A prominent pro-Brexit Labour MP has told Irish PM Leo Varadkar it is for the UK government, and not the Taoiseach, to speak on behalf of Northern Ireland.
Leave campaigner Kate Hoey MP was responding to comments made by Mr Varadkar during his first official visit to Northern Ireland which appeared to suggest there was no one to speak on behalf of the 1.8 million people living here.
Referring to the absence of a power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland, Mr Varadkar said: “We need an answer to the question of who we — and others in Europe — talk to in Belfast. Who will speak for Northern Ireland and her 1.8 million people?”
Responding, Labour MP Ms Hoey told the News Letter that Mr Varadkar “needn’t think that he’s speaking on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland”. She also urged the Taoiseach to ‘stick up’ for the UK in Brexit negotiations with the EU.
Ms Hoey said: “Factually, he is certainly not the person speaking for Northern Ireland. Obviously, the United Kingdom government and David Davis is responsible for negotiating with the EU for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“Whether there is an Assembly or not, David Davis is ultimately responsible on behalf of the United Kingdom.”
Ms Hoey continued: “My concern is that given all the other things he’s said in the last week, he should be very careful when he comes to Northern Ireland with what he says.”
Ms Hoey added: “Ultimately there is a very special relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom and Irish citizens won’t be affected in any way by us leaving the EU.
“It’s a very special relationship and I would like to see him being the person sticking up for the United Kingdom in their negotiations with the EU, rather than seemingly looking like he would like to do what the EU Commission would like to do, which is to get us to have another referendum – and we’re not going to have that.”
On his visit, Mr Varadkar said he and Theresa May are prepared to get directly involved in the Stormont talks, stressing the need for devolution ahead of Brexit negotiations.
Taoiseach Mr Varadkar said the restoration of a powersharing government in Northern Ireland was necessary to try and achieve the best outcome for the island of Ireland after the UK leaves the European Union.
He said he is “willing to drop everything” to help end the political deadlock but only if he believes it will make a difference.
DUP leader Arlene Foster warned however that, unless Sinn Fein shows a willingness to compromise, devolution will not be restored.
Following a meeting with the Taoiseach Mrs Foster said a “spirit of compromise” and a “willingness to work for everyone in Northern Ireland” is needed, but she is yet to see that from Sinn Fein.
“Some of their commentary has been very hardline.
“There’s no willingness to move from their stated positions and if they are going to continue with that then we won’t have devolution back,” Mrs Foster warned.
“I think that’s a tragedy for the people of Northern Ireland,” she added.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams again insisted devolution could only be restored once the DUP backed a “right-based” approach to government.
He said it was vital the Irish Government engaged with the UK Government on an ongoing basis.
“This will help to create the circumstances where these institutions can be back in place,” he said.
In a statement the UK Government said it “is committed to the restoration of Stormont and is working with all the parties and the Irish Government towards that shared goal.”
Mr Varadkar held separate meetings with the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance parties on Friday during his first visit to Northern Ireland since becoming Taoiseach.
The main issues under discussion were Brexit and the political crisis.
He described the gulf between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party as “wide and deep” but insisted he did not believe the differences between the two main parties were insurmountable.
He said that having spoken to Theresa May on the phone they have both agreed to become directly involved in negotiations to restore the Executive if they believe it will make a difference.
“If the main parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, come to point where an agreement can be sealed we are willing and able to do what we can to get the executive up and running again and have the assembly meeting.
“If there is a point at which an intervention would make a difference we are absolutely willing to drop everything and deal with that,” he said.
Earlier in the day Mr Varadkar used a speech at an engagement at Queen’s University in Belfast to urge the region’s politicians to resolve their differences.
He told an invited audience that “every single aspect of life in Northern Ireland could be affected by Brexit” and that it is “the challenge of this generation”.
Mr Varadkar highlighted that the EU 27 would meet in October to decide whether sufficient progress had been made in the initial phase of negotiations, focused on the financial settlement, citizens’ rights and the Irish border, to enable talks to proceed to the next phase.
He stressed the need for Northern Ireland’s voice to be heard ahead of the crunch autumn decision.
“Today we need an answer to the question, of who do we, and others in Europe, talk to in Belfast?
“Who will speak for Northern Ireland and her 1.8 million people?
“Time is running out, and I fear there will be no extra time allowed.”
He said those hard Brexiteers who advocated a hard border had to come up with proposals as to how that would work.
“They’ve already had 14 months to do so,” he said.
Mr Varadkar said a meaningful solution could be the establishment of an EU-UK customs union.
The Taoiseach also suggested, if the UK does not want to stay in the single market, it could perhaps enter into a deep Free Trade Agreement with the EU and rejoin The European Free Trade Association.
He said if this cannot be agreed now then perhaps there can be a period of transition during which the UK stays in the single market and customs union while the issues are worked out.
Mr Varadkar promised that the Government will do all it can in the Brexit negotiations to achieve the best outcomes for peace, freedom, rights and prosperity on the island of Ireland.
“At a time when Brexit threatens to drive a wedge between north and south we need to build more bridges and fewer borders.
“I promise I will play my part in helping to do exactly that,” he added.