Plámás is an Irish word that lacks a precise English equivalent. It means a special kind of empty flattery, disingenuous praise, or pleasing, but soft-soaping, bullshit, offered the better to smooth over a particular difficulty or advance towards a particular objective.
It is the currency, the bread-and-butter, of Irish politics where everyone is a ‘grand man’ or a ‘gas fella’ and all things may be possible, at all times, for all people. You may divide Irish politicians between the natural plámásers (Charlie Haughey, for
instance) and those for whom it is a learned but never fluent skill (Garret Fitzgerald). Most of the time, the naturals win.
Leo Varadkar is not a natural. There are some wise folk in Ireland who think Anglo-Irish relations might be a little less fraught right now if he were. The Taoiseach says what he thinks and may, on occasion, say it a little too obviously. He is not a Bertie Ahern or even an Enda Kenny, each of whom might have made a greater show of flattering the British during these wretched, interminable, Brexit negotiations.
But when you look at some of the commentary on Ireland published in this country lately you can see why the Irish despair at the turn events have taken. Nick Watt, political editor of Newsnight, quoted a once-modernising Tory grandee who complained that ‘We simply cannot allow the Irish to treat us like this. This simply cannot stand. The Irish really should know their place.’ I am afraid this was a revealing moment and certainly one treated as such in Dublin.
Nor, I’m afraid, was this a rogue iteration of the fundamental view in Whitehall. Back in November 2017, according to two sources cited by RTE’s Tony Connelly, Theresa May told Donald Tusk that all this nonsense about the Irish question was a deplorable distraction. After all, the UK is a ‘much bigger and more important country than Ireland’. Know thy place, Paddy.
Now, according to Brendan O’Neill of this parish, the way Varadkar talks about Britain is ‘astonishing’. Since most of Varadkar’s comments have amounted to a statement of the bleeding obvious – namely, that the UK is plainly divided over Brexit and it has not always been easy to establish quite what its government is trying to achieve – you need to be a feeble-hearted contrarian to find any of it in the least bit astonishing.
But then it is striking how so many rock-ribbed tellers of unpopular truths suffer from fainting fits whenever someone else dares to question even some of their assumptions. How very dare they! According to O’Neill, however, Varadkar holds ‘the elitist, practically imperial belief that what is good for his government – his foreign government – is more important than what the British people themselves, in their millions, voted for’.
I have some unwelcome news here. As The Onion might put it, ‘Ireland is own country; has laws’. This may be a matter of some regret but, alas, it cannot be avoided. So it would be strange indeed if Varadkar took the view that the British interest in Brexit was more important to Ireland than the Irish interest in Brexit. Were he to suggest that, one can only hazard at the coffee-house snark he’d attract from the descendants of the Revolutionary Communist Party.
The more lurid type of Brexiteer cannot quite decide whether Varadkar is scared witless by Sinn Fein or if he is instead, and more darkly, a fellow-traveller. No amount of pointing out that neither of these two propositions passes any kind of muster will dissuade some Brexiteers from presuming that the reunification of Ireland is the Taoiseach’s long-term goal and that, consequently, Brexit is being leveraged to this end. Truly, Brexitland is a fantastical world.
It is true that some Ulster Unionists also think this but then they always have a nose for victimhood. It has been dispiriting to see formerly sane and empathetic Unionists such as John Taylor scurrying down the rabbit-holes of Paddying conspiracy. Elsewhere on the Unionist spectrum, it is hard to avoid the suspicion the DUP object to the backstop precisely because – if invoked, as no-one actually wants it to be – it would avoid the kind of hard border with which, as a psychological rather than practical matter, they are instinctively comfortable. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom but the pretence Armagh is no different from Aldershot, or Fermanagh the same as Folkestone has always been just that: a pretence. Northern Ireland is British but it is also Irish and sometimes more the latter than the former even as, on other occasions and in other places, the reverse is often the case too.
Be that as it may, there was never any certainty the border issue would become this kind of issue. That it has done so owes much to the decisions taken, and declarations made by the British government itself. When Theresa May said she wanted to no return to ‘the borders of the past’ and would do everything to avoid a so-called ‘hard border’ she helped define the parameters of negotiation herself. As Varadkar has said, ‘It’s reasonable for us to expect a country like the United Kingdom to stand by its commitments’.
I suppose unreasonable people will disagree with that but there you have it. There’s no pleasing some people.
