‘Ill advised’: TDs’ reactions to Varadkar ‘Irish unity’ speech vary from supportive to critical

‘Fine Gael has a very clear strategy to try and attract voters from Fianna Fáil,’ says FF TD

Party leader speeches to ardfheiseanna don’t tend to rely too much on nuance. The rhetoric is ramped up and the message is delivered with a good thump of the lectern.

Indeed, Leo Varadkar saying he envisages a united Ireland in his lifetime is not new – he has said it often before. The idea of Fine Gael organising in the North is a departure, but, in the ordinary course of events, it should not ruffle any feathers.

However, what seems to have caused most offence in the Tánaiste’s strongly pro-united Ireland opening address on Tuesday to his party’s first ardfheis since 2018 was the timing of the comments.

"Good man, Leo, for bringing up Irish unity again when we are in a crisis," said new Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie. Arlene Foster, who recently departed as first minister, tweeted similar sentiments.

Among political parties in the South, the views on the speech were more muted. Still, they varied from strongly supportive to highly critical – and those divisions were to be seen within parties as well.

Varadkar himself was unapologetic. “There is never a bad time to talk about the future of Ireland,” he said.

Senior Fianna Fáil Government figures played down the significance of his message, saying that "political rallies are full of that" and that it tallies with his party's position. "The timing is unfortunate but his speech was trying to ensure the Fine Gael credentials on the national question," said one senior player.

Mixed views

Among Fianna Fáil TDs, there were mixed views. One noted the paradox that the Fine Gael leader is beginning to sound more like a Fianna Fáil leader on the North, while the Fianna Fáil leader is sounding more like a Fine Gael leader (there is not unanimous love for the Shared Island Unit within the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party).

Several were critical of the timing given the sensitivities in relation to Brexit issues and the formation of a new executive in the North. "Given Edwin Poots's repeated pronouncements since becoming DUP leader it's not very sensitive timing," said Dún Laoghaire Fianna Fáil TD Cormac Devlin. "In a quasi-vacuum, my view is that it is ill advised for Leo Varadkar to be making these comments this week."

He added: “Going in with his size nines at this moment is not helpful. Fianna Fáil is for the unification of the country. It is important as well to create dialogue. If anything, Brexit has taught us the importance of dialogue.”

Fianna Fáil TD Paul McAuliffe, from Dublin North-West, said people have their own party hats on at ardfheiseanna. “I accept that on occasions like that the language is somewhat more colourful.

“Let us be honest, Fine Gael has a very clear strategy to try and attract voters that have been in the Fianna Fáil voting stable.”

Byelection

Some saw the speech as positioning for the Dublin Bay South byelection where Fine Gael is presenting the contest as a straight battle between it and Sinn Féin. Varadkar himself denied it had anything to do with the byelection, saying that in the constituency "nobody is talking much about Irish unity to me . . . It is BusConnects, Sandymount cycle lanes, it is housing, it is the pandemic."

There were a few Fine Gael TDs who said privately the current party position does not sit altogether comfortably with them.

For Sinn Féin, the speech was welcome. "I took the positives out of it," said Waterford TD David Cullinane. "It's the right approach in my view. We want all the parties to organise in Northern Ireland. We want the Tánaiste to go further and work with all others who are serious about planning for [a unified Ireland and a Border poll]."