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Tánaiste Leo Varadkar Niall Carson via PA Images
United Ireland

'Never a bad time': Varadkar defends comments about united Ireland after criticism from unionists

UUP leader Doug Beattie said the Tánaiste’s comments should not have been made in the midst of a crisis.

LAST UPDATE | 16 Jun 2021

TÁNAISTE LEO VARADKAR has defended comments he made saying that he could see a united Ireland within his lifetime. 

The Fine Gael leader said it is never a “bad time” to talk about Ireland’s future.

His comments have attracted criticism from some unionists.

Varadkar told Fine Gael’s Árd Fheis last night that he believed in a campaign to unify Ireland, and also suggested that there should be a Fine Gael branch in the North. 

“It means the unification of the people of our island as well as territory of Ireland and it is a legitimate political aspiration. It is in our Constitution and is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement should a majority of people in the North and South vote for it,” the Tánaiste.

However, UUP leader Doug Beattie told RTE radio’s Morning Ireland this morning that Varadkar’s comments should not have been made in the midst of a crisis. 

“Oh, good man Leo for bringing up Irish unity again when we’re in a crisis. You know let’s let’s throw that into the mix, because that’s really going to be helpful for people here in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“Of course he has the right to say that I think he’s saying that more because there’s a great opportunity for him to ensure that that he’s the next Taoiseach given the system you have down there at this moment in time.

“So, I think, fine if he wants to say that he’s going to say that. He’s a reasonably young man – if it is going to be in his lifetime, it could be 50 years away, so look that’s up to him do what he wants to say personally, I need to get on with making sure that Northern Ireland works that’s where I’m focusing on. 

“I will allow Leo Varadkar and anybody else down south to do what they wish and say whatever they want but I’m not focusing on what they’re saying I’m focusing on what we need to do for the people here in Northern Ireland.” 

UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, also called the Táiniste’s comments “unhelpful” and “ill advised” and urged “everyone to dial down any rhetoric particularly at this time of year”.

“We would be concerned about any deviation from the principle of consent as enshrined in the Belfast Good Friday Agreement,” he said.

Lewis said that while the agreement respects the right of anyone to express their views, a recent Life and Times survey put Northern Irish support for a united Ireland at 30%.

“I’m also aware of the polls which put Sinn Féin ahead in the Republic, which may explain the timing of some of these comments from the Tánaiste,” he said. 

He said that “whatever the circumstances”, the UK government would support the principle of consent and all of their obligations under the Good Friday Agreement.

Beattie said that he was not concerned about the prospect of Fine Gael setting up a base in Northern Ireland. 

“That’s the way politics works but you know I am quite clear that I’m looking at a union of people here in Northern Ireland.

“That is everybody regardless of religion, regardless of colour, regardless of sexual orientation or cultural background.

“People who want to make northern Ireland work, people who want to live here, grow here, raise your families here, get educated here have good jobs, people who want to get up in the morning with a sense of purpose and go to bed at night with a sense of fulfilment, that’s what I’m doing, what other parties want to do is up to them,” he said. 

‘Never a bad time’

Speaking in Dublin today, Varadkar said his party talks about the future at its Ard Fheis.

“There is never a bad time to talk abut the future of Ireland and Ireland’s place in Europe and the world,” he said.

“I don’t think the debate around reunification belongs to any one political party.

“There may be a political party who wants it that way but that’s wrong. This is a legitimate objective, it’s in our Constitution. Irish people voted in a referendum to enshrine it in our Constitution in 1997.

“It’s also in the Good Friday Agreement. What I would like to talk about though is what reunification might look like.

“A lot of questions (are) unanswered about that and I want my party to be involved and lead the debate and discussion on what (the) position may be and that’s my motivation about it.”

Responding to criticisms that his comments are unhelpful during a time of political instability in Northern Ireland, Varadkar said it should not affect relations between the parties in Northern Ireland.

“If they are unable to put together an Executive in the next week, it will be because of relations between parties in Northern Ireland and not for anything external,” he added.

“My view in the round is it’s always good to talk about the future.”

In his comments at the Árd Fheis, Varadkar touched on unification, which he said should be part of the party’s mission, and the contention surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol.

He said he believes the party should “establish a branch in Northern Ireland with the same status as a constituency organisation in our rules”.

“Not with a view to contesting elections, but with a view to recruiting members and building networks with liked-minded people including those in other parties,” he said.

“We need to reach out to all sides, and we need a presence on the ground to do so.”

Specifically on the subject of the unification of Ireland the Tánaiste said it was a legitimate aspiration.

“It is in our Constitution and is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement should a majority of people in the North and South vote for it.”

Speaking to reporters today, Varadkar said that there is “never a bad time to talk about the future of Ireland and Ireland’s place in Europe and in the world”.

He said that there would “always be a reason after this week, next week, or next month or next year” that could be used to put off discussions on a united Ireland.

On the situation in Stormont, where a Deputy First Minister needs to be nominated this week, Varadkar said that “if they’re unable to put together an executive in the next week, that’d be because of relations between the parties in Northern Ireland, not for anything external, in my view”.

“I don’t think the debate around unification belongs to any one political party,” he said.

“This is a legitimate objective. It’s in our Constitution.

“What I’d like us to talk about so rather than the shrill calls for border polls which are divisive in my view, what I’d like to talk about instead is what unification might look like. A lot of questions unanswered about that, and I want my party Fine Gael to be involved, and to lead the debate and discussion about what the proposition might actually be.”

- Contains reporting by Press Association, Niamh Quinlan and Lauren Boland

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