Leo’s gone, in the wind.

He’s gone.

There was feverish media speculation of Wednesday morning that something big was going to happen in Dublin. The breathless anticipation of the ‘big’, an “earthquake” announcement spread across social media.

Yet Leo Varadkar had barely ended his statement when the camera cut away to the RTE studio and talk turned to who would take his job(s) as Prime Minister and leader of Fine Gael.


What was most extraordinary that morning was that no-one seemed to expect the Taoiseach might resign, or indeed that the resounding rejection of two referenda championed by the Government, wannabe Government Sinn Fein, and the entire progressive NGO symbiont would have any consequences. In the wake of that defeat, the progressive world seemed to shrug and move on. Nothing to see here.

Leo resigned for “reasons”. Personal and political. The personal seemed to be something something life being tough at the top. The political presumably that he would be a liability for Fine Gael in the upcoming local and European elections and for the coalition parties in the General Election that will be held sometime in the next twelve months.

Having to declare ‘I am not woke’ at a news conference in America was probably a low for Leo. It is unlikely he believed it would ever be necessary to explain himself. For he was once a political shining star.

Varadkar seamlessly progressed from Council to member of Parliament, building an impressive constituency base. On becoming Taoiseach Leo had never lost an election in his life. This was the ideal man. holding the promise of electoral success and restoration of Fine Gael fortunes that his predecessor Enda Kenny had let slip with an inconclusive election result and a minority Government limping along.

While Varadkar is often viewed as having heralded a more progressive Ireland over the past decade, in truth the heavy lifting had been already done by others. Taking over as Taoiseach in June 2017, in the wake of Trump and Brexit, Leo represented everything Ireland thought of itself in the world. Global, progressive, and firmly European.

Varadkar doubled down on Ireland as the global corporate tax haven of choice. His early tenure brought referenda on abortion and gay marriage. He vocally and practically supported the EU through Brexit, and joined La Francophonie – the French language based association of countries.

Yet in each of these are found ‘reasons’ why he is now gone.

Google ‘leprechaun economics’ to understand the fundamentals of how the Irish economy has benefited from being a global corporate tax haven of choice. This has resulted in healthy budget surpluses, talk of a national wealth fund, and apparent generosity to sending some Euros to favoured projects planned in Northern Ireland. The downside has been the hubris this enables, talking about a growing and successful economy while failing to make substantive progress in housing and health care.

The mix of the global and progressive saw referenda on abortion and gay marriage that gave Ireland its sense of having arrived in a modern progressive democracy. It also brought ideas of open borders and little barrier to migrants entering Ireland. Unwilling, and in any case unable, to support Ukraine militarily Ireland offered room for Ukrainian refugees. They came. So did many others.

Numbers of migrants in Ireland have swelled to a point where it has overwhelmed public services’ capacity to accommodate – administratively or practically. Attracted by liberal entry processes and generous benefits, the unwillingness, or inability, to reduce the scale of migration has created countrywide discontent among communities into which large numbers of migrants are suddenly placed. A country already with an acute shortage of housing, is being squeezed hard. Not without reason, the Government is blamed.

All that said, Varadkar might see his greatest triumph in Europe, even though it is also the foundation of his greatest failure.

Varadkar arriving as Taoiseach in the wake of Trump’s election as President of the United States and BREXIT!!!  Pressured on the issue of global tax and wishing to show he was a good European, having domestic issues that were irresolvable and with social progress delivering nothing more than a hug to Irish sense of self-regard, with that total lack of irony preserved for Irish Nationalism, Leo reached straight for the populist playbook and wrapped himself in the Irish tricolour.

With the EU he stoked the fire of a punishment Brexit on the UK. Leo deliberately raised the spectre of republican violence to the astonishment of Unionists who reasonably thought those days were over. Ireland became increasingly Anglophobic in public discourse. In Northern Ireland Leo’s deputy led a charge in alienating Unionists, ignoring the formalities of the Good Friday Agreement. Overall, Varadkar bought UK-Ireland relations to breaking point.

Of course, in his own defence, Varadkar might believe he achieved the paramount objective of Ireland’s place in the EU single market – socking it to neandertal unionists a bonus. The jury is still out. Nor is it his fault that the Conservative Government led by Theresa May was resolutely useless in negotiation and completely failed to push back on a first (always maximum) pitch from the EU.

It would be encouraging to believe that Varadkar is the latest casualty of the self-regarding global progressive that goes a step too far – the fall of Sturgeon should perhaps have sounded a warning; if it did, it went unheeded.

