Leo Varadkar has told the Fine Gael party that Irish reunification should be the party’s “mission” and that it can happen in his lifetime.
Speaking at the party’s Ard Fheis on Tuesday night, the Fine Gael leader called on his party to increase its engagement with NI communities.
Mr Varadkar said the “tectonic plates were shifting” in the Province and called for his party to establish a branch across the border.
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He added: “We should be proud to say that unification is something we aspire to. It should be part of our mission as a party to work towards it.”
DUP MP Ian Paisley said his “latest poisonous outburst is all about whipping up fear and anxiety on NI”. He accused Mr Varadkar of spreading disinformation about the border during Brexit negotiations, and now trying to ‘up the anti’ on Irish unification, which he said would damage NI’s economy. He added: “Frankly, Leo’s little state - a tax haven economy for rich US corporations - cannot financially support the needs of NI.”
DUP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson claimed it is evident that with the growth of Sinn Fein in the Republic, parties like Fine Gael are adopting a more aggressive stance in relation to a united Ireland.
He said: “This is not the right or sensible way to respond to hardline republicanism. Surely parties claiming to be more moderate should be seeking to find common ground with the rest of the 75% plus of people in Northern Ireland and the Republic who don’t support Sinn Fein? This would be infinitely more productive in terms of enhancing relationships than the futility of trying to mimic Sinn Féin’s rhetoric. If Leo Varadkar or any other southern leader truly wants to reach out to unionists, resorting to antagonistic rhetoric is not the way to achieve this. Surely Leo is better than that?”
UUP MLA Steve Aiken said the remarks by Mr Varadkar were “as unhelpful as they are unwelcome, particularly given the current uncertainty”.
He added: “He has clearly still not grasped the seriousness of the situation he helped create via the highly destabilising Protocol, and his remarks raise very real questions about his approach to maintaining previously harmonious North-South relations. We had hoped for better.
“The Unionist community have a right to live as British citizens in Northern Ireland as a full and equal part of the United Kingdom. The Belfast Agreement recognised that – it’s time Leo Varadkar did also.”
PUP councillor John Kyle believes people in the south will have much more pressing matters than Irish unity. “The continuing housing crisis which he neglected while Taoiseach or the state of the Irish health care system seem more pressing,” he said. “In Northern Ireland the last thing we need is Fine Gael agitating for Irish Unity. It is not in the interests of north or south and will further undermine the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process.”
Former Presbyterian moderator, Rev Norman Hamilton, said that as “an all-Island Christian first and a unionist second” it is important to have clearly spelt out policies.
“The floating of ideas is insufficient given the difficulties that the last number of years and even the current situation is storing up in Northern Ireland. There is no point putting ideas out there unless they are substantively worked through.”
Special envoy to the US, Trevor Ringland, said that the NI Life and Times Survey shows some 83% of people were happy with NI. “We owe it to future generations that, no matter what, those who have a pro-union position promote a Northern Ireland for all,” he said. He urged unionists and nationalists to create “great relations across the island and between these islands” which he said is the only proper basis to maintain the constitutional position - or to change it.
Loyalist Jamie Bryson said Mr Varadkar appears intent on “fuelling loyalist discontent”. He added: “He has even managed to turn loyalists who were amenable to working with the Irish Government entirely hostile. It seems he places his hyper-nationalism and relentless desire to see the imposition of an economic United Ireland -via the Protocol - against the will of unionists and above peace.”
Mr Varadkar called for a Fine Gael branch in the Province to increase engagement. “Not with a view to contesting elections, but with a view to recruiting members and building networks with like-minded people including those in other parties,” he added.
He called for Fine Gael to develop its own vision of what reunification will look like, one that can appeal to middle-ground voters.
He said: “We know the crude vision espoused by Sinn Fein, it’s not an inclusive one – a cold form of republicanism, socialist, narrow nationalism, protectionist, anti-British, euro-critical, ourselves alone, 50% plus one and nobody else is needed. That is not a 21st-century vision. Our vision should be different.”
Mr Varadkar said consideration would have to given to what changes will be needed to government, titles and symbols in a new Ireland.
He suggested that a new Senate could be established “to strengthen the representation of minorities, the role and status of our languages, a new and closer relationship with the United Kingdom”.
He also suggested that separate systems could be maintained in some areas, such as education and law, saying “unification is not assimilation”.
But former DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly described the comments as “mad stuff”.
She tweeted: “Well, this is useful (not) at a time of huge concern and anger on the ground across all shades of Unionism about the Protocol, and while Unionism is trying hard to ensure a peaceful summer despite significant unrest. Mad stuff.”
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