The north barely registers on Fine Gael leadership hopefuls' radar

Simon Coveney spoke at the DUP conference in 2012

AMONG the many thousands of words in the Dublin press yesterday about Fine Gael leadership hopefuls Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney there were few if any mentions of Northern Ireland.

Overlooking the north reflects the region's ranking on the list of priorities for the taioseach-to-be. And this is after Brexit has apparently changed the attitude of southern politicians towards the north and Irish unity.

Thankfully, for both prospective Fine Gael leaders, they can at least say that they've crossed the border into the north, though it appears on very few occasions.

Social Protection minister Mr Varadkar, who is the bookies' odds-on favourite for his party's top job, ventured north just last year when he represented the Dublin government at an official ceremony at Belfast City Hall cenotaph marking the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme.

This gesture no doubt endeared him to unionists, who like the rest of us assumed the Dublin West TD - the Republic's first openly gay minister - was agnostic on the Irish unity question.

However, weeks later the 38-year-old raised the ire of the DUP's Gregory Campbell when he claimed he will see a united Ireland in his lifetime. The comment was made during an address to the MacGill Summer School in Co Donegal.

"Fine Gael is a united Ireland party and that remains an objective," he said. He qualified his stance by saying that much work needed to be done between the unionist and nationalist communities before unity could happen.

In March this year, Mr Varadkar repeated his hope but criticised Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil for adopting the "wrong approach" and "stoking up" emotions around Irish unity.

"What that does is it alienates and causes enormous fear among unionists who are still half the population in the north," he said.

His fellow leadership contender was made more welcome by the DUP when he came north in 2012 to speak at the party's annual conference.

The then agriculture minister said his presence at the conference was further proof of the growing trust among politicians on both sides of the border and another step in the right direction .

"I hope we can develop the kind of friendship and kind of trust politically that is needed between the largest party in Northern Ireland and the largest party in the Republic of Ireland," he said.

Speaking just a matter of days before loyalists took to the streets in the so-called flag protests, DUP MP Sammy Wilson said Mr Coveney's attendance was an indication of how the DUP was a party at ease with itself.

More recently, the Republic's housing minister came north again in March to attend Martin McGuinness's funeral.

On their past record, both key candidates engagement with the north has been minimal and largely in keeping with Fine Gael's laissez faire approach to the region.

However, which ever one succeeds Enda Kenny would need to up their game, especially as we approach a period when both the border and the restoration of power-sharing will be among the dominant political issues on the island.


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