Ireland: Europe’s new liberal icon?

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

This week Andrew Adonis discusses whether Ireland could be Europe's new liberal icon.

Wow. I've heard a few political speeches in my time but Leo Varadkar's speech welcoming the Pope to Ireland was something else. An oration which defines a nation.

Varadkar proclaimed a 'new Ireland' – open, tolerant, no longer in thrall to the Catholic church but respectful of all religions and peaceful ways of life. It was what Churchill called 'sunlit uplands'.

What made the speech great was the Taoiseach's recognition that what had gone wrong in Ireland in the past, including the appalling sexual abuse scandals involving priests, was not the church's fault alone. The problem lay also with the Irish state, which had contracted out virtually the entirety of the nation's education and social services to religious orders when it should have been doing – and properly overseeing – the job itself.

Varadkar offered the vision of a true leader. If I were Irish, I would be walking tall.

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I heard the speech while on a tour of Ireland's railways and everyone was talking about it – while, pointedly, not that many were at Phoenix Park attending the Pope's mass.

The trains ultimately took me to Northern Ireland – all too slowly because of the decrepit condition of the Dublin-Belfast main line, which needs improving radically. So no complacency Leo: now you have descended from the uplands, you need to sort out Ireland's infrastructure and get its economy moving.

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However, the situation which greeted me in Northern Ireland could not have been more depressing. In place of Varadkar, Arlene Foster, so narrow-minded and sectarian she declined even to meet the Pope.

Much worse, in an ultimate abdication of leadership, she won't even form a devolved government in Stormont as required under the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland is now more than 590 days without a functioning assembly or executive, longer even than Belgium which previously held the 'zombie government' world record for a 'democracy'.

Sinn Fein is seriously to blame too, but Foster is the sitting first minister and leader of the largest party. Everyone knows that her DUP has manufactured excuses – in particular its opposition to Irish language teaching in schools, which her party had previously supported – in order to avoid forming a government and take responsibility for decisions vital to the future of Northern Ireland.

Foster is hesitant about legalising same-sex marriage and abortion, where there is deep conservatism in her party – ironically the DUP is now the Vatican's praetorian guard – although this is now defining Northern Ireland as an international bastion of bigotry and reaction. If Foster can't lead on this she can't lead on anything.

However, Brexit is at the heart of the crisis in Belfast. Foster is anxious, above all, not to be implicated in Brexit. The DUP is playing a crude double game, claiming to favour a soft Brexit without customs or tariff borders affecting Ireland or the UK, while Foster and her party's deeply sectarian leadership in fact wants a hard border to reinforce divisions between the North and the Republic of Ireland, so long as it can blame the UK government.

Hence the DUP's vote in the House of Commons last month against even a customs union with the EU – the irreducible minimum to ensuring no hard border between the UK and Ireland.

Having spoken at Queen's University Belfast to a packed anti-Brexit meeting last month, I thought that on this visit I would do the same in Northern Ireland's second city – Derry or Londonderry, according to nationalist/unionist identification.

But I encountered a wholly unexpected problem. The city doesn't have a university! It has only a small campus of a university some distance away.

The reason for this is deeply revealing. The sectarian Stormont government refused to allow a university to be built here in the 1960s. Instead they set up Northern Ireland's second university in a unionist town, Coleraine, for the same discriminatory reasons that they had refused to invest in proper road and rail infrastructure to serve Derry/Londonderry, the effects of which I also experienced in a rail journey from Belfast even slower than the previous day's from Dublin to Belfast.

The tragedy is that the people of Northern Ireland don't see it this way. Whether nationalist or unionist, they want cross-community investment which benefits Northern Ireland as a whole.

So, Brexit is being manipulated by Foster and the DUP to fight yet another culture war with nationalists north and south of the Irish border. They are using their stranglehold over a weak Tory government without a parliamentary majority to connive both in hard Brexit and in the re-imposition of weak direct rule from Downing Street.

The test of good government for Northern Ireland is that the UK stays in the EU – and that one of the first acts of a new power-sharing Belfast executive is to establish a university in Derry/Londonderry. If they do, I will gladly attend the opening ceremony.

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