The 26 County Taoiseach has made his first visit north of the border since becoming Fine Gael leader, and called for a “unique solution” to the status of the Six Counties after Brexit and attending a Gay Pride event.
Addressing an invited audience in Queen’s University, Leo Varadkar said a second referendum on EU membership would likely have a different outcome than last year’s shock result.
He stressed the need for greater understanding and co-operation between north and south in the face of the major upheaval being caused by Brexit.
“I would hope unionist parties for example, who would be keen to preserve and protect the union, would see how it is much easier to do that if in fact the United Kingdom stays in the customs union and stays in the single market because that takes away any need for any sort of special arrangement or bespoke solution for Northern Ireland at all,” he said.
Responding to the ongoing debate around shifting immigration and customs checks to ports and airports, Mr Varadkar said it was not a proposal he was tabling.
“I wouldn’t like us to be in that position,” he said. But he was aware a ‘soft Brexit’ might not be possible.
“If the UK does not want to stay in the Single Market, perhaps it could enter into a deep Free Trade Agreement with the EU and rejoin EFTA, of which it was a member prior to accession,” he said.
“And if this cannot be agreed now, then perhaps we can have a transition period during which the UK stays in the single market and customs union while these things are worked out.”
CHANGE OF STYLE
Varadkar’s matter-of-fact tone has unsettled unionists. The Taoiseach appears to have deliberately drawn a line under the policy of ‘creative ambiguity’ maintained by successive Dublin governments when dealing with Anglo-Irish relations.
DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson accused the 38-year-old Taoiseach, who admits to having a limited memory of the conflict from his childhood, of setting Anglo-Irish relations back to the 1970s and 1980s.
The DUP is also understood to be infuriated by the openly gay Taoiseach’s appearance at a gay pride breakfast on Saturday morning amid a debate over marriage equality in the North. The Six Counties is the only area in Ireland or Britain where gay marriage remains impossible, and the DUP is deeply opposed to any change.
As a rainbow flag flew over a government building near Stormont for the first time, Varadkar described marriage equality as a “strand one” issue, meaning it relates to the internal affairs of Six Counties, but something that could be envisioned for the future.
He told crowds outside the Pride event at the Northern Whig in Belfast on Saturday morning that he was not “here to unsettle anyone”.
“But I am here to state my support and my government’s support for equality before the law and individual freedom for all citizens wherever they may reside,” he said.
ADAMS MEETS VARADKAR
A Sinn Fein delegation earlier held a meeting with the Taoiseach, which Gerry Adams described as “productive”. He welcomed his decision to participate in the Gay Pride event.
“This is an important act of solidarity with the LGBT community. It also underlines the imperative of LGBT citizens in the North having access to the same rights, including marriage equality, that all other citizens enjoy in every other part of these islands.”
He also welcomed the Taoiseach’s recent comments and those of Minister Coveney on the need for the border between the EU and non-EU British state not to be on the island of Ireland.
“I told Mr Varadkar that in Sinn Fein’s view designated special status for the North within the EU is the most effective way to defend the Good Friday Agreement, and to ensure that the two economies on the island of Ireland are protected during Brexit.”
Mr Adams described this was an Irish solution to an English problem.
“The majority of people here, and let it be said loud and clear, the majority of people here voted against Brexit. So that has to be at the cornerstone of any way of preventing the English Tory party having their way on these matters.
“What this all boils down to is whether unionism is clinging to the remnants of the old order or whether it’s prepared to accept that this state has changed utterly. I know it’s still in transition and so on but it has to be a state in which the rights and opinions aspirations of all citizens are both reflected and promoted and actively defended.
“Our solution for Brexit, and it’s an Irish solution to an English problem, is for Special Designated Status for the north within the EU. I’ve said previously that the DUP are very disrespectful about the vote in the north.”
The Sinn Fein leader was asked about the likely response of the British government.
He said: “I can’t second guess Theresa May. I am sure that Theresa May couldn’t even second guess Theresa May on these issues. They have no plan, they have no sense. They were oblivious to the people of Ireland north and south when they took this reckless decisions and they probably got a result that they didn’t anticipate and didn’t predict but you know British government are wonderful at reversing when they need to reverse but I’m not going to second guess that.”