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Leo Varadkar was subjected to sustained abuse in the UK during Brexit negotiations

Varadkar’s inability to develop a relationship with British prime minister Theresa May marked a low point

Leo Varadkar, even to his closest friends, is not a natural diplomat, though few Irish politicians ever took as much sustained abuse in the UK as he did during the Brexit negotiations.

Sometimes it bordered on racist. “Why isn’t he called Murphy like all the rest of them?” the then British prime minister Boris Johnson said jocosely to one of his Downing Street team during the height of the negotiations.

Anglo-Irish relations by then were poisoned by London’s attempts to get out of the European Union on its terms alone. Finding it incomprehensible that its wishes were being thwarted, it proved impossible for some Conservatives, such as lead negotiator David Frost, that Ireland was acting in its own interests, that it had agency and that it was not simply acting as the mouthpiece for dark forces in Brussels, as they were seen by some in the UK.

Varadkar, his Fine Gael colleague Simon Coveney, and Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin were the face of that position on British television screens, where clean, crisp messaging on the Irish side favourably contrasted with the confused pronouncements of various Conservative ministers.


Varadkar’s best day came in Thornton Manor Hotel on the Wirral outside Liverpool in October 2019 when he met Johnson, who was by then desperate for a deal since he had realised that the House of Commons would never accept a no-deal Brexit.

In 90 minutes of talks on their own at the wedding venue the two laid the basis for the deal that formed the basis of the later agreement that cleared the way for the UK’s departure from the EU, but kept Northern Ireland inside the EU single market.

An agreement that day had not been expected. The outcome surprised Brussels’ officials, who were initially sceptical, but little in it was subsequently altered when EU negotiator Michel Barnier teased out the details.

Varadkar had a clear understanding of how much Brussels would accept and he was prepared to act. The subsequent difficulties could not be laid at his door after Johnson made clear that he had no intention of honouring his word.

Why did Leo Varadkar choose this moment to go?

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If the Wirral was a good day Varadkar’s inability to develop a relationship with Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, marked a lower point, where the socially-awkward Varadkar met the even more socially-awkward Conservative.

“Enda Kenny would have made it his business to build a relationship with her, no matter what it took, or how hard he had to work at it. Leo just isn’t made that way, he couldn’t,” said one individual who observed their interactions.

Would better relations have mattered in the end? Perhaps not, since May was unable to sell the deal she reached with the European Union in 2018 that included the now-famous “backstop”, but which her backbenchers would never accept.

More negatively Varadkar became a lightning rod for unionists, “the venomous interloper in Northern Ireland’s internal affairs is resigning! No loss!” cried the leader of Traditional Unionist Voice party Jim Allister on Wednesday.

However, he got up the noses of more equable unionists than Allister too, especially with his frequent remarks about Irish unity. He was entitled to voice his views, say many, but why rile people for no immediate return, say others.

For some it was generational.

“Micheál Martin is closer in age to some of these people. He understands the way you have to talk to people if you’re sitting down with the Orange Order,” said one observer. “Leo never did; never wanted to either.”

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