Northern Ireland

Welcome for Leo Varadkar’s united Ireland funding call

Former taoiseach advocates sovereign wealth fund to meet costs of transitioning to united Ireland

Former taoiseach Leo Varadkar said apologies could change hearts and minds
Former taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking at the Ireland's Future event. PICTURE: BRIAN LAWLESS/PA (Brian Lawless/PA)

Leo Varadkar’s call for the Irish government to begin earmarking funds for the transition to a united Ireland has been welcomed on both sides of the border.

The former taisoeach told Saturday’s Ireland’s Future event in Belfast that a pot similar to the Republic’s sovereign wealth fund, announced last year to protect the southern economy from future downturns, was a necessary step in planning for unification.

He said the Dublin government could “start setting aside some of the surplus to prepare for that transition period”.

The address from the former Fine Gael leader, who stepped down as taoiseach in April, surprised many observers, who felt Mr Varadkar went much further in his support for Irish unity than he did while in office.

He said that although he was no longer in a government position, he still wanted to advocate for unity.

Mr Varadkar said he didn’t want unification to be seen to be the preserve of a single political party, arguing that “it needs to be all parties and no party”.

Leo Varadkar, Wallace Thompson and Gerry Adams at the Ireland's Future event. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

He said he hoped that under the next Dublin administration what he termed a “long-standing political aspiration” would become a “political objective”.

The former Fine Gael leader said a united Ireland would be an economic success and he dismissed a recent report which put the cost at €20 billion (£17bn).

He said a fund should be established, using the Republic’s substantial tax surplus, to “prepare for the future”.

“We could set up a fund as well and start setting aside some of the surplus to prepare for that transition period,” he said.

“The basic principle, which is a prudent one, at a time when we have a surplus and we won’t have a surplus forever, we are setting aside money for costs that we know are going to rise like climate action, like infrastructure, like pensions.

“I think it is reasonable to apply that same logic to unification and to start to set aside money now to ease that transition and also to reassure people who might be worried there will be an economic cost to them.”

Among those welcoming Mr Varadkar’s comments were Seamus McGuinness, a research professor with the Republic’s Economic and Social Research Institute.

Seamus McGuinness of the Republic's Economic and Social Research Institute.

“Such an initiative would represent a major step forward in the planning process and would also go a significant way towards reducing concerns around the potential financial costs of reunification,” he told The Irish News.

Sinn Féin’s John Finucane described the former taoiseach’s remarks as “significant”.

“We have been calling on the Irish government to lead the preparations for change by bringing forward a green paper setting out the constitutional, political, social, and economic vision,” he said.

“This is an exciting, engaging and positive discussion to be part of, and one which the Irish government must now lead and take action on.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the Irish government had demonstrated a commitment to funding projects on a north-south basis and that same approach should be applied to “building a practical roadmap toward a new Ireland by answering the big questions that people have about future funding models”.

“I believe that the time is right to reconvene the New Ireland Forum so that every shade of political opinion across our island can forge a new future together,” he said.

Ireland’s Future chair Senator Frances Black said: “A structured planning process is also urgently required, many continuities at the event spoke about learning the lessons of Brexit and the lack of planning there, we must not make the same mistake by procrastinating on the planning process.”