With less than a year of this Irish Government before a General Election all the issues it needed to address at the outset remain, with the added pressure of seemingly unrelenting migration creating added complications and challenges. A pending Hate Speech Bill seems an inadequate response to the issues impacting on the daily lives of the Irish voter.

Politics across Europe are in flux. While seeking to secure Ireland’s place in the EU and his own place among the leaders of the progressive world, he has left Ireland with all the top issues to address when he first entered the Taoiseach’s office in 2017. Ireland today is a smaller place. Leo leaves a smaller frame of public discourse with all the bitterness of a polarised country, the greatest divide being between the people and the politicians.

Varadkar’s relentless pursuit of self-interest, personal and national, was winning until it lost. Were it not for the British Government’s unrequited generosity of spirit Anglo-Irish relations would be in the dog-house. In Europe, Ireland is once again only one of 27 and while perhaps useful from time to time when dealing with the UK the dominant nations of the EU will return to regarding Ireland only as an afterthought.

The problem with selfishness is that in the end it only delivers for the one. And when it faces failure, no-one else is that there to give it a hug.

Leo is gone, and frankly no-one gives a damn.


This is a version of an article that was published online at THE CRITIC magazine.

Time to take a step back.

In all the talk about the restoration of a Stormont Assembly it is assumed that it is essential for the DUP to share power with Sinn Fein, the Alliance Party and the UUP. The SDLP are no longer in the mix.

Sinn Fein wants the First Minister role, desperately. Alliance wants to be relevant and be able to blame everyone else for why things don’t work.

The UUP believes that Stormont is needed to provide ‘leadership and governance’ – though leadership and governance this past twenty-five years has been in short supply, with few achievements of note (and none that spring to mind).

The DUP give every impression of wanting to return to Stormont, while also being hard to persuade that the time is right for that move.

The choice for the DUP is forever stated in simple terms – enter Stormont or something bad will happen; fear uncertainty, because uncertainty is surely failure and instability.

Other than that, the reasons given as to why it is essential for Stormont to return aren’t that great.

Nothing would be done by Stormont that would make one jot of difference about the cost of living – a free something here and there, and virtuous, expensive and pointless gestures elsewhere.

Stormont can do nothing about bank rates except write a few impotent letters expressing blah-de-blah.

Nothing on food prices. In fact nothing that is not already thought through and paid for by Westminster, such as the price of energy.

Costs will continue to rise as the NI Protocol is fully implemented – albeit with the heavy costs postponed until 2025 with Sunak long gone. The costs of doing business with Northern Ireland will increase, or goods will simply disappear from the shelves or as an option to buy online.

In any case, the solution, offered by all the Parties, is that Westminster needs to increase the NI budget. Less clear are the plans that would be implemented to both salve the cost of living and set on a road to recovery the health service, schools, infrastructure and all the things about which little has been done beyond consultation and ‘strategy’ papers for decades.

The DUP have talked about changing how Westminster funds the NI budget – moving away from the long-standing Barnett formula for matching, proportionately, spending announced at Westminster.

Does the DUP believe it would gain any political return on a claim to having secured extra funding? Every other Party is making a pitch for more cash for Stormont, ergo every other Party will claim success for securing the extra cash. The DUP should know there is zero political gain for securing that extra cash.

The DUP ‘secured’ £1 billion additional funding for Stormont arising from the 2017 Confidence & Supply arrangement with May’s Conservative Government, albeit with no Stormont existing for most of the period of the arrangement. Something health, something broadband network, something infrastructure?

Health cash was swallowed into the money pit that is the five Health Trusts and the rest.

Yes, all eleven local government areas are now in the top twenty areas for UK superfast broadband coverage. Few voters will recall how, where or when, or care, or understand the benefit.

One item though, yet unspent, stands out. The 2017 arrangement assured £140million for the long-awaited York Street Interchange – essential to reduce congestion and smooth traffic flow between motorway systems.

The money was available, but the SDLP Minister found there was a need for further consultation: for ‘placemaking’. Indeed. More likely, delay enabled the SDLP to prevent the DUP making political capital out of securing the funding as a positive outcome of its deal with the Conservative Government – particularly as the 2022 election loomed.

This should tell the DUP that unless there is a very specific agreed programme for government any resumed Stormont will continue with business as usual and spaff the cash.

The DUP has another choice, however. It could accept that being in the Executive does little but diminish any politician who wants to get things done. It could accept that the other parties mostly make decisions on how to delay or frustrate the DUP; that there will be no credit for the DUP in any delivery and all the blame for everything else.

