Northern Ireland

Former DUP aide and Vote Leave campaigner says Leo Varadkar setback relations with unionism by decades

Lee Reynolds argues that taoiseach was too much of a ‘cheerleader’ for Europe

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has announced he is to step down as Taoiseach and as leader of his party, Fine Gael
Leo Varadkar has announced he is to step down as taoiseach and as leader of Fine Gael. PICTURE: NICK BRADSHAW/PA (Nick Bradshaw/PA)

The former DUP adviser who headed-up the regional campaign to leave the EU believes Leo Varadkar setback relations between unionism and the Irish government by decades.

Lee Reynolds, one-time aide to Arlene Foster and the regional co-ordinator for the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, said the Fine Gael leader’s “cheerleading” for the European Commission during the Brexit negotiations means unionism is distrustful of Dublin and that relations are “not much better than they were post-Anglo-Irish Agreement”.

The former leader of the DUP’s Belfast City Council group was speaking following Mr Varadkar’s shock resignation on Wednesday.

The newly-appointed Fine Gael became taoiseach in 2017 as the Brexit negotiations got underway and antagonised unionists with his often unyielding support for the European Commission.

Lee Reynolds
Former DUP adviser Lee Reynolds

He famously presented a copy of the Irish Times showing bombed customs posts to EU leaders to emphasise the importance of the border issue in Brexit and negotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol with Boris Johnson in 2019.

While he visited the Orange Order headquarters in Belfast and last year was welcomed at Windsor Park, home of Linfield FC, the Fine Gael leader became a hate figure among sections of loyalism.

The Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), a group which represents loyalist paramilitaries, said in 2021 that Irish government ministers and officials were not welcome in the north as long as difficulties over the Northern Ireland Protocol remained and the following year a sinister poster campaign in which the taoiseach’s image was accompanied by warnings of a return to violence.

Former North Belfast MP Lord Nigel Dodds on Wednesday described the departing Fine Gael leader as “one of the most unhelpful taoiseachs of recent years”.

“I think he fundamentally used Brexit as a means of trying to dismember the UK,” he told the News Letter.

Mr Reynolds said Mr Varadkar was “part of the first cohort of post-Belfast Agreement era” politicians from the Republic who “didn’t quite get it”, when it came to understanding unionism.

“They didn’t get the complexity of the peace process, and its lots of little checks, balances and relationships,” he told The Irish News.

“Whenever it came to a choice of trying to manage relationships with unionism and the UK, or going all in with the EU, I never got the sense it was a thought for them.”

He concedes that Brexit presented unprecedented problems for the Irish government but argues that “by their choices they helped make it more difficult”.

“Ireland could have had more of a role of mediator instead it became a European Commission cheerleader,” the former Belfast councillor said.

“They were signing up to things where they knew themselves it would completely burn the relationship with unionism, and they didn’t blink.”

He suggests that as a consequence of Mr Varadkar’s actions post Brexit, unionisms relationship with Dublin is “not much better than it was post Anglo Irish agreement”

“We have to treat the relationship with extreme caution and a good degree of suspicion,” he said.

“It was easy for the Varadkar-led Irish government to throw their lot in with the European Commission, that was an easy one for them but it had a whole series of negative consequences in terms of the relationship with unionism and the UK.”

However, the former DUP adviser said an opportunity now existed to “reset relations”.

His advice for the incoming taoiseach in regards to mending relations with unionists is to “deal with Northern Ireland, don’t deal with Northern Ireland how you think it will play out in the southern politics”.

“Sinn Féin will be defeated in the south on issues in the south not on what happens or doesn’t happen in Northern Ireland,” he said.