They say a week is a long time in politics; with Leo Varadkar, make that a week-end.
On Friday the Taoiseach was the toast of Belfast. The organisers of Feile an Phobail had invited him up to open the Feile and he accepted. As it happened, the purpose of his visit – the Feile opening – was made next to invisible in the dazzling light from the House of Orange.There he was, the Irish Taoiseach, shaking hands with a head honcho in the Orange Order, being shown around various relics of Orangemen who’d died in the First World War and looking suitably solemn, then smiling and shaking hands with well-wishers lined up outside the House of Orange. And not once did Leo look uncomfortable. In fact, the contrast between his youthful demeanour and that of the Orange head honcho, provincial and red-faced, was striking.
That was Friday. This morning, the Taoiseach is reported as saying that a border deal with Britain is unlikely before October. Yes, you can stop tearing at the wallpaper with your fingernails, Virginia – some things we simply have to accept. Yes it’s true that both Varadkar and Foreign Minister Coveney said that Britain would have to show “significant progress” by the June meeting for things to go ahead. Note “significant progress:. No need for every t to be crossed or i dotted, just significant progress. But now that position has been abandoned.
“While there has been some progress, I certainly can’t say at this stage that it is sufficient,” Varadkar is reported as saying. “But rather than stalling things, we need to intensify negotiations in the period ahead”.
Mr Varadkar said agreement was not going to be reached before the EU Council meeting at the end of this month “and that was never going to be the case”.
Well, you and Simon told us there would have to be significant progress and now you’re saying there won’t be. Did Dr Leo know all this when he was up in Belfast at the weekend? Almost certainly. In fact, that might have been part of the reason he was up: to burnish his image before the news broke that the south of Ireland’s strong words about needing to see “significant progress” before talks could proceed has now been shown to be so much hot air emanating from the Taoiseach and the Foreign Minister, presumably from their mouths.
Maybe the EU in the form of Barnier told Leo to forget about the much-touted June deadlines for progress. Maybe the south has no choice in these matters. When the EU says “Jump”, maybe the southern government has no choice but to say “How high?”. And when the EU says “stop jumping” the south of Ireland may have no choice but to go stationary.
Fortunately for Varadkar, he has friends in high places. Today’s Irish Times editorial makes much of the ‘progress’ that the British have made and figures the south of Ireland can’t be holding everybody up.
“At last there is now something concrete from the British and that should enable the negotiations with the European Union to begin in earnest. The Taoiseach said it fell short of meeting Irish concerns for a permanent commitment to avoid a hard border on the island but was a welcome sign that the British government is getting serious.”
EH? They’re talking here about the proposal the UK made that all of the UK should remain within the customs union for a limited period, a proposal Michel Varnier quickly shot down. Europe had asked for a permanent backstop, involving only the north of Ireland, the border remaining as it is. The British had suggested that all of the UK stay in the customs union and that there’d be a time limit on it, which meant there’d be a time limit on how long there’d be an invisible border. No wonder Varnier dismissed that as Grade A bunkum.
So Leo the lion who roared to much applause in Belfast at the weekend, is now reduced to oonceding that all his and Coveneny’s tough talk about the need for British progress was just a tune they whistled for a while and have now stopped whistling.
Why? I suspect because Varnier and the EU told them to. So what we were promised in May’s letter in December, what we were told would get firmer form in March, what we were assured would assume legal form or considerable progress to legal form in June: all that has been a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.
In recent weeks, more than one public representative has reminded me that Ireland is a very, very small dot on the EU map. I don’t know about you but I’m beginning to feel more than a little nervous . ..Oh for God’s sake stop that sniveling, Virginia, please.