Other than the titles and extra money, the DUP will achieve very little inside the Executive, because the Executive will achieve very little. There will be constant opposition to anything the DUP suggests, and a majority in the chamber to make sure the DUP is neutered.

The best choice might be to simply step back from the Executive and let the UUP share the top office with Sinn Fein, with Alliance in the choir stalls.

There are benefits for the DUP being the Assembly’s principal and principled Opposition.

The DUP would not have to make the Protocol work, in opposition – it will be outvoted at the end of 2024 on its continuance, and to be in Government would leave it with the responsibility and political fallout of having utterly failed to stop it being implemented rigorously by sometime in 2025 and beyond.

The DUP would be able to question and challenge delivery by the other three parties – it won’t be short of material. The Committee system could be used more astutely. Numbers in the Assembly assure nothing would pass without cross-community consent; no less power than being inside the Executive.

However the DUP might tell itself that a return to Stormont is justified, that should not mean a return to the Executive. Opposition is noble and has the potential to be reinvigorating.

Taking a step back is sometimes necessary before being able to leap forward.

A version of this post appeared in the News Letter 

The DUP doesn’t gamble, and hasn’t a death-wish.

Local Government in Northern Ireland is in essence little more than selecting people to ‘manage’  bin collections, burying the dead, providing leisure facilities, issuing fines for dog fouling and litter, and planning; maybe some other bits and pieces, but few notice or care. No surprise that reporting by the local media rarely focuses on local government performance. Instead it continues on report crudely through in the prism of constitutional division and sectarian headcount.

The recent May election was no different.


Back to the blog

Been busy with business and focused on the podcast as outlet rather than commenting here.

Time to return. There will be a little catch up on a piece or two, then back to the infrequent thoughts on stuff.

Podcast continues: PoliticalOD

Protocol, policing and polls.

Back after a summer with more conversation around issues hitting the political headlines, and some bubbling.  Events have moved quickly over the past week since this was recorded, but still very relevant by way of what lies behind some of the current news.

Anticipated in this podcast recorded on the 2 September, the Protocol ‘grace’ periods and delays are bumped down the road to maybe closer to Christmas. More likely more delay will then be generated going into 2022, until after the Assembly elections due in May. It would be highly embarrassing if the ‘rigourous implementation’ demanded by some were to actually happen before the election. Bad enough they’ll be eating beans on toast in Cherryvalley this Christmas.

Unremarked in that story from M&S was a warning on the likely impact of rules being applied to goods from all EU countries – the UK Government has so far not implemented import rules as it ought. Archie Norman is quoted as noting:

“This is not a one-way street. At the moment, the Irish Government is following EU guidelines and implementing their draconian controls. But by contrast, the UK has allowed EU products to continue to flow into the country, no veterinary checks, no border inspection.

“Starting in October, that is going to change when UK Government rules are set to mirror those of the EU. So in a mutual act of self-destruction, we risk lumbering French cheese producers and Spanish chorizo manufacturers with the same costs as we have faced trying to export food to the EU.”

He said “delays, driver shortages and paper mountains could be spectacular”.

A sigh of relief all round today with the extension of ‘grace’ periods in respect of the NI Protocol. That relief will be short-lived in the Republic as the full impact of Brexit on imports into the UK are to start soon, with the biggest changes in January.  From Dublin, with a very subdued Leo Varadkar commenting on UK news outlets about the delay in implementation of the Protocol: Leo of course knows that the food will hit the fan on exports Republic of Ireland to GB (East-West) around the same time as he takes back control of Leinster House.

Meanwhile, the Simon Byrne, PSNI Chief Constable, looks less and less in control of anything much. Just a week after a row about failure to address open displays by paramilitaries he finds himself ‘explaining’ when the PSNI undertook survey work, using a group associated with a convicted terrorist with whom his previous engagement wasn’t a PR success.

This can’t be a problem for the Chief Constable alone. As Suzanne Breen points out, there is an army of advisers that are either ignored or fairly useless if the path taken in this Report on policing was considered credible.

It is a presumption of incredible naivety that survey work undertaken by the Community Restorative Justice Ireland would lend credibility to determining recommendations on policing. That the Strategic Management Board of the PSNI thought this was a Report worth accepting in principle is astounding – either not knowing or not being remotely curious on what basis the recommendations were made.

Other Surveys and Polls have also been in the news. The Let’s Talk Loyalism survey is what it is, and doesn’t pretend to be anything more. The group generated a means of expressing views from within a specified community and used bit of online software to do that. The published report doesn’t hide its methodology or the limitations.

