In his approach towards Brexit, Leo Varadkar has made all the right enemies
Leo Varadkar's infamous strategic communications unit must now be thinking about what pair of socks they can make him wear that would most rile up the English media.
When The Sun told Varadkar to "shut his gob and grow up," it signalled the beginning of a campaign from certain sectors of British society to pin the blame for all their Brexit woes on Ireland's young Taoiseach.
It was a rallying cry to those who have previously blamed immigrants, the elite, and those not-in-power for Britain's woes.
They'd found a new target.
Of course, the way they went about it left Irish people scratching their heads. According to some, Ireland's Brexit strategy (which has never been anything more than a demand for reassurances that no hard border would be introduced) was part of a Fine Gael-Sinn Féin plot to break up the United Kingdom.
The campaign escalated last Monday when it seemed as though, at the behest of Varadkar and co., EU negotiators had brokered a deal for Phase I of Brexit talks that would economically separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
DUP Member of Parliament Sammy Wilson offered a withering view of how Fine Gael's leadership approached the talks, saying, "In Northern Ireland their handling of this has been seen as cynical, aggressive, green, partisan... [It] has damaged relationships which were built up over long periods of time."
When it comes to how Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney handled the Republic's delicate relationship with its Northern neighbours, Wilson was downright scathing. He referenced good relationships with past Irish ministers and lamented, "None of them would have dealt with Northern Ireland in the way that those two, Coveney and Varadkar, have dealt with Northern Ireland."
When the interview was aired by RTÉ, there was an abundance of punters online whose only stance on the matter was "Well, if he's pissed off the DUP, he's doing something right."
And that's how you play into a man's hand.
Wilson was not alone, either. His colleagues Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster, deputy leader and leader of the DUP respectively, both targeted him for his supposed approach to the Brexit talks.
Foster issued a statement accusing the Irish government of quietly trying to rewrite the Good Friday Agreement, as part of a broader strategy of re-unifying Ireland. Dodds tried to tell Varadkar that he was "playing a very dangerous game with the Republic of Ireland economy."
And it wasn't just the DUP. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith argued, out loud, on television, in front of people, that Ireland's position was unstable because we'd be having a presidential election next year. Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin went on TV and talked about "Enda Kelly," whom he referred to as a "former Taoiseach of Northern Ireland." Everything the Irish public has always suspected about British political attitudes towards its former colony was confirmed.
All of this was met with a stiff-upper lip from Leinster House that any Brit would be proud of.
Understated strength expressing surprise and disappointment that Monday's deal had been pulled, and minute-by-minute reminders that as the British government continued to flaunt their ignorance of the Irish political landscape, the Irish government knew what was important: no hard border.
Of course, not all of it has been the result of a shrewd Leinster House strategy. For example, on Friday morning, Sky News' Adam Boulton dug himself a hole when he asked Simon Coveney if he felt "guilty" that a sense of triumphalism emanating from Dublin, once it became clear a deal had been reached, had left a sour taste in DUP mouths and may have briefly held up the deal.
From this side of the pond, it seems clear that Boulton should be grovelling in his appreciation for Ireland, Varadkar and Coveney, for ensuring that the United Kingdom has not lost its access to the single market or customs union — to say nothing of the drama that will now be avoided on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
But Boulton, thinking himself a lion, went for Coveney's jugular and Coveney swatted him away as if he were a fly, with patience and forensic precision.
Coveney reminded Boulton that since the outset of talks, the Irish government has committed itself to ensuring that any deal would preclude the establishment of a hard border and protect the Good Friday Agreement. Last Friday, they secured exactly that deal. Asking Coveney whether he felt guilty, made about as much sense as asking Ray Houghton if he felt guilty for putting the ball in the English net.
Then, in a move that would make even the least nationalistic Irish person reach for the "800 years" klaxon, Boulton doubled down on his attempt to get under Coveney's skin, tweeting that "Some of you Irish need to get over yourselves." Successfully putting a few undecideds and would-be Fianna Fáil voters now firmly on the same team as Simon Coveney instead.
Bored now. Some of you Irish need to get over yourselves. Interviewing is about challenging the interviewee not respecting.
— Adam Boulton (@adamboultonSKY) December 9, 2017
And the proof is in the polling.
Fine Gael are now at 36% in the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll. There is 11% worth of daylight between them and their closest rival, Fianna Fáil. On Irish streets, homelessness continues to end lives. The government's frailty was exposed by their seemingly bottomless mishandling of the Maurice McCabe scandal. Yet Ireland's leading party has seen their popularity increase by 5% since October.
The Sun, Sky News, the DUP, hard Brexiters — they've all taken the same tactic with the Irish government, and they've probably done a great job undermining the credibility of Leo Varadkar with their own base. The only trouble is, that doesn't matter. Every time they've come out swinging for Leo and Simon, the pair have bobbed and weaved and repeated the same thing they've been saying about Brexit since the first time they were asked.
They've ducked under jabs and danced around uppercuts and dealt not a single blow in return, knowing that the only way for anyone to win amidst the shambolic British decision to leave the EU is get to the final bell with as few scrapes and bruises as possible on either side. That's what the Irish public knew they had to do. It's what Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker will have coached them to do.
With all their obstinance, all their inflammatory barbs, all their inability to somehow grasp the pronunciation of words like "Taoiseach" and "Varadkar," the anti-Ireland coalition have managed to steady a ship that just two weeks ago looked for all the world as though it was destined for the bottom of the Irish Sea.
They've made Varadkar look strong. They've made Varadkar look reasonable. They've done more for Leo Varadkar than any strategic communications unit that money can buy.
Leo Varadkar might be a man short on friends, but as far as the Irish public is concerned, he has all the right enemies.