Northern Ireland

Heaton-Harris and Varadkar clash over Irish unification

War of words overshadows major €1.1bn investment in Belfast

British Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris

A war of words between the Dublin and London governments over comments by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar about Irish unification overshadowed a major €1.1bn funding investment in Northern Ireland.

Irish officials have expressed their annoyance and surprise at comments by the British Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris to the media in Belfast in which he said Varadkar’s spoken desire for unification in his lifetime as “unhelpful”

The Taoiseach stood by a comment that he believes there will be a united Ireland in his lifetime. Varadkar also said he believed “we are on the path to unification”, which has sparked criticism among the unionist community in Northern Ireland.

Speaking in Belfast on Monday, Varadkar downplayed his remarks, saying it is “not the first time I have expressed my view that I would like to see a united Ireland in my lifetime”.

Stormont remains effectively collapsed, with the DUP continuing to refuse to participate in powersharing government until they are satisfied that Northern Ireland is properly protected in post-Brexit arrangements.

But Varadkar said: “Every time I say it, it is not the right time. So I would often ask the question, when is the right time?”.

The Taoiseach also said that there would be a sizeable pro-British minority in a united Ireland, and he wanted to ensure they would be respected.

“I stated very clearly that I believe the success of a united Ireland would be judged on how we treat our minorities. That is how you judge the success of states.” he said.

“In a united Ireland there would be one million people who are British. They don’t just identify as British, they are British.

“That is their culture, that is their heritage, and we in the south need to talk a lot more about what we would do to make sure they feel included, feel wanted, would put their effort behind a united Ireland and not seek to oppose it.”

“If a united Ireland is going to be successful, and I don’t want it if it’s not going to be successful, we need to make sure that we do everything we possibly can to make sure that minority feel included, feel respected, feel wanted.”

Varadkar made the original comment in an interview with RTE last week.

He had been asked about the Wolfe Tones, an Irish folk band that regularly spark debate over their song Celtic Symphony, which contains the words: “Ooh, ahh, up the Ra”, a reference to the IRA.

He said he thought some “maybe read too much into the politics of this”, adding: “But there is one thing that I would say, I believe we are on the path to unification.

“I believe that there will be a united Ireland in my lifetime, and in that united Ireland there is going to be a minority, roughly a million people who are British.

“And you judge the success and the quality of a country by the way it treats its minorities and that’s something we’re going to have to think about.”

Varadkar was criticised in 2021 for saying that Irish reunification could happen in his lifetime.

In January this year he declined to answer whether he thought there would be a united Ireland in his lifetime during a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

He said at the time that EU-UK talks on renegotiating the Northern Ireland Protocol, arrangements that outline post-Brexit trade arrangements for the region, had reached a sensitive stage.

“Unhelpful comments” from Dublin are resonating with unionists in Northern Ireland while the UK Government continues its efforts to restore the Stormont powersharing institutions, Chris Heaton-Harris has said.

The Northern Ireland Secretary said he would not abandon efforts to bring back the Executive, but said it was impossible to put a timeframe on when the devolved Assembly would return.

However, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that the stalemate cannot be allowed to continue forever, and added that “alternative arrangements” may need to be considered if the DUP does not agree to end its boycott.

The powersharing institutions have been collapsed for more than a year as the DUP seeks further assurances from the UK Government about post-Brexit political and trading arrangements following the signing of the Windsor Framework.

The framework, negotiated by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak earlier this year and approved by Parliament, proposes reduced checks on goods travelling directly to Northern Ireland from Great Britain, to reduce trade barriers within the UK.

Heaton-Harris and Varadkar were in Belfast, with European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic, to launch a new joint peace funding programme.

The DUP were not represented at the event.

Last week, Varadkar said he believed he would see a united Ireland in his lifetime, and has previously discussed the potential for a “plan B” if devolved government in Northern Ireland was not restored by the autumn.

Heaton-Harris said work to get Stormont running again was his priority.

“There’s a responsibility, actually, to kind of allow this process to continue. Getting an executive up and running is the most important thing for me in my role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland,” he said.

“There are always plenty of people who are willing to point out when obstacles are put in the way.

“The Taoiseach’s got a lot of domestic politics on his plate, but occasionally unhelpful comments down in Dublin do resonate up here amongst the unionist community, and I need the clearest picture possible to get the executive up and running.”

He added: “I think devolution can be restored and, to be frank, I don’t think it would be a Plan B because, whatever was happening, we’d be constantly trying to make sure that the executive got back up and running.

“So it would be an evolution of process rather than an alternative to try and get the executive. But both those two things can run together.”

He added that it was “impossible” to put a timeline on when Stormont would be functional again.

“I’m keen to make sure that we come to a conclusion and the executive is up and running in the shortest period of time,” he said.

“And as I just said, talk of Plan B is unhelpful.”

Varadkar said he had discussed with Heaton-Harris the “lack of progress” being made in restoring the Assembly.

He said: “We want powersharing to be restored here in Northern Ireland. People voted for an Assembly and an Executive, most people here in Northern Ireland want it up and running.

“I want it to so I can work with them as we have done in the past.

“I did say to the Secretary of State that there is going to come a point where we can’t keep waiting and we have to start talking about alternative arrangements within the confines of the Good Friday Agreement.

“I will be seeing Prime Minister Sunak in Spain in early October and that will be the next opportunity to talk about that.”

He added: “I don’t want to put an artificial deadline on it, work is ongoing, talks are still ongoing.

“But I think we all appreciate they can’t be ongoing forever.

“I think if it is advancing at all (efforts to bring Stormont back), it’s advancing at a snail’s pace, and I know from talking to all five main parties here that confidence is starting to wane about whether it is going to be possible to get the Assembly and the Executive up and running.

“I am worried about that, I am certainly not giving up on it.

“But there does come a point at which the stalemate can’t go on forever.”

Meanwhile, Sefcovic said that the Windsor Framework is the “definitive solution” to trading issues created by the Northern Ireland Protocol.

He added: “We have been working very, very closely with the UK Government.

“For us it was a definitive solution to the outstanding issues and indeed we saw that it got overwhelming support in the UK Parliament.

“I think that we have delivered on what we have promised, that we would listen to the worries, the concerns about how the protocol is impacting the daily lives of people in Northern Ireland.

“I think we have provided the best possible answer to all outstanding issues.”

He added: “On both our sides, with the UK Government and on the side of the European Union, we know that that’s as far as we could go.”

Sefcovic said it was a matter for the Northern Ireland parties when the Stormont powersharing institutions would return.