UK election: Varadkar warns against move towards united Ireland

Taoiseach says focus should now be on reviving powersharing institutions in North

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has congratulated British prime minister Boris Johnson on a landslide election victory, but has warned that the result should not lead to people "racing ahead" to form a united Ireland. Video: EU Council

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned against moves towards a united Ireland in the wake of the British general election result, which saw unionist losses and gains for nationalists and the Alliance Party.

Mr Varadkar said while the “tectonic plates” were shifting in the North, the focus should be reviving the powersharing institutions, rather than pushing for a united Ireland.

Asked if the result cleared the way for a general election at home, Mr Varadkar said “not yet” as he firstly wanted to see the Brexit withdrawal agreement ratified and would focus until mid-January on getting Stormont up and running.

“I think they’re very significant results in Northern Ireland, ” Mr Varadkar told reporters on his way into the summit of EU leaders in Brussels on Friday morning.

“Two or three years ago I said that the political situation in Northern Ireland was like tectonic plates shifting and if you know about plate tectonics you’ll know that things move slowly and also suddenly – slowly because of demographics and more suddenly because of the reaction of people in Northern Ireland to Brexit.”

He said there was now “no unionist majority, no nationalist majority and an ever-expanding centre ground”.

He said: “The one thing that hasn’t changed for Northern Ireland is that the best future for Northern Ireland is one based on powersharing and one based on reconciliation, one based on bringing all communities together. And the next step in that has to be getting the Executive and Assembly up and running before January 13th.”

Under British law, if Stormont remains suspended by January 13th, there will be new assembly elections.

Mr Varadkar said that he and the Tánaiste Simon Coveney would be “giving this everything” between now and middle of January. He said he hoped to see movement next week. “I don’t think we’ve any time to waste,” he said.

Asked if the tectonic plates were shifting in terms of a united Ireland, Mr Varadkar said: “I think we’ve seen without doubt a shift in the political landscape in Northern Ireland . . . But what hasn’t changed is that the future for us in Ireland, I believe, is reconciliation, it’s powersharing, it’s closer co-operation between North and South and also between Britain and Ireland and that’s the philosophy underpinning the Good Friday Agreement.

“So, you know, I think people shouldn’t race ahead of themselves with other plans. What we need to do is get Stormont, get the Assembly, get the Executive working again. We need to be able to work together in Northern Ireland, and between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and that philosophy underpinning the Good Friday Agreement is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago.”

Regret

He said he was relieved at the results of the UK election.

“I deeply regret that the United Kingdom, our friends, are leaving the EU, but that’s their decision and they’ve confirmed that now with this election,” he said.

“I want to congratulate Mr Johnson, it’s an enormous victory for him on a personal level, and also a very clear result for his party,” he said.

“It’s a positive thing that we have a decisive outcome in Britain in their elections. We had for a few years a parliament that wasn’t able to form a majority around anything. We now clearly have a majority in the House of Commons to ratify the withdrawal agreement.”

Mr Varadkar said he was keen to work very closely with Mr Johnson to relaunch the Executive and the Assembly in the North. “I think that’s absolutely crucial now and has to be a key priority for the next couple of weeks,” said Mr Varadkar.

He said once the agreement was passed by the House of Commons and the UK left the EU, the next step would be the negotiation of a “mighty new future economic partnership”.

He said that he would like to see a “trade deal plus” between the UK and the EU that ensured “tariff free and quota free trade with a set of minimum set of standards so that nobody feels there is unfair competition or that anyone is trying to undercut them when it comes to labour rights and when it comes to environmental protection and issues like that”

He added: “And you know, in my conversations with prime minister Johnson, I think he’s probably in a similar space, so it’s a question now of getting on with it.”

Asked if the election result cleared the way for a general election at home, Mr Varadkar replied: “I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little bit there. First of all we want to see the withdrawal agreement ratified . . . and secondly I think there really has to be a focus between now and January 13th on Northern Ireland and getting the Assembly and Executive up and running. I’ve always said that if it is my choice – and it may not be my choice – that the general election in Ireland would happen at the right time for the country. And that’s still not yet.”

‘Carried away’

Mr Coveney said people were “getting a little carried away” about the prospect of a general election in Ireland after Christmas.

“We have a confidence and supply agreement in place with Fianna Fáil. What keeps that agreement in place certainly for the last 12 months has been Brexit. We haven’t concluded what we want to conclude for Ireland and Brexit yet, we need to get the withdrawal agreement finalised and we need to see it ratified in the UK and of course in the European parliament,” Mr Coveney told Today with Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio.

He said: “I believe that will happen now in January – towards the end of January in the European Parliament maybe even earlier in the British parliament and that means that the United Kingdom will leave at the end of January.

“Then we’ll move into February and we will be at the start of another big challenge for Ireland, to make sure that the future relationship that is designed, negotiated and agreed between the EU and the UK is one that protects the British-Irish relationship, the €70billion of trade that we have east/west between these two islands each year and we will focus on that.

“Of course, at some point in the next six months or so we will have a general election, but everybody has a responsibility to get the timing right of that in the interests of the country and of our positioning in the context of Brexit in particular, rather than party political interests.”