Leo Varadkar’s Ireland has washed its hands of Ukraine

Article published in The Sunday Telegraph, 7 October 2023. © Richard Kemp

Who does Mr Varadkar think he’s kidding? When he says Britain is ‘disengaging from the world, he’s talking about the Britain that has led the world in responding to the worst military crisis to hit Europe since the Second World War. Varadkar’s own country, and many other European nations, were paralysed by fear as the Russian invasion unfolded, hoping it would all just go away. Meanwhile Britain was ahead of the pack in sending arms to Kyiv and immediately played an active role in encouraging others to do the same.

Boris Johnson’s leadership helped stiffen US resolve, reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s exhortation to President George HW Bush when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990: ‘This is no time to go wobbly.’

Since then Britain has been providing weapons, military training, financial assistance, vital intelligence and taking in large numbers of refugees fleeing Putin’s aggression. We have enthusiastically sent in long range missiles and tanks, shaming others to follow suit. Hardly the actions of a nation that is retiring from the world stage.

So what has Varadkar been doing to help the war effort? In the words of President Zelensky, Ireland ‘almost stands with us’. Like the UK, Ireland has commendably taken in Ukrainian refugees, but beyond that it has only provided a handful of trainers as part of an EU mission and sent body armour, field rations and some de-mining equipment. Admittedly Ireland is a small country, but for example, it has stockpiles of modern anti-armour weaponry gathering dust, including Javelin missiles which Britain and America supplied to devastating effect against Putin’s tanks.

Ireland’s excuse for this failure to help a European neighbour in distress is supposedly that it is militarily but not politically neutral. What that means is Dublin is happy to talk the talk but unwilling to walk the walk. It’s a luxury that Ireland can afford only by freeloading behind the shield of Nato, which Varadkar says he will not join, despite domestic discussions following Sweden’s and Finland’s decisions to do so. At just 0.3 per cent, Ireland has among the lowest GDP spend on defence of all EU members. It relies heavily, but quietly, on ‘disengaging’ Britain to deal with potential incursions into its airspace.

Why this sniping at the hand that protects you? It’s part of a pattern. Varadkar absurdly warned of a return to violence in Northern Ireland after the Brexit referendum, and he helped the EU weaponise the Irish border during the negotiations which led to the unnecessary and hugely detrimental customs situation that has existed since. Last month Varadkar suggested that Ireland is ‘on the path to unification’, a major provocation.

Now he is threatening to take legal action against Britain over new legislation that seeks to finally draw a line under the Northern Ireland Troubles, ending the threat of prosecutions over historic allegations against British soldiers who fought to defeat the IRA’s terrorist campaign. Varadkar claims, without foundation, that the Legacy Bill, when it becomes law, may contravene the European Convention on Human Rights.

In his remarks on Britain’s disengagement from the world, he spoke of ‘the United Kingdom that I love and admire’. That might well be true, with the real motivation behind his hostility being to prop up his Fine Gael party which potentially faces electoral wipe-out at the hands of Sinn Fein in the next elections. Yet if that is the reason, he has exposed himself as a man without convictions.

Visiting Kyiv in July, Varadkar said he was convinced Ukraine would emerge from the war victorious. His audience knew that, if that happens, Ireland’s military contribution will have been negligible. Britain on the other hand is universally regarded in the country as their staunchest supporter. We ought to be proud of that reality, while Varadkar should be ashamed – and apologetic.

Image: Wikimedia Commons