Have you noticed how the BBC has changed the name of An Taoiseach? He has become Leo Varadkah.  

That’s what one of the presenters on BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight programme called him recently. Several of the BBC Northern Ireland reporters and presenters are at it too.  

It seems that, below the radah, Auntie has decided that the Irish prime minister should be known as Leo Varadkah.

A Cork woman I know well gets irritated every time she hears an Irish radio or TV reference to "an historic…".

Her guaranteed spontaneous reaction is "why do they keep saying that? It’s A HISTORIC. It’s one thing for the British to do it but why do we have to copy them? "

Across the water, there is a built-in confidence in the way language is used and delivered. It is, after all, the Queen’s English. The swagger flows from the sense of ownership. If the listener is tempted to question, the speaker’s absence of doubt is an intimidating, often crushing force. They are comfortable in swagger mode. We are not.

The Ireland v England rugby match in the Aviva a fortnight ago was a perfect example of the dynamic.

Ireland V England

Eddie Jones’ team were so focused and had such confidence in its steamrolling mission, you’d almost have expected the Irish players to carry the kit bags of their departing conquerors onto the bus, bend the knee and say "thanks, sirs, for coming to see us".

What a disastrous occasion it was. Further worrying proof that the illusionary Celtic Tiger masters of the universe complex had returned. Some of the swish D4 business houses on the way to the Aviva were open for pre-match drinkies and the guests were busy trading stories about the Paddy Power guff.

Within two minutes of the start, the first line-out ball flew like a perfect arrow beyond the static hosts and the Chariot was Swinging Low and True. The marauding visitors took ownership of the game.  

They bossed and they bullied. Opponents, the crowd, the ref, the officials - all fell into line. Earls got clattered and crushed; Stockdale got dunted in the back with such obvious force and conviction that the touch judge watching on didn’t acknowledge he saw it; even Peter O'Mahony got rattled as he cleared to touch.

Long before the game ended, Ireland were weary. Feeling small. Broken. Masters of the Universe how are you.

England were back in charge, ruling the roost in the game they invented.

Our neighbours won the football World Cup in 1966 and every time it was staged since, they’ve expected to win it. We never won it and when we had our best chance to surprise ourselves and the wider world in 2002, we beat ourselves instead.

Different history, different instincts

Even though we are next-door neighbours, history and experience make us different in very fundamental ways. Like no other saga in recent times, Brexit is the stage where the contrasts, comparisons and difference are on display.

Through the centuries the British acquired and maintained an empire. They have a bellicose streak and every so often it requires an airing.

As recently as a century ago, they held sway over four hundred million people, almost a quarter of the world’s population at the time.

Our history is that for generation after generation, we were an unhappy, conquered and colonised small part of that empire.


"I will battle for Britain in Brussels" was the headline over an article by Theresa May in the Sunday Telegraph two weeks ago.

The British are comfortable, in fact they have a sort of an obsession with battling on the European mainland (and in lots of other places too.)

At different stages down through the centuries, they fought with the Spanish and the French. In the last century they were major players and contributors in two victorious World Wars against the Germans.

In contrast, our history, reflected in poetry and song, has us forlornly longing for the assistance of Spain or France in our efforts to achieve independence (In Casement’s case it was Germany).

Some of our defeated chieftains escaped and found sanctuary in Rome, Madrid, Bordeaux and Leuven.

It is entirely consistent with our completely different history that we have opposite views about the European Union.

During the most recent half century, the decline of what was once the world’s largest empire gathered momentum. As that was happening, Ireland’s wealth, confidence and well-being were all on a positive trajectory. Joining the EEC in 1973 was the game changer in Ireland’s transformation.

The pattern of improvement started not in Dublin, the political and administrative power base, but in rural Ireland.  

The Common Agricultural Policy was Europe’s most developed funding template when Ireland joined the Common Market in 1973. The purpose of the CAP was to ensure that Europe would always have a supply of food.

For the first time, Ireland’s farmers who had depended on Britain to provide markets for their produce had a new, more lucrative option. 

An end came to the days when cattle exporters brought their livestock to markets in Annick, Forfar and Carlisle and had to accept what they were offered.

Europe provided guaranteed prices and markets. So farmers became the first Euro converts. EEC membership created the possibility of farming becoming a profitable livelihood with potential for growth.

My first boss and mentor, John Healy, often wrote about "O’Malley’s minibuses" and how free second-level education, introduced by the then Education Minister, Donogh O’Malley, in the 1960s had a transformative effect in Ireland.

EEC membership brought that process to the next level. Regardless of their parents’ income, would-be technicians, secretaries, certified and chartered accounts were able to access European Social Fund grants to study in a network of hastily-constructed third level colleges, all funded by Brussels.

The EEC’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and Social Funds (ESF) were soon supplemented by the introduction of Structural Funds.

From Belmullet to Bantry projects were rolled out and at every tape-cutting ceremony, there was a large sign to acknowledge the link to the blue flag with the yellow stars.

