Ireland’s newest, and youngest, Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, left Downing Street this week full of confidence that London and Dublin can not only weather Brexit but that devolution will return to Stormont by the end of the month.
It was 38-year-old Mr Varadkar’s first foreign trip since becoming Taoiseach last week and had been arranged at very short notice which, he said, was further proof of how close the two countries are.
The Fine Gael leader made no attempt to conceal his genuine delight – or “thrill” -at being inside 10 Downing Street for the very first time.
He told reporters that he was a little disappointed to learn that that stairs down which Hugh Grant danced as the fictional Prime Minister in Love Actually didn’t actually exist as the film had not been shot there.
The largely symbolic visit coincided with the highly choreographed opening of Brexit negotiations in Brussels and against a backdrop of yet another violent atrocity in London.
Mr Varadkar expressed Ireland’s condolences on not just the latest terrorist attack but last week’s horrific Grenfell Tower inferno which to date has claimed at least 79 lives.
Closeness and strength
“It is my first visit overseas and I really want to thank the Prime Minister for facilitating it at very short notice but it does underline and emphasise the closeness and strength of the relationship between our two countries.
“We passed the Grenfell Tower on the way in today and saw the destruction that has occurred there and even this morning as you know there has been another atrocity at Finsbury Park on top of what happened at London Bridge.
“London is a very important city for Irish people and I think pretty much everyone in Ireland has someone who lives here who is a relative or a close friend and when there is an attack on London we feel in Ireland that it is almost an attack on us as well.
“I just want you to know that you have our support and our solidarity and if there is anything we can do to assist we are ready and willing to do so.”
Prime Minister Theresa May, whose Premiership is under threat from dissatisfied Cabinet colleagues and party MPs following the snap election gamble in which she lost her Commons majority, publicly pledged to maintain the UK and Ireland’s closeness after Brexit but also to publish the details of any deal with the DUP to prop up her government.
Allies of Ireland
“We’re leaving the European Union but we’re not leaving Europe and we want to remain committed partners and allies of Ireland and all our friends across the Continent. Trade between our countries is worth over £43 billion a year an supports 400,000 jobs and there are also complex supply chains which benefit both our countries and as I said before no one wants to see this diminished,” said Mrs May.
More than once she repeated that the supply and confidence agreement negotiated with the DUP and expected to be finalised this week would not interfere with the British government’s objective impartiality towards implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
Both she and Mr Varadkar expressed confidence that with sufficient good will and the aid of Dublin and London, Northern Ireland’s parties can reach agreement on restoring the Stormont Executive, Assembly and devolution by the deadline of the end of this month, 29 June.
The three initial topics of the Brexit talks which opened in Brussels are: the size of the UK’s “divorce” bill; the rights of EU citizens in the UK and the rights of UK citizens in EU states; the special position of Northern Ireland and the Repubic of Ireland and the Border.
Mrs May said the original letter triggering Article 50 had emphasised these points:
“I am personally committed to ensuring a practical solution that recognises the unique economic, social and political context of the land border with Ireland which so many people pass through every day and it will remain our priority to work closely with the Irish government to ensure as frictionless and seamless a Border as possible. I made this clear in my letter to Donald Tusk triggering Article 50 and that we want to maintain the Common Travel Area.
“We also want the reciprocal rights that our citizens in both countries to continue including the rights guaranteed under the Belfast Agreement and both we and the EU have made clear that we want to resolve this as a matter of priority but I am pleased as negotiations begin in Brussels today we can start working together in earnest on joint solutions.
“It is with a shared sense of purpose that our two countries can build even deeper ties that our unique relationship will become even closer and stronger.
Mr Varadkar said he was compelled to quote Mrs May’s predecessor, Winston Churchill, “a very great Prime Minister…who said that our two countries should walk together in mutual comprehension and forgiveness.”
“I think today as we take another step forward in tackling the great issues that face us today, facing Europe, facing Northern Ireland, and the British Irish relationship, we go one step further and we walk together in mutual comprehension and understanding, united in our shared ambition to find the best possible solutions to all of the many challenges that face us,” he added.
Mr Varadkar said that with Brexit talks now having commenced it was especially important that Northern Ireland should have its own voice heard: “We think it is very important that Northern Ireland should have a unique voice at this very important time when we face into negotiations on Brexit and having an Executive up and running, an Executive that can speak for both communities in Northern Ireland would be a big advantage for Northern Ireland and also for our two governments.”
Ireland was sad to see the UK leave the EU but it was happening and it had to respect the decision, said Mr Varadkar.
It was now a question of ensuring the least disruptive arrangement for the UK and Ireland and the best possible deal for both countries.
“We remain, of course, saddened that the United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union but that is of course a decision for the United Kingdom which we fully respect.
“There are a number of things that we want to work on together where we have a common interest. We negotiate as one of the 27 and negotiations are between the EU and the UK but there are two things, among other things, but two particular things we want to focus on from the Irish government’s point of view. The first is maintaining the reciprocity of civic rights that exist between Britain and Ireland.
“It’s called the Common Travel Area but it’s much more than that: it’s the right of Irish citizens and British citizens to travel, live, work, study, reside, access health care pensions and housing in each other’s countries as though we were citizens of both and that is something that both countries want to retain.
“It’s been there since independence – and, of course, long before. And, as well, we want to make sure there is minimal or no disruption to trade between our two countries which the Prime Minister has outlined as being so important in terms of the value and volume of trade but also for the jobs it supports.
“We want to ensure as much as is possible that while there may be a political border between our two countries that there should not be an economic border and any border that does exist should be invisible and we committed to work on that and affirm those common goals and work together to achieve the best outcome possible for all of our people.”
Mr Varadkar also accepted that any deal between Conservative Party MPs in Westminster and the DUP’s MPs was a matter for them and it was not for Ireland, a foreign country, to seek to interfere but he was reassured that Mrs May had said the details of any pact would be published.
“I did relay (Ireland’s) concerns (that the DUP deal would affect the Good Friday Agreement) and I was very much reassured by what the Prime Minister had to say, that the agreement once it is reached, will be published so it will be there for everyone to see.
“We spoke about the very important need for both governments to be impartial actors when it comes to Northern Ireland and also that we are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement and any agreement that may exist between the Conservative Party and the DUP should not impact in any way on the Good Friday Agreement or the very special role that the two governments have when it comes to impartiality under the terms of the Agreement.
“I am very reassured from what the Prime Minister said to me today that that won’t be the case and I do of course fully accept and understand that the formation of a government in Westminster is a matter, of course, for the MPs elected at Westinster not for our government but I am very reassured.”
Matter of regret
In closing Mr Varadkar repeated that “it’s a matter of regret for us that the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, the Single Market and the Customs Union”.
“We would prefer if it was not so but this is a sovereign decision for the people of the United Kingdom so what we wanted to do is try to bring about an outcome or new set of relationships that allows trade to continue as it has done in the past that we shouldn’t have a hard border or return to the border of the past…we want to try to ensure that whatever new relationship, whatever new Treaty exists between the EU and the United Kingdom, allows us to continue trade in the way that we have done for a very long time now to the befit of all our citizens.
“Of course, I can’t give you the detail right now as the negotiations have only just begun but we do both have a shared objective to minimise the disruption to trade both north and south and east and west.”