EU willing to be flexible and creative with Northern Ireland, says Taoiseach
The European Union is willing to bend the rules for Northern Ireland after Brexit - something that the province should take full advantage of, the Taoiseach has said.
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Leo Varadkar was speaking to BBC NI's Spotlight as the talks to restore Stormont reach a critical stage. He told interviewer Jim Fitzpatrick that the peace process could be scuppered if Brexit is not handled well by the UK.
"We've had enormous progress in the last couple of decades. Increased prosperity on both sides of the border and almost total peace. Potentially those things are in jeopardy if the wrong decisions are made," the Fine Gael leader said.
Mr Varadkar was critical of how the Conservative government has handled the Brexit negotiations and the financial 'divorce' settlement with the EU.
"You can't have the benefits of being a member of a club if you don't obey the rules and you won't pay the membership fee," he said. "So … it is quite a difficult negotiation when people who want to leave the European Union in Britain don't really seem to agree among themselves what that actually means."
Mr Varadkar has previously urged the UK to pursue a 'soft' Brexit, staying within the customs union - an option that the Tory government has ruled out.
But he suggested that there could be bespoke arrangements for Northern Ireland - although unionists are opposed to any 'special status' for the province - which could place the province in an advantageous position.
Mr Varadkar said European leaders have "a real understanding that Northern Ireland is unique".
"And because of that there will be enormous flexibility shown towards Northern Ireland," he said.
"Whereas a hard line may be taken in negotiations with Britain and with London, there is a real willingness across Europe to be flexible and creative when it comes to Northern Ireland, to create a unique solution for Northern Ireland if that's required.
"And I just hope that the people and the politicians in Northern Ireland understand that's actually … [it] could be a big advantage for this part of the world, and this part of the country. And not to see it as some sort of threat to the constitutional settlement or some sort of threat to the Union. It isn't.
"There is a willingness to be flexible, to bend the rules for Northern Ireland and I really hope that Northern Irish political leaders and the community here in Northern Ireland takes advantage of that."
Mr Varadkar also put the issue of a united Ireland on the backburner, saying he would prefer it happened through consensus when it did.
"One of the best things about the Good Friday Agreement is that it did get very strong cross-border support - that's why there was a 70% vote for it. I don't think that there would be a 70% vote for a united Ireland in the morning, for example, or anything remotely to that. And I really think we should focus on making the agreement that we have work," he said.
Spotlight, BBC1 NI, tonight 10.40pm