arise and I don’t want that to happen ... I would really not like to see this issue of a united Ireland being brought to the fore as a consequence of a hard Brexit.
“It’s the kind of thing that I always envisage, if it ever would happen, it would happen in a more generational context and would give us time to talk about what that might look like because certainly for me it wouldn’t look like a unitary 32-county republic, the kind of thing that was envisaged by the founding fathers of the state, those that fought in the GPO – because that could never fully respect or embrace the million people here in the north who are British, who have a unique identity ... that was perhaps one of the flaws of the founding project of my state – that wasn’t properly respected at that time.”
When asked if he envisaged the Irish and British governments staying neutral in a border poll or campaigning on either side of the debate, the taoiseach laughed and said: “That’s a good question, actually. I haven’t been asked that one before. I think long before we would ever have a border poll we would have to have a long and meaningful conversation as to what the question really is – we saw that with Brexit; people voting on the issue of Brexit without perhaps a proper debate about what Brexit would look like or what Brexit would be.”
Leo Varadkar, the gay son of immigrants at the head of a confident and technologically advanced Ireland, is a world away from Jack Lynch, the champion hurler at the helm of agrarian Catholic Ireland. But just as Northern Ireland unexpectedly imposed itself on his Fianna Fáil predecessor, so it is once more threatening to destabilise the southern state.