Northern Ireland news

Taoiseach gets rock star welcome on visit to orange, green and rainbow

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Bar Maverick manager Mark Hassan. Picture by Hugh Russell

IT'S not often that politicians are treated like rock stars, but Taoiseach Leo Varadkar managed to charm the crowds wherever he went on his visit to Belfast.

His day started with a trip to a library dedicated to the late Dr Ian Paisley, hosted by the widow of the former unionist leader Baroness Paisley.

The private visit was followed by a tour of the Museum of Orange Heritage and a meeting with senior Orangemen, including Grandmaster Edward Stevenson.

In the blistering sun, crowds gathered outside Schomberg House in east Belfast.

But it wasn't to protest or demonstrate - it was to welcome the Irish leader warmly.

Women shook his hand, thanked him for visiting and said he should "come back soon".

It is hard to image any previous taoiseach receiving such a welcome in the heartland of loyalist east Belfast.

"I have to say I've been made to feel very welcome. It was a privilege to meet with Baroness Paisley, she's a formidable woman, and whatever people's political views I think Ian was giant of Irish history and helped bring us all closer in the final years of his life," Mr Varadkar later told The Irish News.

"Both at Féile an Phobail and the Orange Order I've been made to feel very welcome. I think it's about mutual acceptance and the Irish government accepting that there is an Orange tradition and a Protestant tradition and by reaching out to them we're saying that we respect that important part of culture and identity.

"But also by them inviting me and welcoming me the way they did, I think demonstrates that the Orange Order don't always see the Irish government as a threat, that we can be partners in things as well."

At St Mary's College on the Falls Road, several hundred people, including Sinn Féin's northern leader Michelle O'Neill, gathered at the launch of the programme for the 30th anniversary of the West Belfast Festival.

Relations between Sinn Féin and Fine Gael have not always been so cordial, but the defrosting of the political relationship was on display yesterday.

Mr Varadkar, charming and affable, certainly won over the west Belfast audience who gave him a standing ovation.

Rumours then started circulating that the taoiseach was heading for a much-needed cool drink, after a scorching day on the go.

Having already visited the orange and the green in was now the turn of the rainbow with a quick stop-off at one of Belfast's most popular gay bars, The Maverick in Donegall Street.

Bar manager Mark Hassan said he was "shocked but delighted" that Mr Varadkar had visited.

"With what's going on in Northern Ireland at the minute with equality issues this was a really welcome visit and the statement it makes is very important.

"He reached out to both communities today but now he's visiting our community. It's very strong, positive message and Maverick are delighted to have him, he's welcome any time."

The most experienced of political spin doctor couldn't have planned a better visit in terms of positive publicity for Mr Varadkar.

It seemed that only one person wasn't impressed - DUP leader Arlene Foster, who tweeted that she was "very concerned" at the message Leo Varadkar was sending with his "apparent endorsement" of all events at that Féile an Phobail, which hosts a number of republican talks.

The super slick Varadkar took it all in his stride: "I read upon the history of Féile and one thing I found out was that Arlene has done more than me, she's actually spoken at Féile back in 2005, so perhaps next year she'll launch it and I'll speak at it," he joked.

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