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Britain’s narrow stereotype of the Irish could not make sense of Leo Varadkar

Tories had never seen a politician pursuing Ireland’s interest at Britain’s cost. No wonder they despised him

When Leo Varadkar resigned last week, the cynics emerged: his domestic record is a profound housing crisis; a weary Fine Gael dragging its heels dispiritedly towards an election; a country divided over immigration policy and precipitous demographic change. Some criticism is fair, though Ireland is hardly a unique case study in the West right now when it comes to any of these questions. But more importantly, Varadkar’s true legacy is often forgotten: as taoiseach he foisted a new version of Ireland onto the international stage.

“Varadkar leaves office with his country as rich and European as ever,” writes Tom McTague in Unherd, “but he represents this new Ireland, much as Tony Blair represented new Britain.” This is true: Varadkar has become a symbol of Ireland’s liberalised, cosmopolitan sensibilities. But we ought to go a step further: Varadkar did not just represent a new Ireland, he was not just a mere signifier of a new political reality. He brought it with him.

Not all roads lead to Brexit but for Varadkar it is the salient place to start. At almost every turn he caught the Tories off guard; encouraging the party to accept his arguments on an open border at the earliest possible moment; seeing multiple prime ministers and iterations of the Conservative Party confounded by Ireland and its centrality to the Brexit project. Between 2016 and 2023 (when the Windsor Framework was finally agreed) Ireland haunted the Tories. So did Varadkar. And for that he was punished in corners of the hostile UK press: dismissed as a lackey of Brussels, chalked up as too immature for a task befitting of a great statesman, in possession of an inferiority complex that is general to Ireland.

Varadkar is responsible for disabusing the Tories of their prejudice – for reminding them Ireland is not too small when it comes to the big questions of the world

In truth, Varadkar had an easier job than the Tories. His mission was singular: protect and promote Ireland’s national interest in the face of a Brexit that looked set to damage it. He was not aggressive but his manner was certainly clipped – a marked deviation from his lilting predecessor, Enda Kenny. Gently mocking Boris Johnson’s grasp of classical mythology in 2019 outside Government Buildings became a perfect encapsulation of his attitude. In spite of what Westminster believed, Varadkar was not about to suffer fools gladly.


Meanwhile the Conservatives were faced with a spiritual (and Herculean) conundrum: they had to decide what version of Brexit to pursue amid hundreds of competing options; cobble together a coalition of support behind that vision; mediate the internal hostilities in a divided and constantly bickering party; suffer defeat after defeat under Theresa May; and redesign their ambitions under Johnson. The reality of Ireland’s role in British politics was hard to accept.

The Conservatives were nonetheless unprepared for a politician to pursue Ireland’s national interest at Britain’s cost. This psychology seems archaic but it was – in several quarters – the thinking behind the commanding heights of the Conservative establishment. In short: who on earth does Varadkar think he is? In Britain’s narrow stereotype of the Irish, Varadkar appeared an interloper too: gay, half-Indian, young. Varadkar was as personally subversive of British expectations as he was politically.

And in this, a base prejudice was revealed. The Conservatives were not just beholden to a naive assumption that the Irish would be incompetent negotiating partners. Rather, the real surprise was the very idea that Ireland was standing up for its own interests instead of abetting Britain’s. A Sun editorial claimed that Varadkar would be responsible for “the potential chaos of a no-deal Brexit”. The Telegraph alleged in 2019 that the backstop was “a contrived hoax” cooked up, in part, by Dublin. The faulty passage of Brexit was – it seemed – Varadkar’s fault. This comes with the unavoidable subtext that the smooth passage of Brexit was somehow Varadkar’s duty.

Their mindset was glaringly obvious: Ireland, though notionally independent, was really a vassal state for British interests. On realisation that this was a dangerous assumption, a new slew of accusations emerged: Ireland was instead a puppet of the European Union; or perhaps a proxy for Washington, a door to Europe for the Democrats, all too happy to indulge the so-called plastic Paddies in America for a seat – a high chair – at the grown-ups’table.

Only years later has the new reality been forced on the Conservative Party. Ireland was no vassal, but instead a fully formed nation with soft power and a national interest distinct from that its neighbours. Varadkar is responsible for disabusing the Tories of this prejudice – for reminding them that Ireland is not too small to be anything but a useful fool when it comes to the big questions of the world.

This was Varadkar’s greatest impact. It is easy to bemoan myriad crises at home. Perhaps it is not wrong to suggest that Varadkar was always more comfortable – more interested – in being an international statesman than a domestic politician. This no doubt leaves a host of problems for the next government to clear up.

But Varadkar was not just a passive symbol of a new Ireland. His realpolitik, refusal to conform to expedient stereotype and his ability to command begrudging respect heralded it. The Conservative Party was slow to psychologically accept all of this. That they ever did in the first place is in no small part thanks to Ireland’s trickiest taoiseach.