Once in 1990, when the Taoiseach Charles Haughey was visiting Brussels, I asked him about the latest information provided by EU statisticians.

Charles Haughey

"Taoiseach, for every pound we contribute to the European kitty, we are getting back more than four. What do think of  that arrangement?"

"We need more," said Charlie, as he smiled.

The British experience of Europe is completely different. In 1963 the French President Charles de Gaulle blocked their membership application, mainly because he doubted the UK’s commitment to the bloc’s political objectives.

So in 1973 they brought with them resentment baggage when, along with Ireland and Denmark, they were admitted to the Brussels club.

As the EU expanded, the UK’s decline as a major economic and political power continued. Unlike Ireland, the UK has always been a net contributor to the Brussels kitty. When EU funding was provided for infrastructure or community projects in run-down regions, the standard response of British politicians is 'we’re simply getting back a portion of what we give to Brussels'.

At the end of a working day in the 90s, we’d sometimes unwind in The Old Hack or Kitty O’Shea’s, opposite the Berlaymont in Brussels.

Our British friends in the press corps - and they really were pals - would regularly get the dreaded call from head office. The Daily Telegraph had some unusual story about Brussels bureaucrats, bent bananas or Cornish pasties.

The Brussels-based reporter would try to dismiss the query with a 'That’s just one more Boris invention'.

But even then Boris had the power to stretch and spin thin air. His sources for the flow of anti-EU stories in the 90s were usually fringe characters in the Tory party who were not taken seriously. Just like Boris, some of them are now driving the Brexit agenda.

During four and a half decades of EU membership, many of the UK’s traditional industries have disappeared. The opposite has happened in Ireland.

Proportionately no EU member state comes near Ireland’s track record of attracting investment from multinational companies, particularly US firms.

Access to EU markets, our young, educated population,(our 'creative' corporation tax package), our use of English as a working language and the emotional Irish-American ties are all positive factors. (There was a blip - a significant one - in Ireland’s love affair with the EU. Almost 20 years back the cost of rebuilding a reunified Germany required the availability of low-interest money. As the dominant force in the EU, the German government made that happen. Ireland, like all eurozone member states was allowed to access the cheap cash. In between enjoying junkets to the Ryder Cup and other extravaganzas, the Irish banks doled out the loans. Characters who couldn’t spell developer got into the game. We were in Masters of the Universe mode again - the nation whose citizens struck gold by selling houses to themselves. One of the stories we rarely hear is about the many thousands, bank employees among them, whose nest egg of Irish bank shares became worthless in the brutal reckoning that followed our bout of self-delusion.
When Jean Claude-Trichet and the European Central Bank team arrived in 2009, the ledgers were inspected and the punishment administered. The rigid, emotionless principles followed in that punishment exercise might be worth recalling, if an Irish damages claim has to be lodged in Brussels after a hard Brexit.)

The Good Friday Agreement and the currency of compromise

In big picture terms, the Northern Ireland created by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 became the place where the completely different histories and attitudes of neighbouring islands, our suspicions and animosities towards each other and our opposite views and experiences of European Union membership were all reconciled.

Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds

The DUP, in spite of themselves, got sucked into that process of reconciliation.

Like no other party on the islands, the DUP have a habit of being the beneficiaries of unintended consequences.

Under Ian Paisley, the party opposed the Good Friday Agreement but became spectacular beneficiaries of its main provision - a power-sharing, devolved administration.

The DUP gave scant attention to scoping the stance the party should take on Brexit. It ended up being the issue that has catapulted the DUP to centre stage.

Traditionally in the House of Commons the DUP had minimum influence or power. But its 10 MPs are now keeping a minority Conservative government in power.

The DUP's trio of European Parliament members

The DUP also has a 'not all it seems' relationship with the EU. It has provided three European Parliament members: Ian Paisley (1979 to 2004); Jim Alister (2004 to 2009); Diane Dodds (2009 to 2019).

Ian Paisley’s rant during Pope John Paul’s visit to the Strasbourg hemicycle in 1988 got him expelled from the chamber and gained him international attention.  

But on the European stage the DUP leader was a complex character who often combined with the SDLP's John Hume and the Ulster Unionist, Jim Nicholson, in a way that rose above Northern Ireland’s orange and green demarcation lines.

Distance from place of work, generous travel and expenses arrangements and the annual salary mean that MEPs are paid significantly more that MPs who serve in Westminster.

Ian Paisley’s family members say that as a result of his earnings from politics, Europe included, he forsook his salary entitlement as a minister of the Free Presbyterian Church for decades.

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness

In January 2008, eight months after Rev Paisley and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness had entered power-sharing at Stormont together, the pair were welcomed to Brussels by the President of the European Commission.

Jose Manuel Barroso told them the Northern Ireland peace process was an inspiration to the EU and the wider world. He had left his sick bed to host the visitors.

