'Gorgeous' VIP Leo praised by crowd for taking historic step
Anybody hoping for a protest as the Taoiseach visited Orange Order headquarters in east Belfast yesterday was to be disappointed.
For the small crowd that gathered outside Schomberg House on the Cregagh Road as news spread of the VIP arrival wanted to congratulate and shake hands with Leo Varadkar.
"It's a really positive step to see the Taoiseach here," said local man Tim Wareing. "He's come to embrace other people's beliefs and to learn. You couldn't fault him for that."
Tim's wife Leanne said: "Our politicians could learn a few things from Leo Varadkar. He's a very forward-thinking man."
Leanne's mother, Gail Lewis, was also a fan but for different reasons. "He's gorgeous, just gorgeous, isn't he?" she said.
The Taoiseach was cheered as he entered the building and received a round of applause as he left. South Belfast woman Sylvia Hamilton had been driving along the road on her way to Ballyholme beach with her dog Bonnie when she spotted Mr Varadkar arriving and stopped.
"I think he's just great," she said. "He has such a modern outlook. He's in the same mode as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron."
East Belfast resident Dympna O'Hare described the Taoiseach as "a breath of fresh air".
Ruth Kirkwood and her 12-year-old grand-daughter Amy Smith also waited outside.
"I'm not sure of his name but I know he's the president of Ireland," said Ruth. "It's a good thing he's here to see history from Northern Ireland's side." The first image hitting the Taoiseach when he entered the building was a mural of King Billy declaring: "Welcome to the museum of Orange heritage. The liberties of England, and the Protestant religion I will maintain."
Orange Order grand secretary, the Rev Mervyn Gibson, said: "I didn't think I'd ever see this day. It's a very welcome development to have the Taoiseach here.
"We all want to move forward. Nobody wants to go back to the bad old days. It's an important visit and it will help build relations in the future."
Mr Varadkar was shown a wall of portraits of famous Orangemen including Ernest Blythe who came from a Co Antrim unionist family but joined the revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood. "I pointed out to the Taoiseach that Blythe had gone on to be a member of his own party, Fine Gael," Mr Gibson said.
"There had been rumours that he had joined the Orange Order just to spy on us but I think the truth was that he did so as a young man in order to get a job in a local newspaper here."
The Order had bought a range of refreshments and cakes for the Taoiseach's visit only to find out at the last minute that he doesn't eat carbs.
A bowl of fruit was hastily arranged and Mr Varadkar enjoyed a Coca Cola Zero as he chatted to Orangemen.
All sorts of merchandise was on sale in the museum including Billy bears, orange wrist-bands, coasters and mugs.
But the Order presented the Taoiseach with the more upmarket gift of a Galway Crystal replica of the Boyne Obelisk - a monument which had stood at the site of the Battle of the Boyne until it was blown up by republicans in 1923.
And just to show that its hospitality wasn't in doubt, the Order threw in a bundle of Orange ties for Mr Varadkar's entourage.