None of this has happened in secret. You only needed to listen to RTE or read the Irish Times to appreciate what was going on. It is a sad part of Brexit that so many people who demonstrate no willingness or ability to hear what is being said in other European capitals assume this lack of interest or deficit of attention also applies in the other direction. They can hear us, you know, even if we are not interested in hearing them. In the Irish case this is particularly inexcusable; they even speak a form of English over there.
From the outset, the Irish were concerned the UK would successfully cleave the Irish interest from the EU’s other, larger, interest in coming to a swift and mutually satisfactory deal with the UK. Preventing that must rank as one of the most successful acts of Irish diplomacy in living memory. For all that the EU has a certain sympathy for the interests of small countries, that sympathy is not inexhaustible. Leave no country behind may be the official theory; in practice matters are often arranged differently. Indeed, that supposition underpinned the Brexiteer belief that Berlin, not Brussels, would be the city in which the real action could be found. Unlike the British, however, the Irish deployed the full force of their diplomatic resources to the struggle and, lo, that has proved a wise decision. They took Brexit seriously at a time when, it being neither popular nor profitable, the British themselves were not inclined to do so. Disgraceful and characteristic Hibernian subterfuge, but there you have it.
As for the notion Varadkar is either scared of or in secret sympathy with Sinn Fein, well one hardly knows where to start. The balance of probability – which is to say all the available evidence, plainly on public display – is that he is neither. Irish political parties take their histories seriously and Fine Gael considers itself the offspring of the party that established the Irish state. For decades Sinn Fein refused to recognise the legitimacy of that state; there were two statelets on the island of Ireland and they were each bastards. Mind you, ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá’ is a Brexiteer conviction, not a Fine Gael one.
For the record, I just about overlapped with Leo Varadkar at Trinity College Dublin but, being neither a medic nor an activist in Young Fine Gael, I never knew him. Still, in terms of Varadkar’s formation, the fact he is a Trinity man is just as significant as his political leanings. That does not make him a West Briton – in actual fact, most of the West Brits I know are from Cork – but it remains striking he is the first Taoiseach to have attended Ireland’s oldest university. As recently as 25 years ago, there was a sense – especially in rural Ireland – of Trinity as a place apart; an institution whose Irishness was both prestigious and provisional. Back then, Irish was not so easily recognised as being, like British, a plural adjective.
Those days now seem to belong to a different era but the idea Varadkar pines for a united Ireland is as preposterous as it is delusional. If there has been a hardening or Irish tone, it is at least in part the consequence of how the Brexiteers have talked about Ireland. In terms of policy, however, there has been little substantive difference between Varadkar’s position and that taken by his predecessor Enda Kenny. And for good reason, because this is not simply the Fine Gael position; rather is represents a solid, and unusual, cross-party consensus that Brexit is going to be a problem for Ireland whatever kind of Brexit is arrived at.
It is not necessary to invoke the spectre of food shortages in Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit to appreciate that Ireland, by reason of history and economic interest, has more to lose from Brexit than any other European country. Minimising that disruption has been Varadkar’s goal and it seems unreasonable for Brexiteers, drunk on sovereignty themselves, to be complaining that Ireland has been pressing its own sovereign interest.
Even so, it has not always been easy. There has been an undercurrent of worry. Might the EU, when push came to shove, tell the Irish to pipe down and count their blessings while the big people moved on to talk about more important things? That dog has not barked and that is quite an achievement for Ireland.
As I say, however, Ireland’s efforts have been helped by the British government’s own declarations and if those were incompatible – leaving everything while avoiding a new kind of border in Ireland – then that was London’s problem more than it was Dublin’s. You broke it, you fix it.
The Irish gamble – and it is still a gamble – is that London will eventually accept the backstop if only because the consequences of a no-deal Brexit will soon be considered intolerable. That, it seems, is also the direction in which the UK government is heading.
You publicise preparations for no deal precisely because you want to avoid no deal and this is a means by which heads may, at long last, be banged together and minds concentrated. In an interdependent age, there is no such thing as a ‘clean Brexit’.
This, plainly, is a risk for Dublin too but I am not so sure it is really deplorable for Ireland to advance its interpretation of the national interest. Sovereignty for me must mean sovereignty for thee. Those are the terms and conditions. Again, for the slow learners, Ireland is own country, possesses own interest. It is a small country, right enough, but not so very far away it’s unreasonable to expect anyone to know anything about it.