Some have been very quick to attack this on the basis that it called for the “collapsing of Stormont.” That missed the point by a mile. The survey didn’t pretend to be scientific and simply provided a snapshot on thinking with a particular community. It is a contribution on what is happening on the ground, on the street, in conversations around the country. Better trying to articulate views than have them played out on the street. The initiative should be commended and by all means address the issues raised, but don’t shoot the messenger.

Lucid Talk. If anyone had background doubts on how Lucid Talk conducts online polling in Northern Ireland the interview on the Stephen Nolan Show won’t have eliminated those questions.

At best, anyone out and about over the summer, speaking to actual people, can’t have been surprised at the headlines around the poll. They indicate what those very observant dogs in the street are all talking about. The DUP needs to show some capacity to deliver on promises, and an uncomfortable and despairing shift to Alliance by some UUP voters seem to have been reversed.

The TUV strength are no surprise. While there are many who doubt Jim Allister as a future First Minister, or would agree with policies of the TUV outside ‘Unionist’ issues, he is hugely respected as a person of principle. On the dominant issue of the day, he is head and shoulders above the others – he was one of the three instigators of the Judicial Review of the Protocol winding its way through the legal system, to which the others joined. The basis of that JR was covered in a previous podcast. Jim Allister acted while others talked.

Of course the only poll that matters is the electoral poll. The next Assembly Election is due in May 2022, which maybe sooner, or later, if ever at all.

The DUP is unlikely to roll-over between now and election, and may even endeavour to trigger one sooner than later.

Time will tell. Looks like there will be plenty to talk about with @3000Versts as we head into what promises to be a lively Autumn.

Crisis of confidence

The latest Political OD podcast was recorded before the widespread calls for the resignation of the PSNI’s Chief Constable, following the usual pass the buck to the PPS which then had to consider a base of evidence that could be described as less than slam-dunk to secure a conviction. Morally, publicly, reprehensible as Sinn Fein actions were at the Storey funeral the PPS could only work with the files before it.

The story being built around the Storey funeral suggests ‘everyone’ is confused on both law and responsibilities, including those who wrote the law and those who might be expected to uphold the law. The public does not share that ambiguity in respect of what happened at that funeral.

All this within a year after the first Covid lockdown, and notably just over a year of New Decade “New” Approach. The relationships between the Parties making up the Northern Ireland Executive seem to be little better than 2017 (when the Assembly last collapsed). The ability of our institutions to address anything much with a degree of competence seems, at best, little improved on earlier incarnations.

Devolution is not delivering. Is this institutional, or simply that those at the head lack the competence/experience/imagination? By way of example, the further delay to the York Street Interchange infrastructure project – £140 million allocated in 2017 –  because of ‘place making’ has the public rolling its eyes. It is a motorway junction causing untold travel misery for commuters and delays for businesses. We don’t need to ‘make’ a place, we need to make a start!

The public is being played for a fool. Either Stormont steps up, or it needs to step out of the way. Honestly, between 2017 and 2020 most people happily got on with their lives and had Stormont not been resuscitated in early 2020 few believe we would be in a worse place today. Next time the Assembly collapses, let’s make sure a DNR is in place.

Double trouble for SMEs

The recent UK Budget provided small comfort to small businesses in excluding many from the proposed corporation tax increases.

In Northern Ireland that was indeed small comfort to many small businesses. They are doubly troubled. Burdened by the NI Protocol and supply issues that impact directly on competitiveness within the UK internal market, and battered by the indecision of the Northern Ireland Executive’s Covid Roadmap that is long on words, short on anything that much informs anyone.

“Can’t have people in complete darkness as to what comes next,” declared the Health Minister (Nolan Live, 3 March). The NI Exec seems not have found the light switch. The small incremental easements, for which the population is to be grateful no doubt, is hard to accept because there is little explanation as to why the information being used by the NI Health Department is so different from SAGE, and what Matt Hancock gets across his desk, to provide such an incoherent and unjustifiable extension of lockdown restrictions.

For small businesses lack of dates, targets or hope of opening anytime soon is an added blow at a time when the NI Protocol is proving to be a massive headache to sustaining business competitiveness within the UK and customer service locally – “Eight days for carrots to get to Belfast”.

Over on Think Scotland the impact of the NI Protocol is explained in more detail, but worth repeating a number of examples of how this is affecting three very different businesses:

ONE: A small haulier, employing just 15 people in the Belfast docks area is concerned that it lacks the resources to support customers, with large hauliers employing teams of people to do nothing other than input data into the systems.

