Leo Varadkar's protocol opportunity

For almost all of the long history of Dáil Éireann, the idea that any leader of Fianna Fáil would be regarded sympathetically by northern unionists at the same time as their Fine Gael counterpart was greeted with open hostility from the same quarter would have been dismissed as ludicrous.

However, that is where we find ourselves as, under a unique electoral arrangement, the position of taoiseach was amicably passed from Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin to his Fine Gael counterpart, Leo Varadkar, at the weekend.

Of course, northern political realities dictate that a softening of unionist attitudes to Mr Martin means that he would be swiftly viewed with growing suspicion by nationalists.

Such perceptions may be understandable but are also open to question as we go through another crucial phase of north/south relationships.

Mr Martin is in charge of an organisation which is still officially known as `Fianna Fáil – The Republican Party’, while Fine Gael has traditionally been associated with a very different approach to constitutional issues.

The outgoing taoiseach is far removed from the instincts of most of his Fianna Fáil predecessors, and a range of observers concluded that he was destined to be the first leader of his party who would never reach the top post.

He deserves full credit for the way in which his quiet determination to stick to his principles enabled him to eventually achieve his ambition, against all the odds, and to make a favourable impression in many areas.

Mr Martin’s personal commitment to the commendable Shared Island initiative was not just philosophical but tellingly financial, and has made a real difference in some hugely significant areas.

There will still be a sense that he took an unduly low key approach to the disturbing attempts by some DUP figures to raise artificial tribal tensions over the strongly beneficial protocol scheme which they initially endorsed and was always an inevitable outcome of the Brexit debacle.

Mr Varadkar knows he will now face not only concocted DUP pressures but also fringe loyalist threats as he takes up his second term of office, and will also be aware that, according to all recent opinion polls, his successor is increasingly likely to be Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin.

He will be familiar with the territory and has an early opportunity to facilitate a revised UK/EU protocol deal which is in the interests of all sections of our divided society.