Leo Varadkar ‘has entered an irony-free zone’ as he slams UK as ‘not even handed’ about post-Brexit arrangements – and advises unionists on how to protect Union

Leo Varadkar has said that UK/Ireland relations are now the worst he has ever known as he accused the UK government of “not being even handed” – drawing strong rebukes from unionists.

The tanaiste (the deputy premier) made the comments after MPs voted earlier this week to give the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill a second reading, taking it a step closer to becoming law.

In an interview with the BBC, Mr Varadkar said the UK’s bid to unilaterally change the protocol was a “strategic mistake for people who want to preserve the Union”.

Among those responding to him was Arlene Foster, who wrote online: “Her Majesty’s government have always said they will not be neutral on the Union. Just as Leo Varadkar is not neutral [on] a United Ireland.”

Leo Varadkar

TUV leader Jim Allister, meanwhile, said: “Varadkar has entered an irony-free zone in telling the BBC the UK government is not ‘even-handed’ over the protocol.

“Just how would one describe Mr Varadkar’s partisan, anti-NI campaigning to cut us off from our biggest market and divert trade north-south to benefit of the RoI? It’s the duty of government to restore the integrity of the UK.”

Mr Varadkar (a Fine Gael TD who was taoiseach from 2017 to 2020, and now serves under Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin) told the BBC the EU would “not be threatened” by the UK’s approach to the ongoing stand-off.

He said: “The British government had given commitments in the past that it would be even handed in its approach to Northern Ireland.

“I don’t think that’s the case when it comes to this government, they’re siding with one of the three blocs of opinion that now exist in Northern Ireland. And I think that’s a strategic mistake for people who want to preserve the Union – to continue to impose things that a clear majority of people don’t want means more people will turn away from the Union.”

Mr Varadkar also said that in his political lifetime, he had “never seen relations as bad” with UK ministers.

“We have a British government that doesn’t want to work hand in glove with the Irish government, it’s not even handed, it’s a government that wants to continue to have rows with the EU even though they’ve left,” he said.

“I think trust needs to be restored, the best way they can do that is by de-escalating this.

“Even if you have difficulties trusting someone, you still have to try to come to an agreement. If we can’t with this government, then a future government.”

Mr Varadkar also claimed the people of Northern Ireland are not being listened to, referring to a letter against the bill signed by members of Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Alliance Party.

“The thing that does bother me the most actually is that the people of Northern Ireland aren’t being listened to by their sovereign government in Westminster,” he said.

“A letter was written, 52 MLAs out of 90 signed it. It’s almost as if British ministers didn’t read it or didn’t care, and they set out very clearly that they did not want the protocol revoked and they did not accept this argument that the protocol undermined the Good Friday Agreement.

“Fifty-two out of 90s MLAs, and the British government treats the views of a majority of elected representatives of Northern Ireland as irrelevant.”

Meanwhile, former Tony Blair aide Jonathan Powell accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government of “casually destroying something through vandalism”, and trashing the UK’s reputation with his moves over the protocol.

“We spent a decade building trust, but the current (British) government is spending its time destroying trust. It is catastrophic,” said Mr Powell, who was a senior Downing Street official during the drawing up of the 1998 agreement.

“Boris Johnson decided to opt for a border in the Irish Sea – something Theresa May had said no British prime minister could live with – in order to get a (Brexit) deal.

“This option is certainly massively better than a border on the island of Ireland, which would be disastrous for the GFA (Good Friday Agreement), but it cannot be denied that it undermines the unionist sense of identity to have a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

“Unfortunately for the unionists, no-one in six years of trying has been able to suggest an alternative.”