Northern Ireland

Varadkar ‘optimistic’ about restored Northern Ireland Executive

Leo Varadkar said Northern Ireland could become the most prosperous part of the UK.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar delivers the keynote address at the Shared Island Forum in Dublin Castle
Shared Island Forum – Dublin Castle Taoiseach Leo Varadkar delivers the keynote address at the Shared Island Forum in Dublin Castle (Brian Lawless/PA)

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he is “optimistic” there will be a “genuine effort” to ensure the restored Stormont Executive will tackle practical problems facing people in Northern Ireland.

Welcoming the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive last weekend, Mr Varadkar said it gave “renewed hope” for cooperation on difficulties in the health service and public sector pay disputes.

However, he said there had been lost opportunities within the two-year period that the Executive had not been functioning.

A DUP boycott of Stormont’s key institutions in protest over post-Brexit trading arrangements ended on Saturday following a new agreement with the UK Government.

Speaking on Thursday, Mr Varadkar said he believes “lessons have been learned” and there is a “lot of good faith” between the new Executive members to make powersharing work.

He said he was hopeful that the Executive would last through the upcoming elections in Ireland as well as to the House of Commons.

The Taoiseach was speaking at a Shared Island Forum at Dublin Castle, where he said the Irish Government would commit “unprecedented funding” to enable major cross-border investment.

He said his Government would do everything it could to support the new Executive.

He said he looked forward to working with First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly as well as arranging an early plenary meeting of the North South Ministerial Council in Armagh.

Mr Varadkar said: “This is a new opportunity with the Executive and Assembly now up and running to represent and to make decisions on behalf of all sections of society.

“Good governance will make real the principles of partnership on parity of esteem. No identity nor constitutional aspiration should be diminished by working for the collective good.”

The Taoiseach said there is “some way to go” before mutual trust and reconciliation between the island’s different traditions is achieved.

He added: “And I believe words can only take us so far. We need actions as well. A shared island needs a shared infrastructure, an all-island economy, a shared set of dreams about what we can achieve when we work together.”

Mr Varadkar said the Irish Government’s Shared Island initiative involves a commitment to work with all communities and political traditions to create a “more connected, sustainable and prosperous island for all”.

In 2020, the Irish Government committed one billion euro to the Shared Island Fund to be spent across the decade.

So far, approximately 250 million euro has been allocated to 15 major projects and multiannual programmes including the restoration of the Ulster Canal and the construction of an academic building at Ulster University in Derry.

Mr Varadkar said he firmly believed that all-island initiatives and east-west cooperation could improve business, trade and innovation.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar delivers the keynote address at the Shared Island Forum in Dublin Castle
Shared Island Forum – Dublin Castle Taoiseach Leo Varadkar delivers the keynote address at the Shared Island Forum in Dublin Castle (Brian Lawless/PA)

He said there were “deep and vibrant connections” north and south but added that cross-border interactions are still “much less than they should be”.

The Irish premier said this included insufficient cross-border trade, travel, tourism and student mobility.

Mr Varadkar said the long-awaited A5 upgrade for connectivity in the north west of the island could commence this year, partly resourced by the Shared Island Fund.

Additionally, he said investment in the Narrow Water Bridge to enhance tourism between Mourne Mountains in Co Down and the Cooley Peninsula in Co Louth would be a “powerful symbol of what can be achieved”.

The Irish Government also wants to use the fund to invest in an hourly rail connection between Dublin and Belfast, as well as redeveloping Casement Park in Belfast for use in the Euro 2028 tournament.

He said there is “no reason why Northern Ireland can’t be the most prosperous part of the United Kingdom”.