Actions of British government could break up UK, Varadkar says

Tánaiste launches extraordinary broadside against ‘disrespectful’ and ‘undemocratic’ moves by Downing Street

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has accused the British government of being “disrespectful” and “undemocratic”, siding with unionists over the broader interests of the people of Northern Ireland, and suggested its actions could lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.

Mr Varadkar, who was speaking to BBC Northern Ireland’s The View programme, launched a broadside against the actions of UK prime minister Boris Johnson and many of his cabinet colleagues in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol and plans to introduce legislation to override aspects of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

“What the British government is doing now is very undemocratic and very disrespectful to people in Northern Ireland because it’s taking that power away from the Assembly, and saying that British ministers can override sections of the protocol,” he said.

“That’s what I find shocking and hard to accept. The British government wants to impose solutions on Northern Ireland that most people in Northern Ireland don’t want. We’ve had this happen twice now.

“If you make a treaty and you’re an honourable country or an honourable government, you have to honour it, and you have to abide by international law. The approach they are taking is wrong.

“It is not normal for a democratic government in a respected country to sign a treaty and then try to pass domestic legislation to override it.”

Mr Varadkar also described statements from two members of the UK cabinet as manifestly untrue.

UK foreign secretary Liz Truss said this week: “What we have seen from the EU so far are solutions that are worse than the current standstill — that would actually mean more bureaucracy.”

When the statement was put to him, the Tánaiste said: “Well, there are some people clearly who are able to say a square is a circle. That’s just not the facts. That is just totally at variance with the facts quite frankly. In my view, that’s absolutely wrong.

“I’d ask that question in reverse. What flexibility has the British government shown? What I see from the UK government is ‘we signed an agreement. We don’t like it any more. Give us everything we want or we’re going to revoke it and break the law’.”

Asked about a statement from UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis who described relations with Dublin as “great”, Mr Varadkar repeated: “Well, I think once again a square is being called a circle there. In my political lifetime, I’ve never seen relations this bad.

“We have a British government that doesn’t want to work hand in glove with the Irish Government, that is not even-handed in its dealings with the communities in Northern Ireland, and a government that wants to continue to have rows with the EU even though they’ve left.”

Mr Varadkar also suggested that Downing Street has elevated the concerns of unionists above the broader concerns of the people of Northern Ireland.

“It’s a government that has not been even-handed,” he said. “In the past, commitments were given by UK governments that it would be even-handed in its approach to Northern Ireland, and I don’t think that’s the case when it comes to this government.

“I think that’s a strategic mistake for people who want to maintain the union because if you continue to impose things on Northern Ireland that a clear majority of people don’t want, that means more people will turn away from the union.

“It’s a peculiar policy coming from a government that purports to want to defend the union.”

On what needs to be done to resolve the diplomatic crisis, Mr Varadkar said that trust “needs to be restored”.

“Even if you have difficulty trusting somebody, you still have to try to come to an agreement,” he said. “We will do the best we can to come to an agreement with this government. If we can’t with this government, then a future government.”

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson is an Irish Times reporter