FF and SF trying to push unification on North - Varadkar

Minister believes parties trying to exploit Brexit and approach will alienate unionists

Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar has criticised a push by Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin for the unification of Ireland. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times.

Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar has criticised a push by Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin for the unification of Ireland. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times.

 

Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar has criticised a push by Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin for the unification of Ireland.

Mr Varadkar, a contender to replace Enda Kenny as Fine Gael leader, said he would like to see a united Ireland in the future but questioned the timing of a plan set out by Fianna Fáil this week to achieve it.

“I am concerned at the way Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin seem to want to exploit Brexit to push a united Ireland on a big population in the North who still don’t want it,” he told The Irish Times, France 24, Le Figaro and L’Opinion newspapers at the Irish Embassy in Paris.

Mr Varadkar is in France for St Patrick’s Day and will travel to Cannes on Friday. He is promoting Ireland as a tourist destination, highlighting the State’s economic performance and discussing Brexit and the future of Europe with French officials.

The Minister said he had always been interested in the North. “In terms of emotion and feeling, I have always believed that there would be a united Ireland in my lifetime, and I want to see it,” he said.

But, he continued, “I am sure the approach being taken by Sinn Féin, in many ways being followed by Fianna Fáil, is actually the wrong approach, calling for a border poll and stoking up at this point in time the idea of Irish unity. What that does is it alienates and causes enormous fear among unionists who are still half the population in the North.”

Mr Varadkar said it was impossible to achieve Irish unity “by just putting the shoe on the other foot, by saying, ‘We’re the majority now, or we’re about to be the majority, soon, so tough. You need to accept that we’re going to pull the plug out of the socket in London and plug it into Dublin’. That seems to be where they’re going.”

Cross-community

He said there was a need for “reasonable cross-community support” comparable to that achieved in the referendum in the North on the Belfast Agreement, which won by 71.1 per cent “and thereabouts a majority in both communities…I don’t want to say majority support from both sides – that may never be possible – but to have reasonable cross-community support.”

Rather than push the idea of a united Ireland “or exploiting Brexit to promote this, which I think Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are trying to do,” Mr Varadkar said it was important to “talk more about what can be practically achieved.”

He quoted Naomi Long of the Alliance Party, at an all island civil dialogue meeting. “She said the best way to achieve some form of special arrangement for Northern Ireland with the EU is not to talk about it as a stepping stone or in the context of a united Ireland, but to actually talk about what the practical benefits would be for moderate unionists… That’s the right approach.”

For example, Mr Varadkar continued, Catholic and Protestant communities should be asked if they want their children to study on Erasmus scholarships in European universities, if they want Queens and Ulster universities to continue to receive EU research funds, if they want to stay in the single market.

“That’s the right approach,” he added. “Theresa May has spoken about Britian buying into certain aspects of the EU and paying into it.

“I would like the same principle to apply for Northern Ireland. For example, the North could stay in the Common Agricultural Policy, in the single market, in regional cooperation…We see across Europe all sorts of bespoke arrangements, whether it involves overseas territories of France, or Greenland or Andorra. We want to be as creative as possible.”