British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had to fidget uncomfortably as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar delivered some home truths as the two leaders met in Dublin.
Johnson had come for talks about the Northern Ireland border issue as Britain prepares to leave the European Union.
The arguments are now well rehearsed. After Brexit, the Northern Ireland border becomes the UK’s border with the European Union and so there will be a need for customs checks. But no one wants to see customs posts acting as a barrier between north and south as that would be against the Good Friday agreement that ushered in the peace process.
Failure to solve the problem brought down the previous Prime Minister Theresa May and now it threatens Mr Johnson with the same fate. His response so far has been to say that he will take out Britain out of the EU on October 31 with or without an agreement over Northern Ireland, trade or any other issue.
This ‘No Deal’ approach would be a popular move with many Brexit supporters in Britain as they feel it would bring an end to the long running and, for most people, tedious process of leaving the EU. Many people, encouraged by Johnson, believe this ‘clean break’ would put an end to all the arguments and Britain could just get back to normal again.
Varadkar was quick to dispel that idea. As the two men stood shoulder to shoulder, he told an uncomfortable looking Johnson: “The story of Brexit will not end if the United Kingdom leaves on October 31 or even January 31.
“There is no such thing as a clean break. No such thing as ‘just getting it done’. Rather, we just enter a new phase.”
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Varadkar emphasised that after the UK leaves and the looks to negotiate a deal with the EU “the only items on the agenda will be citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Irish Border”.
“In the absence of agreed alternative arrangements, no backstop (to deal with the Irish border) is no deal for us.
“We are open to alternatives, but they must be realistic ones, legally binding and workable and we haven’t received such proposals to date.”
“What we cannot do and will not do, and I know you understand this, is agree to the replacement of a legal guarantee with a promise.”
Many opponents of Brexit in the UK point out that it would have a devastating effect on the British economy by costing thousands, even millions, of jobs and make the country poorer.
Varadkar then referenced this potential damage by saying that renegotiating deals with the EU and the US to avoid this devastation would be a Herculean task. Using calm, classical language that were deadly in their implications, he added that Ireland would do its best to help. “We want to be your friend and ally, your Athena, in doing so.”
It seems an innocuous enough statement but Varadkar knows that Johnson, who studied classics at university, would understand the implications. In Greek mythology, Hercules went mad and started to destroy everything around him, even killing his own children. Athena stepped in to prevent him going any further and to limit the damage.
The implication, of course, is that Britain has gone temporarily mad in choosing Brexit, and it was up to friends like Ireland to be the voice of reason to try to limit the damage.
The Taoiseach’s office later issued a statement denying that the reference was a thinly veiled barb aimed at Johnson and was in fact a compliment: “It’s well known that Boris is into his classics and literature, and the Taoiseach meant the Herculean reference as a compliment, the entire meeting was supposed to be complimentary.
“He wanted to reference Boris’s interests, and meant it as a positive, nothing more should be taken from it than that.”
Few took the denial seriously, however, and Athena was soon trending on Twitter.
This is a clip from Varadkar’s statement with Johnson standing alongside him.
Irish Taoiseach @LeoVaradkar telling Boris Johnson some hard truths about Brexit, to his discomfort.— Mike Galsworthy (@mikegalsworthy) 9 September 2019
If only our own government were honest enough also to communicate this clear & blunt reality to the UK public.pic.twitter.com/ZgU2JqgFd5
This speech was widely reported in the UK, with many anti-Brexit campaigners comparing the statesmanship of Varadkar with the shuffling, rambling style of Johnson
Tom Watson is the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.
This is utterly humiliating. Reasoned and statesmanlike from the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Johnson, on the other hand, shrinking literally and figuratively in the face of a few home truths. https://t.co/AWlv0xPinb— Tom Watson (@tom_watson) September 9, 2019
This clip of Leo Varadkar shredding Brexit in front of Boris Johnson is the most uncomfortable thing you'll see today https://t.co/RSH74M5Edo
Interested in discovering more about your Irish roots? This free online genealogy course with Strathclyde University shows you how to trace your family tree and also covers the use of DNA testing in genealogical research.— indy100 (@indy100) September 9, 2019
Our Future Our Choice is an anti-Brexit youth campaign group
Here's Boris Johnson in Dublin finding out from Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that all of his plans for after Brexit are doomed to fail. pic.twitter.com/KVCVB5MlbV— Our Future, Our Choice (@OFOCBrexit) September 9, 2019
David Schneider is a British comedy writer and producer
Leo Varadkar, the adult in the room, telling naughty boy Boris the adult truth that No Deal means the UK goes back to square one to negotiate on citizens rights, the divorce bill and the Irish border, only this time we’ll be on fire. pic.twitter.com/0M7XmhhImY— David Schneider (@davidschneider) September 9, 2019