Irish do not need British permission to raise reunification, says Harris

Lewis refuses to be drawn further on his remarks criticising Varadkar intervention

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has been criticised by Unionists for making a strongly pro-united Ireland speech at the opening of the annual Fine Gael party Ard-Fheis, which was held online this year. Video: Fine Gael

 

Fine Gael’s Simon Harris has rebuffed criticism from the British government for his party leader’s comments about a united Ireland, saying Irish ministers did not “need permission” to talk about the issue.

After party leader Leo Varadkar declared at the Fine Gael ardfheis that it was their mission to achieve a united Ireland, which he could see in his lifetime, UK northern secretary Brandon Lewis described his remarks as “unhelpful and ill-advised” during current tensions in the North.

Mr Lewis said the British government “would be concerned about any deviation from the principle of consent as enshrined in the Belfast Good Friday Agreement” and urged everyone to “dial down the rhetoric, particularly at this time of year”.

The British government minister also linked the timing of Mr Varadkar’s comments to Sinn Féin gains and a Fine Gael drop among voters, reflected in the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll.

On Thursday, Mr Lewis refused to be further drawn on his remarks.

Pressed on RTÉ’s News at One several times about his own comments, he said he “absolutely respects people’s right to have their say” but “sometimes it’s about what we say, the timing of what we say and when we say it”.

“We should all be very cautious of what we say.”

Mr Lewis repeatedly refused to discuss his comments any further, saying: “Beyond that I will stick to what I said on the floor of the House [of Commons]... I have nothing more to add to what I said.”

Commenting on the matter earlier, Minister for Further and Higher Education Mr Harris said: “It has been a hell of a long time since any Irish ministers needed permission from the British government to make a comment at a political ardfheis.”

“I don’t comment on Boris Johnson’s constant rhetoric about preserving the union, in his sincerely held view in relation to that,” he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

Mr Harris insisted it is “a legitimate aspiration of Irish people to unify our country” and that his party leader Mr Varadkar “believed passionately in a united Ireland”.

Prosperous future

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney aid his party is “very ambitious” about Irish reunification, which he said could lead to a more secure, balanced and prosperous future for the entire island.

The Fine Gael deputy leader said Mr Varadkar was being inclusive and wanted to involve “unionism and unionist thinking” in talks about the “journey” ahead.

“What Leo Varadkar was talking about is the need to have an inclusive, open, generous, outward-looking, modern debate over what the future holds for us all on this island.”

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said Mr Varadkar was “absolutely right” in his remarks.

“We will see [a united Ireland] well within Leo’s lifetime — of that there is no doubt,” she said.

“Can I also endorse his commentary that this issue, this project, is not in the possession of any one political party. I could not agree more.”

Ms McDonald said it was important “that all of us, right across Irish society, including unionist citizens or sceptical citizens that have yet to be won over to the huge opportunities that Irish reunification represents, that all of us have a position and plan.”

“There will be contrasting views and visions of a new Ireland. The Tánaiste made some disparaging remarks around what he called Sinn Féin’s crude vision of reunification. Our vision is far from crude.”

Mr Varadkar yesterday defended his speech to his party’s ardfheis the previous evening, in which he said he believed “in the unification of our island and I believe it can happen in my lifetime”.

While the views of unionists must be “acknowledged, understood and respected”, Mr Varadkar insisted “no one group can have a veto on Ireland’s future”.

“It is our ardfheis, we have an ardfheis every year or every 18 months where we talk about the future. And there’s never a bad time to talk about the future of Ireland and Ireland’s place in Europe and the world.

DUP MP Gavin Robinson described the remarks as “a pathetically transparent attempt to ‘out-green’ Sinn Féin” and that they were “not just unhelpful but destabilising at a time when there are clear political tensions in Northern Ireland”.