Leo Fades In Spotlight


From top: BBC NI Spotlight reporter Jim Fitzpatrick with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last week; Derek Mooney

Though it has appeared to slip by without much political comment, the Taoiseach’s BBC TV interview last Tuesday (October 16) showed that he is not quite the master of the medium that his friends would have us believe.

He was being interviewed as part of a BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight programme profiling our neophyte Taoiseach. It looked at his life and his rise to high office, with a focus on how he has approached the North and Brexit over the four months since becoming Taoiseach.

It was a fairly standard profile format. A 40-minute programme featuring a one on one sit-down interview, interspersed with archive clips and packages on specific issues.

Though it was no fawning hagiography, neither was it the most demanding or probing of interviews. The interview section took up less than 50% of the show, with questions on current political issues only taking up about 40 – 50% of that portion: about 8 – 10 minutes.

But for a good portion of those 10 minutes the Taoiseach struggled. But, worse than that he also demonstrated a blissful ignorance of a key element of relations both on and between these two islands.

His first stumble was on the issue of Brexit, specifically on the right of people in Northern Ireland having the right to exercise their EU citizenship.

The interviewer asked him if Ireland would be prepared to pick up the tab where someone from Northern Ireland holding Irish citizenship – and by extension EU citizenship – had an operation in another EU state. As the UK would by then be outside the EU, would the bill for the procedure be paid by the Irish government, he enquired?

A technical, not to mention hypothetical, question which seemed more designed to highlight the interviewer’s research skills, than to elicit information that might help the punter gain a better understanding of the issue.

It was the kind of question for which The West Wing (TV series) mantra: “never accept the premise of the question” could have been coined.

But the Taoiseach – a former health and social protection minister – did accept it followed by the uncomfortable sight of seeing him struggle to grasp the underlining concept and, then, eventually work his way through to an answer.

Similarly, when asked about his views on Sinn Féin, the Taoiseach essentially spoke of it as just another political party. Not exactly the line he has been pushing in his recent Dáil spats with Gerry and Mary Lou. If Micheál Martin were asked that question the word ‘cult’ would feature prominently in his reply.

Though it was cringe-making, even for a non-fan like me, if the Leo interview had ended there, then it would have been a passable performance. But it didn’t.

Asked, at the very end of the programme, if Brexit had made a United Ireland more or less likely, the Taoiseach not only went off piste, he went clear off the mountain range.

He started out fine. He opened his response with the obligatory reaffirmation of the Irish government’s commitment to the Good Friday Agreement but then, before our eyes, the Taoiseach morphed into ‘Leo Varadkar: Precocious Wunderkind’ and attempted a single-handed redefinition of consent effectively junking a central tenet of the Good Friday Agreement, saying:

“…I wouldn’t like us to get to the point whereby we are changing the constitutional position here in Northern Ireland on a 50% plus one basis”.

“One of the best things about the Good Friday Agreement is that it did get very strong cross-Border support, that’s why there was a 70 per cent vote for it. I don’t think that there would be a 70 per cent vote for a united Ireland in the morning, for example, or anything remotely to that. And I really think we should focus on making the agreement that we have work.”

Worse still, he did it all unaided. There were no interruptions or interjections from the interviewer. No one else brought up 50% plus one, the Taoiseach did it all by himself, out of his own mouth.

Was this Leo making a major policy change on the principle of consent on the hoof or was this him failing to grasp a core policy position that has been around since the mid-1990s?

Regrettably I fear it was both.

This was the Taoiseach making up a policy on an issue he seemed fundamentally unable to grasp.

I say this as his address to the Derry Chamber of Commerce, a few days before the programme was aired, echoed the same approach, though without the reference to a 70% threshold.

What this Taoiseach fails to grasp, in contrast to his predecessors, including his most immediate one, is that consent is at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. It applies equally and in parallel to both communities, as Seamus Mallon said at the 1998 British Labour party conference:

“Equality, parity of esteem and parallel consent are written into the Agreement – they are core of the new dispensation which we can and will implement.”

Simply put, you cannot say to one community in the North that the bar for their aspirations is to be set higher than for the other, whether that is 2, 5, 10 or 20% higher. That is the approach that prevailed in the North for decades.

The Taoiseach also fails to understand that the Good Friday Agreement, whose text appears on the website of his department, is not just a political document setting out some vague hopes and dreams, it is a sovereign agreement between two governments. It is a legal agreement that sets out the legal precepts underpinning the peace process and not something he can amend on a whim.

