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Positive engagement on display as Taoiseach meets Orange Order

It was difficult to escape the symbolism that surrounded Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's trip to the unionist heartland of east Belfast yesterday.

Here was an Irish premier being greeted with genuine warmth as he visited not just the headquarters of the Orange Order but also a library dedicated to the memory of Rev Ian Paisley where he held a private meeting with Baroness Eileen Paisley.

Older readers who recall the famous incident in December 1967 when Mr Paisley threw snowballs at Taoiseach Jack Lynch's car as he drove to meet prime minister Terence O'Neill at Stormont, may well reflect on the transformation that has taken place over the intervening five decades.

Of course, there is a bitter legacy of pain and suffering from those years which must be fully acknowledged.

But it is also essential that we constantly work to heal divisions, moving forward in a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect, building a society free from intolerance, sectarianism and violence.

Mr Varadkar yesterday became the first taoiseach to visit the Museum of Orange Heritage, following in the footsteps of former president Mary McAleese who attended the official launch of the museum in June 2015.

The fact that he got an enthusiastic welcome from local women who wanted to shake his hand spoke volumes about the changed atmosphere that now exists.

It is not that long ago that a taoiseach turning up in east Belfast could have expected protests and it must be hoped that we are seeing a greater sense of maturity and more broad-minded approach to such visits.

For his part, Mr Varadkar was keen to send out a message that he was a good neighbour, reaching out to all communities and trying to cement relationships.

He pointed out that the Protestant and Orange heritage is part of our shared history and that applies to all parts of Ireland, not just the north.

In terms of the wider context, the taoiseach's visit took place against a much less fraught background compared to just a short time ago when contentious parades dominated the agenda.

Last year's marching season was one of the quietest in recent memory and we must hope this positive development will continue over the summer months and beyond.

Given the positive engagement on display from Mr Varadkar and the Orange Order, unionist criticism of his decision to open Féile an Phobail is misplaced.

The festival has made determined efforts to reach out to the unionist community - Arlene Foster is among the high profile figures who have attended in the past.

However, the Fine Gael leader is plainly no supporter of the IRA and his involvement in Féile should not be construed as endorsing every event in the programme.

This society is on a journey and as we move away from our troubled past we need to embrace inclusivity, promote understanding and break down the barriers that divide us.

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