The Irish government has just survived a precarious wobble which would have plunged Britain and Ireland into further chaos over a future Northern Ireland border. Until the resignation of Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Frances Fitzgerald earlier today, there was a clear and present danger of Leo Varadkar’s minority administration falling apart – all because of a police corruption imbroglio nobody in mainstream Irish politics seems prepared to grasp with both hands.
Hours ahead of a no-confidence motion Varadkar looked certain to lose, Fitzgerald declared she would be stepping aside ‘in the national interest’. Since May last year, the Fine Gael coalition, led by Varadkar, has been propped up by long-standing foe Fianna Fáil – populist Tweddledum to FG’s more chattering-class oriented Tweedledee (outsiders may struggle to discern the difference). Revelations that Fitzgerald may have had knowledge of a campaign against a police whistleblower threatened this brittle arrangement. Smelling blood, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin gave Varadkar an ultimatum: sack Fitzgerald or go to the polls.
The embattled Fitzgerald fought her corner, insisting she would in the long run be ‘vindicated’ by an independent investigation. Nonetheless, she stepped aside to spare the country ‘an unwelcome and potentially destabilising general election’. It was the definition of a sorry-not-sorry apology.
With the Brexit border stand-off ongoing, the prospect of dissolving the Dáil at this crucial juncture had been greeted by the public with a mixture of despair and incredulity. The general feeling is that Varadkar and his foreign minister Simon Coveney have played their hand strongly by threatening to veto a Brexit trade deal in the absence of written assurances regarding a ‘soft’ border.
What baffles many is why Varadkar didn’t instantly cut loose Fitzgerald. Though she had supported him in his party leadership victory over Coveney, there were surely limits to his loyalty. One generous, albeit far-fetched, reading is that he was playing a longer game. Had the government fallen as a result of tonight’s no confidence motion in Fitzgerald, it might not have been a disaster for Fine Gael. It’s not unthinkable that Varadkar would have been voted back in with a stronger majority – no longer dependent on Fianna Fáil’s ‘confidence and supply’ backing.
That’s partly due to the Taoiseach’s robust stance on Brexit but also because he’s far more articulate and presentable than befuddled predecessor Kenny. Ireland has for years despaired of politicians who sound as if they’d wandered in from a Father Ted remake. Varadkar, 38, cuts a dash that sets him apart from his incoherent predecessors. This has translated into an open-ended honeymoon in the polls, with approval ratings of over 50 per cent (a dizzying endorsement by Irish standards) and satisfaction in Fine Gael at 34 per cent (compared to 31 per cent for FF and 14 percent for Sinn Féin). Had the government tumbled, Varadkar could have blamed Fianna Fáil for undermining him – and the country – at a moment of genuine crisis. For now, however, the matter appears to have been set to rest. There will be no snap election and when Brexit wranglings resume, it will be boy-prince Varadkar sitting across from Theresa May daring her to blink.