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How Ireland’s leader tried to use Brexit as an opportunity to get two years extra in power

Edmund Heaphy
Ireland Correspondent
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Reuters

For the past week, Ireland’s political class has been transfixed by a back-and-forth letter exchange between the leaders of the country’s two largest political parties.

Micheál Martin, the leader of Fianna Fáil, was not a bit happy with his counterpart in Fine Gael, prime minister Leo Varadkar. In a letter released publicly, Varadkar had requested that the parties agree a general election date for summer 2020 — something that would have extended a 2016 agreement, which sees Fianna Fáil prop up the Fine Gael minority government, by nearly two years. Such an extension would quell the uncertainty, Varadkar said, that “weakens our hand in Brexit talks.”

Today (11 September), Martin and his party have headed to a coastal village in Dublin for a “think-in” ahead of the return of parliament next week. Both Brexit and Varadkar’s letter will be topics of discussion. Separately, negotiators from both parties will begin a second round of talks about next month’s budget — the third and final budget that Martin’s party agreed to support in 2016. In his terse reply to Varadkar, Martin said he saw no basis for discussions about extending the agreement until the budget is passed.

Thus far, not much has been made of the fact that the agreement which underpins Ireland’s government is due to expire before the end of the year — mere months before the UK is set to leave the European Union. Considering the extent to which issues surrounding the border in Northern Ireland have impeded progress in Brexit negotiations, that’s no trifling matter.

For historical reasons, there exists a kind of febrile rivalry between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and the suspicion that clouds the personal relationship of the current leaders does not help matters. In a 10 September newspaper op-ed, Martin said he was amazed that, amid the “deep crises in vital areas and the historic threat of Brexit,” Varadkar was “trying to create an aura of instability around his own government.” His extension request, Martin said, was “an arrogant demand for power without accountability.”

One of the obvious explanations for Varadkar’s move is that he wants an election sooner rather than later. His rationale isn’t that hard to understand. The most recent opinion polls suggest his Fine Gael party would make substantial gains on its 2016 result, putting it in pole position to confidently lead the next government. But even if Varadkar was asking for the two-year extension in good faith, the implication is clear: Brexit is reason enough to see his short tenure as Ireland’s youngest-ever prime minister extended.

Martin will use today’s think-in as a way to confront Varadkar’s peremptory approach and show his own party that he won’t allow the situation to moulder into anything beyond a snit.