If his intention is to convince Unionism that he is their friend, then he will fail as they will see his comments as either patronising or undeliverable – or, both.

If his aim is to score political points off Gerry Adams’ fatuous calls for a border poll, then he will also fail. Not because there will be a Border Poll – there won’t – but because he is answering to Adams’ dog whistle.

The answer is not to raise the figure up from 50%+1 for one community, but to remind all those who demand a Border poll that with 50%+1 comes a great responsibility, a responsibility to make that situation work for more than just those who favour it.

Bizarrely, this is the point where Varadkar and Adams’ joint playing with numbers on consent risks unpicking the concept that made the agreement possible.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps what we saw on BBC Spotlight last week was not a Taoiseach making up policy on the hoof, but one who is so convinced by his own hype and spin that he went on to a TV programme ill-prepared and decided to just “wing it”.

Either way, the outcome is that he exposed his own lack of knowledge for no gain. He talked big, achieved nothing and managing to piss off all sides while doing it – just another average day for this government.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday morning. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

15 thoughts on “Leo Fades In Spotlight

  1. Joe835

    Bit of pragmatism from Leo I think; the principle of consent is in the Agreement and it was something to which nationalists can aspire. But much like the Brexit vote, in reality you need much more than 50% + 1 to make it work in the real world.

    Imagine there was a vote on NI’s constitutional position and, against all odds, a vote to unite with the Republic is carried and talks must begin within 6 months on a handover agreement with Westminster.

    Ireland would have to start planning immediately, with everything from currency, schools, courts, police and healthcare suddenly needing auditing by various arms of the Irish government with a view to deciding what we align with our way, leave as is or do away with entirely.

    Billions of euro would be needed immediately – possibly as a “dowry” from Westminster, possibly as EU structural funding, probably both – just to keep the place running. Working class loyalists would take to the streets immediately, an attempt at a general strike would be made and some attempts at civil unrest will be made in the Republic – perhaps myriad bomb warnings and attacks on Irish civil servants spotted in the North.

    Politics would be in turmoil in the North. Sinn Fein would enter a period of renewed enthusiasm but the unionist parties, robbed of their raison d’etre, would enter an existentialist crisis. With no leaders, Northern Protestants would feel rudderless and abandoned, with migration to Britain a distinct possibility.

    In short, such a referendum result would be chaotic. There would be internal forces on this island driving for an immediate “unification”, a slow changeover or even a transposition of the London role in Northern Ireland to Dublin i.e. NI as part of a larger state with significant autonomy but ultimately controlled by that larger state i.e. Dublin rather than London government.

    In light of this reality, why would a Taoiseach realistically wish to proceed with a wafer-thin majority on this? It would be hard enough without also having to deal with a significant, unhappy minority that could grow to a majority after a decade of unrest within a united Ireland?

    tldr; If there was a vote for a united Ireland, it would have to be solid and significant to ensure stability. 50% + 1 would only be a technical victory and would open the door to real unrest.

    1. ahjayzis

      It’s a nightmare, but it’s what we signed up for.

      I’m sure there’s a way it could be done more gradually and reasonably. It should be done the opposite way to the Brexit result. 52% vote was not a mandate to go for the hardest of hard Brexits. A 51% unification vote does not mean we just blindly fold NI into the RoI and carry on as before.

      Irish sovereignty can be extended to Northern Ireland, with elections to the Dail in the region, but the Assembly retains devolution powers and competences until a new constitution can be agreed and implemented? You could never justify the PSNI just melting into the Gardai – keep them, and keep their accountability locally, maybe take the opportunity to devolve other regions on the island to have their own assemblies. The euro changeover can be strung out if needed, Ireland has used two currencies side by side in the past.

      I’m not a nationalist, but done sensitively, unification could be good for the kind of sclerotic state of governance and admin in Dublin, and stabilise NI where it can have real influence nationally in Dublin, and locally in Belfast.

  2. Joe Small

    I’ve noticed a strong disinterest in our current Taoiseach in detailed policy issues. FG might regret choosing him over Coveney.

  3. Calerz

    I watched the interview and thought Leo did well.. The interviewer Jim was just negative from start to finish with a very condescending tone throughout. This in my opionion made it hard to watch more than anything.

  4. Candy Crush Guru

    Welcome to the Micheál Martin Communications Unit

    Not as well got a Leo’s Spin Class but still, it serves him well.

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