Double standards are applied to Irish and UK ministers when they express an opinion on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, the Taoiseach has said.
Leo Varadkar was reacting to comments from Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris this week when he branded recent remarks by Mr Varadkar on Irish unity as “unhelpful”.
Fine Gael leader Mr Varadkar had expressed his belief that he would see unification within his lifetime.
Mr Heaton-Harris said the Taoiseach raising the potential for a “plan B” if devolved government in Northern Ireland is not restored by the autumn was also “unhelpful”.
Mr Varadkar, speaking at his party’s think-in event in Limerick, said his views on Irish unity were not new.
⚪️Spend the day with me in Limerick ahead of the Fine Gael Think In pic.twitter.com/DGXsSKZlb7
— Leo Varadkar (@LeoVaradkar) September 14, 2023
“I think, as is often the case when it comes to politics, people read too much into it. It’s something I have said before on multiple occasions, and it was in response to a particular question,” he told RTE.
“I’d ask this question, which is: Rishi Sunak the Prime Minister describes himself as a proud unionist, he has been appointed by himself as Minister for the Union. Liz Truss did something similar. So did Boris Johnson. The Secretary of State often talks about how committed he is to the union. Not only do we accept that, we respect it. Why is there a double standard applied to Irish politicians when we say what’s in our constitution, that we’d like to see a united Ireland and work towards it?”
Mr Varadkar added: “I heard the Secretary of State talking about the word helpful and helpfulness. I think we as a government have been extremely helpful to the British government since the Brexit journey began.
“Under my leadership as Taoiseach, we’ve negotiated three agreements with the British government – the backstop, the protocol and, when they couldn’t honour that agreement, we were the adults in the room and we negotiated the Windsor Framework.”
On the Stormont impasse, Mr Varadkar said the DUP attempts to extract concessions on trade and sovereignty issues from the UK Government could not go on forever.
He said it had been more than six months since the framework was agreed.
“Since then what’s happened is there have been negotiations really only involving the UK and one of the parties in Northern Ireland, the DUP,” he said.
“The other four parties that represent nearly 70% of opinion in Northern Ireland haven’t really been involved in that, nor have we.
“So we hope the UK Government and the DUP… are successful in their negotiations, we’re willing to help in that regard.
“Because we want the executive to be up and running, we want it to be a success. But there does come a point where these talks between the UK Government and the DUP can’t be ongoing forever and can’t exclude others forever. And we do need to sit down at some point and talk about what alternative arrangements can be put in place within the confines of the Good Friday Agreement.”
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said on Friday that planning for Irish unification must be placed at the heart of government in Ireland.
She welcomed Mr Varadkar’s comments that he believes he will see constitutional change in his lifetime, although she challenged him to take action on the issue.
“As we speak there are relationships north south, across departmental and government, across a wide swathe of areas,” she said at her party’s think-in event in Dublin.
“That needs to be put on a much more robust footing. I think that that planning and that working together needs to be brought up the political and the organisational agenda.
“Also, I think there needs to be room for, at the centre of government, thought around white papers, green papers around what the wider scheme constitutionally, institutionally, in terms across a whole swathe of policy areas, what that looks like and how we would advance it.
“The preparation for Irish unity can’t just be syphoned off or left in a silo of government.
“It needs to be planned at the heart of government.
“Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, has correctly said that we’re on the path to Irish unity. I agree with him on that point. The question and the challenge now for him and for government is what are they going to do about that?
“Because we need processes and preparation that are inclusive, respectful, we need a process that’s democratic, entirely peaceful, and all of that requires active planning. You can’t wish that into existence. You have to roll up your sleeves and get the work done.”