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2 June 2017updated 07 Jun 2017 12:59pm

What does Ireland’s new prime minister mean for Brexit?

Leo Varadkar, who will succeed Enda Kenny as Taoiseach later this month, is no fan of Theresa May. 

By Patrick Maguire

Enda Kenny might not have meant all that much to that many people on the eastern side of the Irish Sea, but he meant an awful lot to David Cameron. The outgoing Taoiseach was one of David Cameron’s few real friends in the chancelleries of Europe.

Kenny, who announced his resignation last month, was effectively Cameron’s cheerleader-designate in the EU27 as the UK’s renegotiation approached. Ultimately, Kenny’s efforts were neither as fulsome nor consequential as Downing Street would have reportedly liked. Though much less close to Theresa May, he proved a largely constructive and reassuring presence in the fitful months that followed the EU referendum.

But with a new Taoiseach incoming and Ireland’s future at the top of the European Commission’s list of negotiating priorities, what will Kenny’s successor mean for Brexit?

One thing is immediately – and, for HM Government, disconcertingly – clear. Ireland, for now at least, sees its political future not as Britain’s diplomatic crutch, but as a full and integral member of the EU27.

While its unique bilateral relationship with the UK will remain a close and important one, Ireland – uniquely affected by Brexit as it is – will inevitably align itself more closely with the Brussels consensus throughout negotiations. Kenny himself has said so, as have his predecessors Bertie Ahern and John Bruton.

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In that respect, change at the top is unlikely to significantly alter Dublin’s Brexit strategy. One source close to the contest for the leadership of Fine Gael, Ireland’s centre-right governing party, told me in February that there was unlikely to be a “huge” change in the substance of Ireland’s Brexit stance come Kenny’s departure. There was, however, an important caveat: “A new Taoiseach will have to assert himself on the issue.”

Indeed, the incoming premier, Leo Varadkar – who I profile in this week’s New Statesman – has been asserting himself for months. He has attacked Theresa May’s reliance on “slogans and soundbites” and called repeatedly for Northern Ireland to remain a member of the EU’s single market (anathema to both unionists and British ministers).

The past year or so of Varadkar’s ministerial career has in effect been a proxy leadership campaign and much of what he has said should be taken as such, but his readiness to pick this sort of fight presages a likely tonal shift. Although the News Letter, Belfast’s unionist daily, asked on the day Kenny resigned whether his successor “will stop lecturing us on internal affairs”, it seems unlikely that their question will be answered in the affirmative.

However, that in London these lines are construed as combative at all reflects something rather more worrying: that the level of thinking required to ensure Brexit is as smooth and undisruptive as possible for the island of Ireland is beyond Theresa May and her cabinet. Nationalists at Westminster frequently complain that ministers’ knowledge of the granular details of issues such as the border and Good Friday Agreement is close to non-existent. With the Republic a co-guarantor, it is inevitable that Varadkar will move to fill the vacuum, as Kenny and his foreign minister, Charlie Flanagan, have done.

This has not phased unionists, who take an understandably sceptical line in the often shrill conversation around Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit future, in the way one might expect it to. “I’m not too bothered, to be honest,” was the phlegmatic verdict of one senior unionist on the prospect of a Varadkar premiership. “At some point, either he or Fianna Fail will play to the gallery.” Another, a high-profile Leaver, was even blunter: “It’s totally irrelevant. Ireland have never been listened to within the EU.”

There is some truth in the accusation that Varadkar was massaging the old shibboleth of uniting Ireland some day and playing to the nationalist gallery – a rite of passage for any aspirant Taoiseach – rather than making a serious bid for the six counties of the North, which the Republic cannot afford to subsume any time soon. But the challenge for unionists in Belfast and London is this: should Brexit negotiations run aground or the UK leave the EU on WTO terms, there could come a point where suggestions that now seem grandiose and insincere offer a way back to economic normality. 

Should that happen, they may well regret not taking the new Taoiseach at his word.

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