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Leo Varadkar: Irish leader reveals fraying patience over Brexit border

Leo Varadkar speaks at Queen’s University Belfast. Andrew Towe Photography/Queen's University Belfast, Author provided

Leo Varadkar, the Irish taoiseach (prime minister) expressed polite but firm frustration with advocates of a hard Brexit during a speech at Queen’s University Belfast.

Addressing a packed venue, Varadkar argued that those people who think it acceptable to establish a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland need to come up with a plan to make it work. And if they don’t come up some good ideas pretty quickly, the Brexit negotiations may not get much further.

Varadkar highlighted the crunch meeting of the European Council coming up in just ten weeks time. He told the audience:

In October I will sit around the European Council table with 26 other prime ministers and we will decide together whether sufficient progress has been made on three key issues to allow the Brexit negotiations to proceed to the next phase. Those three key issues are citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and issues relating to Ireland. It will be a historic meeting for this island. It is my fervent hope that progress will have been made, but I do not underestimate the challenges we face.

The implication is clear: Varadkar wants serious engagement by the British with the border question as a prerequisite for allowing the British negotiators to move on to the allegedly more important matters of the UK’s future economic relationship with the EU.

In a pointed criticism of the what he sees as the hard Brexiteers’ lethargic approach to the complexity of the border issues he emphasised that:

…the onus should be on them to come up with proposals for such a border and to convince us and convince you – citizens, students, academics, farmers, business people — that it’s in your interest to have these new barriers to commerce and trade. They’ve already had 14 months to do so.

He argued that the hard Brexiteers don’t have the capacity to come up with such convincing proposals, which opens the door for the Irish government to make suggestions as to how the UK should manage its EU exit:

If they cannot, and I believe they cannot, we can then talk meaningfully about solutions that might work for all of us.

For your consideration

The particular solutions Varadkar offered involve variations of a soft Brexit. One option is the negotiation of a special customs union arrangement between the UK and EU. A similar deal exists with Turkey, he pointed out.

If exiting the single market is crucial for the UK, perhaps negotiating re-entry to the European Free Trade Area would be a good option. And if it proves a bit tricky to work out the nuts and bolts of this, Varadkar suggests that: “perhaps we can have a transition period during which the UK stays in the single market and customs union while these things are worked out”.

Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, has still not agreed a new deal to get the Northern Ireland government up and running again. PA/Liam McBurney

Varadkar also expressed frustration with the lack of a government in Northern Ireland and called on parties to quickly negotiate a restoration of a power-sharing executive to fill the policy void on Brexit:

Today we need an answer to the question of who we – and others in Europe – talk to in Belfast? … We need to hear the voice of those elected representatives here in the North.

Despite delivering these messages in a polite tone, it’s clear that things that might have been said privately under the previous taoiseach (Enda Kenny) are being said publicly by Varadkar. The Irish government appears to be running out of patience with what they see as the UK negotiators’ lack of response to the border challenge.

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