Dr Paisley presented the Commission president with a traditional Northern Ireland dish "fadge" or potato bread which the Portuguese host initially mistook for "fudge".

As they chatted in the Berlaymont building, Dr Paisley recalled his contretemps with the Pope. 

"For 25 years when I was a Euro MP," he said, "I had to knock on doors and bow and scrape and sometimes get thrown out. Things are different now, we have a voice in high places."

Before departing for Belfast, the DUP leader and Martin McGuinness were assured that the first €42m of the €1.1bn EU funding earmarked for Northern Ireland in the 2007-2013 budget had been allocated.

With significant support from Peter Robinson, Jim Alister was selected by the DUP to inherit Ian Paisley’s safe vacant European Parliament seat in 2004.

Three years later Mr Alister parted company with the DUP over its decision to enter power-sharing with Sinn Féin. But even though he founded a new party, Traditional Unionist Voice, he didn’t vacate his EU role. He actually sought re-election to the European Parliament in 2009 but lost out to the DUP candidate Diane Dodds.

Although a qualified history and English teacher, she had opted for a career in politics. She was at a loose end after she lost her Assembly West Belfast seat to Sinn Féin in 2007. After her 2009 European elections success, she quickly developed a liking for the role. 

Ms Dodds retained her MEP job in the 2014 elections. Her husband, Nigel, the DUP deputy leader and its leader in Westminster, once worked for Ian Paisley in Europe.

The Dodds family's long political history with the EU will be formally severed when the UK follows through on its Brexit decision.

Talking but not negotiating

When Leo Varadkah came North last weekend, the DUP delegation he met consisted of Diane and Nigel Dodds, the DUP leader Arlene Foster and the party’s chief executive, Timmy Johnston.

It was a four by four tight configuration - the Irish delegation consisted of the Taoiseach, the Secretary General to the Taoiseach and the Government, Martin Fraser; the Taoiseach’s chef de cabinet Brian Murphy and Leo Varadkar’s adviser on Northern Ireland, former Senator Jim Darcy.

Ireland couldn’t and won’t get sucked into freelance negotiations on Brexit: remaining one of the club of 27 is its best hope of security (The Belfast meeting, according to the Taoiseach, involved discussions not negotiations. Don’t be surprised if the ‘discussions’ continue).

The DUP has one MEP, soon to give up her job. In EU terms, the DUP isn’t even a minnow. And yet the DUP’s 10 Westminster MPs are keeping Theresa May in power.

Theresa May

One benign scenario with the clock ticking - one Theresa May is clinging to - would see the DUP help craft, support and market a Brexit compromise that would not get rejected by the European Union, Ireland included and would attract support in the House of Commons, from a Tory/DUP combination, with Labour stragglers compensating for European Research Group dissenters.

If that became the Brexit solution, it would allow for a push to have power-sharing restored at Stormont. That could see Arlene Foster back in post as First Minister and working relationships re-established in advance of the publication of the report on the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry in which the DUP are vulnerable.

A more fraught proposition would see the UK crash out of the European Union without a deal. If that happens, it is difficult to see how nationalist parties could compromise their way back into power-sharing with the DUP.

Fairytale or horror story, the DUP now find themselves in a place beyond wildest dreams or nightmares.  

In March 2007 the singer/songwriter Luka Bloom (brother of Christy Moore) was on an international flight watching a news feed when the footage flashed up of Ian Paisley sitting at a table alongside Gerry Adams. Christy’s younger brother cried with joy and disbelief.

Twelve years on, the DUP find themselves not just crucial to the survival of a Conservative government - their actions will have international consequences.

True to form when significant energy in London, Brussels and Dublin was this week devoted to the Brexit problem, some of the key figures in the DUP camp were concentrating on Northern Ireland’s local elections.  

A party conference is taking place in Omagh, Co Tyrone, this weekend - the various DUP candidates will be unveiled, Arlene has a speech to make. The world, Europe and Westminster can take their place in the queue and wait.

But in the ongoing Westminster chaos on Thursday night, something significant happened and it received very little attention.

Theresa May lost one more vote: the European Research Group led by Jacob Rees-Mogg failed to back her.

The prime minister couldn’t face one more round of humiliation so she stayed out of the Westminster chamber. But the DUP backed her. They took a different stance to their up to now New Best Friends, the ERG.

Could this be the first sign of the DUP heading towards the middle ground, the land of compromise they entered when Ian Paisley led the party into Stormont power-sharing 12 years ago?

They are indeed the ones who ride the waves of unintended consequences. But if the Brexit referendum result they did not expect leads to the UK crashing out of the EU, history might identify the DUP as the party that undermined the 'live and let live' values of the Good Friday Agreement and instead gave impetus to the difficult journey towards a united Ireland.

What’s the name of one of the main streets in nationalist Derry? William Street. What’s the name of one of the main streets in loyalist Londonderry? Irish Street. Could the sequence of unexpected events stretch to manipulate the DUP into a role of closet United Irelanders? Fadge or fudge.