TWO: A General Store in a small market town sources many items from GB. The store has successfully moved online. The business has two major challenges. Many of the sources of GB product have decided that the hassle of wading through the new rules is not worth the effort and have declined to provide goods to Northern Ireland. Those that have persisted with sending goods to Northern Ireland have increased cost to cover both time and effort spent in facilitating sales and delivery. For the store, there has been greater time spent trying to find alternative sources of goods – often at greater cost – but the range available to customers has declined and the cost increased. That is probably true of any local competitor to the store owner. The greatest impact, however, has been online, where reduced range and greater costs means the NI store has found itself to be uncompetitive with GB retailers online who do not have to bear the same challenges.

THREE: A local distributor for a sports goods business based on the South coast of England notes that his business is seasonal, low volume, though high value. After two months wading through the process to try to register as ‘goods not at risk’ (of entering the EU Single Market) he has discovered the requirement, monthly for ‘Supplementary Declarations’These seem incredibly complex for such a small and discrete business.

These are businesses that represent jobs, people, livelihoods that are invisible to policy makers and politicians. Hidden from the consumer because while we are in lockdown the supermarkets are all we see, the plight of small businesses including much of hospitality is barely mentioned at Stormont press events.

What happens when small businesses are expected to emerge from lockdown?

How many will simply give up?

How many will try to remain open, only to be overwhelmed by the challenges of the Protocol, accumulated lockdown debts, and a shrinking high street that means much reduced footfall?

That matters a lot in Northern Ireland; an SME dominated economy with 80% of NI private sector employment in SMEs (compared with under 60% for the UK).  The small acorns that represent present economy and future growth are being smothered by inadequate political leadership on the NI Protocol and an incoherent disassembled response to Covid.


The PoliticalOD podcast is available on Podbean, as well as being available for download/subscription from Apple, Spotify and most other regular services…  

Follow @3000Versts and @thedissenter on Twitter

Calculating risk

The Protocol was always intended, as the backstop was before that, to tie the UK to a relationship dominated by the EU.

The tensions in NI with respect to the operation of the Protocol will only intensify while the UK Government resists the EU in efforts to lasso the UK back into the subservient relationship.

The (almost) triggering of Article 16 at the end of January showed how little the EU cared, not even with a passing thought, for the Good Friday Agreement or for its ever faithful member of the EU27 the Republic of Ireland.

Not hard to understand how those who demanded the NI Protocol be ‘implemented rigourously’ to assure NI’s Special relationship should demand a UK/EU SPS agreement to soften the Protocol; just like Switzerland? What that means, in essence, is more Europe. A step towards a sequence of agreements that would in effect take the UK ever closer back towards Brussels.

The podcast at the top of the page discusses how the Protocol was never about the Good Friday Agreement, or ‘best of both worlds’ but a desire for the EU to create a Trojan horse to be a thorn in the UK’s side , and by a Conservative leader desperate to move out of the Brexit mess he was bequeathed by the previous Prime Minister.

There is no doubt the EU believes anything entering Northern Ireland is a risk to the Single Market – a absolutist legal hold – a M&S ready meal could bring down the German economy in one thoughtless purchase at Sprucefield.

Risk, however, is relative. That idea needs to gain a lot more currency to break through what seems at present to be an impasse.

Not that the idea of absolutism is too far from the thinking of the Northern Ireland Department of Health. Despite indications that the vaccination programme is already having a positive impact on the number of over 80 year old Inpatients, the Chief Medical Officer was reported to believe that restrictions would stay in place until 2022. If vaccines are to be of little impact on restrictions, what will see an end to the confinement that is increasingly frustrating and damaging to the economy and personal sanity.

The PoliticalOD podcast is available on Podbean as well as Google, Apple, Spotify, Amazon and a host of other places – basically most places you might usually download or listen to podcasts. 

Tiocfaidh ar latte!

The final segment of this episode of the podcast with @3000Versts is insightful commentary from the Financial Times, that a United Ireland is imminent because there are posh East Belfast coffee shops. Who knew?

The remarkable ability to put apples and oranges together and calling it bowl of bananas is a communications trait that seems to be all too prevalent in public discourse, and perhaps the underlying theme of this Episode. The theatre of a disorganised riot becomes an ‘insurrection, while democracy is lauded within a cordon of tens of thousands of armed troops. Lockdown is the only policy to ‘protect the NHS’, as if there was no alternative, and ‘freedom’ must be sacrificed for an institution of state? Slightly longer than usual, for big topics.