Patrick Murphy: Leo Varadkar has gone all republican in a bid to head off Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy is an Irish News columnist and former director of Belfast Institute for Further and Higher Education.

Leo Varadkar recently complained about how "we were forced to accept partition" 100 years ago
Leo Varadkar recently complained about how "we were forced to accept partition" 100 years ago

What appears to be the biggest political theft since the Northern Bank robbery is currently under way in Dublin.

Masterminded by Leo Varadkar, it involves Fine Gael stealing Sinn Féin's political clothes. (No, not the constitutional nationalist clothes which SF stole from the SDLP. These are the republican clothes they wear at parades, commemorations and elections.)

For the first time since partition, Fine Gael (FG) is claiming to be republican. Leo recently complained about how "we were forced to accept partition" 100 years ago. In a significant contribution to rewriting history, he appears to have forgotten that his political predecessors shot 77 anti-partition prisoners during the civil war (the British executed 24 in the War of Independence) and carried out the Ballyseedy massacre.

They also used British-supplied field guns to bombard the anti-partition forces in Dublin's Four Courts. So who was forcing whom to accept partition?

The Taoiseach has gone all republican to head off his election rivals, mainly in SF, but also in Fianna Fáil. To do so, he wields unbridled nationalism as a symbolic political cudgel to flay Ireland's old enemy (the Brits, bad cess to them) in the uncertain world of Brexit.

Rather oddly, he is being helped by Mary Lou McDonald, who appears intent on moving into the political space vacated by FG. For example, on Monday she adopted FG's policy by saying that she was in no hurry for a border poll, which is SF's sole remaining weapon (if you know what I mean) for a united Ireland.

But on Tuesday, in a Trump-like reversal, she wanted the referendum "as soon as possible". Perhaps she just mis-spoke. We can only hope so, because she was also reported as saying that in a united Ireland she would be prepared to dump the Irish national flag and the national anthem. (Will the next step be offering to re-write the Proclamation?)

That puts Mary Lou in danger of repeating Martin McGuinness's mistake of unnecessarily going too far ahead of the party's grassroots, a situation which was retrieved only when Gerry Adams pulled SF out of Stormont. She might usefully follow the example of Michelle O'Neill, who speaks less often but more selectively, an approach which leaves her more politically grounded.

So we are watching a contest between Leo and Mary Lou, two privately educated politicians, over the Mise Éire award for Irish flag waving (if Mary Lou can decide on which flag to wave). They are competing equally in the Mise part of the award, but Leo is easily winning the Éire bit.

But SF is not Leo's main threat. That comes from Fianna Fáil (FF), which currently keeps his minority government afloat through a confidence and supply arrangement. Neither FG nor FF want an election until the Brexit dust has settled, presumably next year.

That leaves Stormont on hold until then, because SF will not fight a southern election while responsible for the current social and economic chaos in the north. It also denies SF an opportunity to make electoral inroads into the Dáil, which is why the party has taken the high-risk strategy of contesting the presidential race as a phoney election.

Meanwhile, Leo needs time to put his personal stamp on FG, in the manner of Tony Blair (and like Blair, his downfall may be his reliance on spin over substance.) Fianna Fáil, which styles itself as the Republican Party, requires time to re-clothe and adopt the hitherto scantily clad orphans in the SDLP, in preparation for next year's northern local elections. This will create a new all-Ireland party or at least an alliance to match Sinn Féin.

(When this column suggested a few years ago that the SDLP's only way forward was the now expected link with FF, it received an indignant riposte from the party. But, as always, yesterday's indignation has become today's mainstream thinking.)

That leaves SF hemmed in by FG and about to be challenged by a new all-Ireland tie-up between FF and the SDLP (called Fianna Fáil-SDLP, the Republican Party?). With the SDLP and Fine Gael posing as neo-republicans and Sinn Féin fitting on Fine Gael's shoes, everyone will soon be wearing someone else's clothes.

All of this has been triggered by Leo Varadkar's opportunism in wrapping the green flag around him to gain support over Brexit. Sinn Féin's reaction suggests that maybe what is happening in Dublin is not a robbery after all. It is becoming increasingly like an auction, where the party is offering its clothes to the highest bidder - which has allowed Fine Gael to dress themselves as unlikely boys of the old brigade. In Ireland, Brexit means political cross-dressing.