Northern Ireland

Analysis: Leo Varadkar brings the curtain down on a distinguished but chequered career

He alienated unionists and disappointed republicans

Leo Varadkar announced his resignation surrounded by TDs who could soon find themselves in the top job
Leo Varadkar shortly after announcing his resignation. PICTURE: NICK BRADSHAW/PA (Nick Bradshaw/PA)

Leo Varadkar’s sudden resignation saw backslaps from colleagues but perhaps the knives will come out in the days ahead.

The departing taoiseach’s relationship with Northern Ireland has been a chequered one. He alienated unionists, became an ally to pro-Europeans but ultimately frustrated republicans by failing, in their eyes, to advance the cause of unity.

Yet history will likely be kind to the Republic’s first openly gay taoiseach, whose part Indian heritage also set him aside from his predecessors. However, he leaves behind an unprecedented housing crisis, a sinister rise in far-right agitation and a party that looks set to take a battering in the forthcoming general election. The result of the recent referendum on care and the family was also a bloody nose for the ruling coalition, of which Fine Gael is the lead partner.

The blame cannot be laid entirely at Leo Varadkar’s door but opponents would argue that his preference for free market economics has exacerbated, if not necessarily caused, many of the current problems. There are also occasionally justified allegations of arrogance on the taoiseach’s part.

Leo Varadkar with former prime minister Boris Johnson at Thornton Manor Hotel, on the Wirral, Cheshire
Leo Varadkar with former prime minister Boris Johnson at Thornton Manor Hotel on the Wirral. PICTURE: PA (Leo Varadkar/PA)

He succeeded Enda Kenny after winning the Fine Gael leadership race in 2017 just as the Brexit negotiations were gaining traction. Mr Varadkar pulled on the green jersey from the off, and took a much more proactive role than his predecessor.

For nationalists and pro-Europeans in the north, he was their champion, arguing the case against a hard border and seeking to ameliorate what many believed would be the devastating effects of the UK’s vote to cut ties with the EU.

After the ‘backstop’ was binned and Boris Johnson entered Downing Street, there was a growing fear that a hard Brexit would leave the north isolated. Through a combination of statecraft and gentle persuasion the taoiseach helped deliver the protocol, a cumbersome and sometimes flawed solution to an intractable problem.

His methods angered unionists, while his rhetoric about never abandoning northern nationalists proved little more than that.

Mr Varadkar has explained his reasons for resigning as both “personal and political”, adding that politicians “are human beings” and therefore have limitations. At a relatively young 45, he appears to have reached that limit.

Naturally, parallels will inevitably be drawn with Nicola Sturgeon’s heartfelt resignation speech and the emerging scandal that followed but until anything to the contrary comes to light we can assume the taoiseach’s motivations are entirely honourable.

His successor is unlikely to share Mr Varadkar’s unique place in Irish politics. His was a successful political career that didn’t quite end in failure but truly reflected a modern and diverse state, whose people, on the whole, are tolerant and accepting.