Varadkar defends remarks on united Ireland following unionist criticism

Doug Beattie says Tánaiste’s comments unhelpful in current Northern Ireland context

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

 

UK northern secretary Brandon Lewis has criticised Fine Gael leader and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s comments about the prospect of a united Ireland as “unhelpful and ill-advised”.

Speaking in the House of Commons, 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”.

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.”

Political crisis

However, there was criticism from unionists to Mr Varadkar’s comments, with some saying they were unhelpful during a period of political crisis in the North.

Asked yesterday for his reaction to the criticism and whether he was attempting to out-manoeuvre Sinn Féin, Mr Varadkar said the debate on Irish unity did not belong to any one party and denied that his comments were linked to the pending byelection in Dublin Bay South.

“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. That’s what we’re doing.”

He said voters in Dublin Bay South, where a byelection will be held on July 8th, were focused on local public transport and cycle lanes, housing and Covid-19.

“Nobody’s talking much about Irish unity to me or unification unfortunately, the issues that people are talking about there are different . . . That doesn’t mean that we can’t also talk about some of those bigger, longer term issues.”

He did not think his remarks would affect relations between the parties in Northern Ireland.

“If they’re unable to put together an Executive in the next week, that would be because of relations between the parties in Northern Ireland, not for anything external in my view, but I do think that they will be able to do that, by the way. I would ask the counter question, when is the good time?”

‘Destabilising’

DUP MP Gavin Robinson, who raised Mr Varadkar’s comments in Westminster, said afterwards that Mr Varadkar’s intervention was “not just unhelpful but is destabilising at a time when there are clear political tensions in Northern Ireland”.

Mr Robinson described the remarks as “a pathetically transparent attempt to ‘out-green’ Sinn Féin and it is no coincidence they come in the wake of recent opinion polls within the Republic”, and said they showed “little regard for either Northern Ireland or its people that Leo Varadkar is happy to put party politics ahead of our stability and progress.”

Former Stormont first minister Arlene Foster suggested Mr Varadkar’s remarks contravened the principle of consent enshrined in the Belfast Agreement.

Reacting in a post on Twitter, the recently deposed DUP leader said: “Does Leo Varadkar believe in the Belfast Agreement’s principle of consent for the people of NI or not? Seems not.”

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie suggested the remarks were unhelpful at a time of “crisis”, when Stormont is facing collapse in a row between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin over Irish language legislation and loyalist tensions are simmering over post-Brexit arrangements.

Referring to the concept of Irish unity, Mr Beattie said: “Let’s throw that into the mix, because that is really going to be helpful for people here in Northern Ireland.”