Taoiseach stresses Stormont powersharing restoration amid Brexit talks

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

Irish premier Leo Varadkar has said he and Theresa May are prepared to get directly involved in the Stormont talks, stressing the need for devolution ahead of crucial 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 that he is “willing to drop everything” to help end the political deadlock - but only if he believes it will make a difference.

Mr Varadkar arrived in Northern Ireland on Friday for his first visit since becoming Taoiseach.

He said that his meetings with political parties will focus on Brexit and the political crisis at Stormont.

Describing the gulf between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party as “wide and deep”, the Taoiseach said 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 a 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.

Relations between the DUP and the Irish Government have become strained over the issue of a post-Brexit border.

Before he arrived in Belfast, the DUP accused the Taoiseach of being incoherent and incompetent on what would happen to North-South relations in the wake of Brexit.

Party leader Arlene Foster also described comments Mr Varadkar had made about the border as “not helpful”.

In a more conciliatory tone the Taoiseach said he has not spoken “in disparaging terms about any politician or party” and added that he does not intend to do so.

Earlier, during a speech at Queen’s University in Belfast, Mr Varadkar urged 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 that 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 re-join 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.

During a Q&A session following his speech, Mr Varadkar was challenged on domestic issues at home, notably the timing of a future referendum on whether or not the eighth amendment on abortion should be repealed.

Three students sitting adjacent to Mr Varadkar made their point by wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the word “Repeal”.