Leo Varadkar has objected to the implementation of direct rule in Northern Ireland – something which both Downing Street and the Northern Ireland Civil Service believes will be necessary if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.
Although the government has implemented direct rule on several occasions when devolution has faltered since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the taoiseach said that such a development would be viewed by his government as a breach of that accord.
In an interview with the News Letter, he said that direct rule was “certainly not something that we could support”.
However, he did not propose any alternative method by which the governance vacuum in Northern Ireland – which has now persisted for two-and-a-half years – could be filled if the DUP and Sinn Fein cannot agree to restore devolution.
Although Mr Varadkar came out against direct rule in 2017, almost a year after the collapse of Stormont, his comments now come in a very different context where a no-deal Brexit could be less than three months away and with no indication that devolution is likely to return.
Mr Varadkar’s stance potentially adds an additional element of crisis to what is already going to be a constitutionally fraught period at the end of October.
When asked if he accepted that in the absence of Stormont, at some point direct rule was the only way in which Northern Ireland can be governed, the taoiseach said: “From the Irish government’s point of view, we won’t support the imposition of direct rule in Northern Ireland.
“It would be very much going against the Good Friday Agreement.”
When asked if that meant that he considered it to have been a breach of the agreement when direct rule was imposed by Labour governments on multiple occasions in the past, Mr Varadkar did not explicitly answer the question but said: “Ultimately, it will be the responsibility of the sovereign government, which is the UK, to manage affairs in Northern Ireland.
“But, certainly the understanding from the Good Friday Agreement and agreements subsequent to that like St Andrews, is that direct rule would not be reimposed and I really would not want to see that being the case. It’s certainly not something that we could support.”
But if Stormont’s parties cannot agree to govern – especially where one of the big two parties can veto anyone else forming an administration – how else can Northern Ireland be governed?
Mr Varadkar set out what he said were “two alternatives”. But the first was simply to keep trying to form an Executive – which is not in itself an alternative if that process fails – and the second alternative is fresh Assembly elections, something which is highly unlikely to displace either the DUP or Sinn Fein as the two biggest parties and therefore unlikely to bring an end to the governance vacuum, something Mr Varadkar conceded.
He said that it would “be really useful to have a first minister and a deputy first minister and an Executive in place” and could be “quite influential” in the Brexit process and could be a “positive catalyst in terms of getting to a solution”.
Two weeks ago, Mr Varadkar told the MacGill Summer School that the British government “is supposed to be impartial on Northern Ireland” and added: “I will allow others to judge whether a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP is impartial.”
But when asked if the DUP’s agreement with the Tories is a breach of the Belfast Agreement, he is now more circumspect, saying: “I don’t think the confidence and supply agreement in itself is a breach of the Good Friday Agreement – and I know something about confidence and supply agreements, being in one myself with the main opposition party, Fianna Fáil.”
However, he stressed that the agreement placed a duty on the government to act with “rigorous impartiality”.
Some hours after this interview, at a Féile an Phobail leaders debate, Mr Varadkar delivered what appeared to be a blunt message to southern voters that if a united Ireland comes it will mean the end of their state as they have known it and the creation of what will effectively be a new country, with a new constitution, perhaps a change from the current privileged status for the Irish language and other fundamental changes.