Meet Ireland’s new power pair

Polar opposites, Leo Varadkar and Arlene Foster together must help the Irish people navigate political and economic minefields

Last week, I saw a photo of two Irish politicians standing together after a meeting in Dublin. One, Leo Varadkar, is the Republic of Ireland’s new prime minister. The other, Arlene Foster, is the leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

It would be hard to imagine a more unlikely pair.

Varadkar is cool, hip and openly gay. Foster is a sternly old-fashioned type who leads a party opposed to same-sex marriage.

But differences notwithstanding, the two have substantial interests in common.

Varadkar comes to power at a moment of significant peril for the Republic of Ireland. Because it depends on unencumbered access to the United Kingdom market, the Republic will suffer severely if the Brexit negotiations go awry. And with the DUP critical to keeping Theresa May’s Conservatives in power at Westminster, Foster’s party is in a position to influence the shape that Brexit takes.

Varadkar’s story would have been impossible in the Ireland I grew up in. Or, for that matter, in the Ireland of even 30 years ago. After all, male homosexuality wasn’t decriminalized in the Republic until 1993.

But in a dramatic example of the sea change in social attitudes, Varadkar’s sexual orientation wasn’t an impediment to his spectacular rise. Yes, his leadership contest support was greater with the political class than with his party’s rank and file, thus suggesting an establishment insider tilt to his candidacy. However, a win is a win.

Navigating the Brexit storm will be one challenge to Varadkar’s premiership. Another may come from his governing philosophy, which has been described as centre-right.

Indeed, critics have labelled him as “Thatcherite,” claiming that if he were English, he’d be a Tory and if he were American, he’d be a Republican. In the Irish political context, none of these designations are intended as compliments.

Attitude-wise, Varadkar has identified with the striving ethic. He wants, he says, to champion “those who get up early in the morning.” Accordingly, his policy paper argues for reducing marginal tax rates.

There’s this: “The marginal tax rate is too high and people start paying it at incomes that are far too modest.” And this: “Nobody should pay more than 50 per cent in income tax and social insurance on any euro they earn.”

Somewhere, Ronald Reagan’s ghost is nodding approval.

If things go well, Varadkar’s rightward inclinations won’t be politically fatal and might even be seen as beneficial reforms. But if it goes wrong, he’ll be a “posh boy” whose “privileged” upbringing – father a doctor, private education, medical degree – insulated him from everyday pressures.

In contrast to Varadkar’s benignly tranquil background, Foster’s childhood had some challenging moments. These came courtesy of Northern Ireland’s infamous “Troubles.”

Born Arlene Kelly to a unionist family in the border county of Fermanagh, Foster was eight-years-old when “her father, a part-time policeman, was shot and injured by the IRA on the family farm.” As a teenager, violence visited again, via the bombing of her school bus. The driver – a part-time soldier – was the target.

Whether from these experiences or natural inclination, Foster’s political persona is characterized by an explicit toughness. If you’re on her side, you might call it flinty skepticism. If not, you may find her rigidly intransigent.

Interestingly, although the idea of the DUP coming to a “confidence-and-supply” arrangement with the Westminster Tories has given rise to progressive conniptions, the most likely outcome of such a deal would be one that progressives would normally applaud. True to its populist ethos, the DUP will want to push the Tories to the left on the economic aspects of social policy.

Then there’s Brexit.

The DUP is for Brexit. Foster puts it this way: “We want to see a Brexit that works for everybody, not just in Northern Ireland from my perspective but in the Republic of Ireland as well, so it is about a sensible Brexit.”

In effect, this means maintaining the current open border and trading relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic. In turn, this presupposes something very close to free trade between the post-Brexit U.K. – of which Northern Ireland is a part – and the European Union.

London, Belfast and Dublin will go for that. But without British concessions in other areas, Brussels mightn’t be so keen.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit. 

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