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Newton Emerson: What Varadkar didn’t say about the North in his ardfheis speech was revealing

Taoiseach-in-waiting did not mention Irish unity, Brexit or the protocol

Leo Varadkar’s comments on Northern Ireland, in his address to last weekend’s Fine Gael Ardfheis, were extensively quoted by the media, north and south.

Most reports included the following lines: “In Northern Ireland, the assembly and executive are suspended so we need to redouble our efforts to find a path forward. We succeeded before and we will again. We need to engage with northern nationalists, unionists and that growing middle ground who identify as Northern Irish rather than British or Irish, and those who identify as both. Stalemate and the status quo is not a realistic option or an acceptable one. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, let’s be inspired by that new beginning and build on that achievement.”

What no report mentioned is that these 94 words were all the Tánaiste had to say about Northern Ireland in a 3,000-word speech. He spent over twice as long attacking Sinn Féin as unfit for southern office – not great engagement with northern nationalists, who give the party three-quarters of their first preference votes.

The implication that Sinn Féin is good enough for the north but not good enough for the Republic can insult some unionists and others, although not excessively so – everyone understands the different contexts. But the Tánaiste pushed this to the limit by accusing Sinn Féin of a “shaky commitment to democracy and to free speech” and “ambiguity towards serious crime”.


“We need to make sure the centre holds and grows and that they are stopped,” he concluded.

How does this square with praise for the north’s “growing middle ground” and efforts to restore devolution? Of course, many unionists welcome criticism of Sinn Féin, but they are sceptical Mr Varadkar means it. Two decades of mandatory coalition have inured northerners to the concept of Sinn Féin in power with diametrically opposed partners. People paying attention recall that Fine Gael was reported to have sounded out Sinn Féin on coalition in 2007, although Enda Kenny subsequently denied it. Political opposites can make good partners if it is clear where the line between them is drawn. The ardfheis speech sounded like it was highlighting such a line. Might Fine Gael and Sinn Féin strike a truce on the governance of Northern Ireland? On the pursuit of united Ireland, might they agree – or agree to differ?

Mr Varadkar did not mention Irish unity in his speech but nor did he mention the shared island initiative, a key part of the coalition agreement operating from the Department of the Taoiseach, which he will be assuming in three weeks. Although the initiative is associated with Micheál Martin, Mr Varadkar had no difficulty praising the outgoing Taoiseach. He just could not mention Mr Martin’s policy of engagement with all communities in Northern Ireland, a policy supported by almost everyone except Sinn Féin.

Perhaps this omission was unsurprising in a party address. Mr Varadkar also omitted any allusion to increasing Dublin’s role in Northern Ireland due to Stormont’s collapse, demonstrating more tact than he has in the past.

However, the lack of any reference to Brexit or the protocol was glaring. The protocol is why Mr Varadkar needs to re-engage with unionists – at least, that was how his comments on engagement were widely interpreted in the north. There is more common ground on the issue than is often appreciated: all five main Stormont parties agree the protocol requires improvement, with no strong disagreement on the type of improvements desired. A Taoiseach that could tease this out and illustrate it to Europe would be a friend to everyone in Northern Ireland, without compromising the Republic’s interests or being played off by London against the EU. Mr Martin appears to have judged it wise to keep his distance from the subject but Mr Varadkar is too associated with the protocol for a similar stance to work.

A more straightforward example of cross-Border engagement is the Narrow Water Bridge between Omeath and Warrenpoint. The tender for its construction was announced last Friday by the Department of the Taoiseach, via the shared island initiative. Fine Gael tried to claim credit at its ardfheis, with representatives and a party statement thanking the Taoiseach for “implementing a key Fine Gael policy”. This made it all the stranger that Mr Varadkar ignored the shared island policy.

A similar project of his own is obvious. The A5 dual-carriageway through Northern Ireland was to be half-funded by the Irish government under the 2006 St Andrews Agreement. In 2011, as transport minister, Mr Varadkar cut most of Dublin’s contribution following the financial crash. The A5′s costs have since doubled, effectively cancelling it. A new Taoiseach could restart it or examine alternatives. The best way for Mr Varadkar to start rebuilding relationships might simply be to build something.