Northern Ireland: Leo Varadkar discusses protocol row
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Ray Bassett was speaking the day after Mr Johnson finally bowed to pressure and resigned as Tory Party leader following a string of cabinet resignations, including those of Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid. However, Mr Johnson will carry on as PM in a caretaker capacity until the autumn until the Tories have selected a new leader, with the need for a ballot of the party’s membership meaning the process may not be completed before October.
In accordance with the terms of the three-party coalition agreement which saw Micheal Martin become Ireland’s leader in June 2020, Mr Varadkar is scheduled to return to his old job in November, just weeks later.
The situation will be carefully monitored on this side of the Irish Sea, given issues relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol, the mechanism which is aimed at preventing a hard border on the island of Ireland, have yet to be resolved.
The UK Government, which suggests the rules have driven a wedge between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is introducing legislation which it says is intended to “fix practical problems” – but both Dublin and Brussels have condemned the move, suggesting it would represent a breach of international law.
Ireland is also concerned such a law would represent a threat to the 1998’s landmark Good Friday Agreement, widely credited with having brought an end to the Troubles which blighted life in the North for a generation.
Speaking hours after Mr Johnson’s resignation on Thursday, Mr Martin issued a carefully worded statement in he called for a “return to the true spirit of partnership and mutual respect that is needed to underpin the gains of the Good Friday Agreement”.
Mr Martin was nevertheless at pains to emphasise the importance of cooperation – but Mr Bassett, Ireland’s former ambassador to Canada, Jamaica and the Bahamas, suggested Mr Varadkar was likely to be more combative.
I believe Leo Varadkar has a history of being antagonistic towards Britain and Brexit
He explained: “I believe Leo Varadkar has a history of being antagonistic towards Britain and Brexit and his strongest political instincts are those of a eurofederalist.
“He does not have the same instinct for compromise with the UK as Martin.”
Mr Bassett added: “Hopefully matters will be well resolved well before that.
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“This is not a good starting position as both sides will have to move to get an agreement.
“Ireland will have to work on Brussels to get the EU to agree to move. That will not come easy to Leo.”
Speaking about the incumbent, Mr Bassett said: “I think the Taoiseach is genuine about wanting a better relationship with London.
“I said on Irish TV 3 last night that the Irish Government and the EU believed for some time now that Boris was unlikely to be Prime Minister for very long and hence there was no great reason to make any concessions.
“A new Prime Minister in the UK will have a honeymoon period and there will be a hope that both sides can move a little to allow for an agreement to be reached.
“In reality there is not a huge gap in substance between the EU and Britain.“
Mr Varadkar, a familiar figure during the wrangling between the EU and the UK after the 2016 referendum who was often pictured alongside then-European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, has yet to comment on Mr Johnson’s departure.
However, speaking to the BBC at the end of last month, he launched an attack on the Northern Ireland Bill, saying: “I think that’s a strategic mistake for people who want to maintain the union because if you continue to impose things on Northern Ireland that a clear majority of people don’t want, that means more people will turn away from the union. It’s a peculiar policy coming from a government that purports to want to defend the union.”
Describing Downing Street plans to change the protocol unilaterally as “shocking and hard to accept”, he added: “What the British government is doing now is very undemocratic and very disrespectful to people in Northern Ireland because it’s taking that power away from the assembly.”
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