People in Northern Ireland will “come to question the union” with England, Scotland and Wales if there is a no-deal Brexit, but discussion about a United Ireland now would be “provocative”, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.
“I think if there is a hard Brexit on the 31st of October, if the United Kingdom takes Northern Ireland out of the European Union against the wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland, takes away their European citizenship and undermines the Good Friday Agreement in doing so, those questions will arise whether we like it or not and we have to be ready for that,” he told the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal.
Questioned about the demands from some that preparations for a united Ireland should begin, Mr Varadkar said work on a White Paper on unity, or establishing a forum on the future shape of Ireland, before Brexit could play into the view that Dublin is exploiting the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc, he added.
“We would totally play into that view and that accusation if we were to go down the road now of having a White Paper or having an all-Ireland forum or a forum on Irish unity. That obviously could change in the event of a hard Brexit happening. Those questions then do arise in a way they don’t at the moment.”
Mr Varadkar’s comments prompted a sharp rebuke from Democratic Unionist Party MP Ian Paisley who said the Government’s language was “unhelpful and unnecessarily aggressive”.
On Brexit, the Taoiseach insisted that the existing European Union/United Kingdom withdrawal agreement will not be renegotiated, despite repeated declarations to the contrary by the newly installed Boris Johnson.
In London, Mr Johnson’s spokesman insisted that the scrapping of the backstop is a precondition for talks to take place between London and the EU. “We are very ready and will be energetic in beginning talking, but we’re also clear-eyed about what needs to happen if we are going to be able to secure a deal which parliament can support,” he said.
Mr Johnson has accepted invitations to visit Paris and Berlin but both capitals have stressed that they remain committed to the EU’s agreed position that the withdrawal agreement cannot be reopened.
Calling on Mr Johnson to establish a working relationship with EU counterparts, Amélie de Montchalin, France’s minister for European affairs, said: “From our side, we need to be responsible. That means being clear, predictable and it means on the other side that we need to create a working relationship, that there aren’t games, posturing, provocations,” she told France 2 television.
The prospect of divergence between Ireland, Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom is the biggest long-term strategic risk facing the State, Mr Varadkar told MacGill Summer School.
“Not dramatically overnight but we will start to see divergence and that creates, I think, a big strategic risk. It raises very serious questions about the future of Northern Ireland.”
However, he said he did not know if he would see a united Ireland in his lifetime, but things might change after a no-deal Brexit if it created borders and heightened tensions.
“People who you might describe as moderate nationalists or moderate Catholics who were more or less happy with the status quo will look more towards a united Ireland and increasingly you see liberal Protestants, liberal unionists starting to ask the questions as to where they feel more at home.”
However, Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP accused Mr Varadkar of being “unhelpful” and “inflammatory” in the wake of Mr Johnson’s rise to No 10 Downing Street, asking him to “put the megaphone aside”.
Separately, newly appointed Northern Ireland Secretary of State Julian Smith rejected Tánaiste Simon Coveney’s charge that Mr Johnson had set the UK on a “collision course” with Ireland and the EU over Brexit.