Taoiseach's historic visit to Orange Order HQ in Belfast welcomed
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is expected to make a landmark visit to the Orange Order’s Belfast headquarters tomorrow.
Mr Varadkar is due to visit Schomberg House in the east of the city as part of a one-day visit to Northern Ireland. It’s believed this will be the first time an Irish premier has visited the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland’s headquarters.Pioneering ex-Catholic school head 'delighted' by Varadkar's visit
The Orange Order has declined to make any comment at this stage but it’s understood members from lodges in the Republic will attend.
The surprise announcement comes after unionist leaders accused Mr Varadkar of aggressive tactics on the issue of the Irish border after Brexit.
Last month, the DUP leader Arlene Foster questioned if his stance was just about the European Union or if he was also “trying to claim the fourth green field in terms of Northern Ireland”.
Yesterday, most political leaders welcomed the visit.
Sinn Fein MP for west Belfast Paul Maskey called the meeting historic.
“I welcome this initiative and hope this might open up a new era of engagement between the Grand Lodge and wider society,” he said.
He also spoke of his delight that Mr Varadkar would also launch the 30th West Belfast Festival.
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann MLA said Mr Varadkar was “very welcome” to visit Northern Ireland.
“I hope he enjoys his visit to Schomberg House and in particular the exhibit relating to the First World War, which highlights a shared past,” he said.
“The Orange Order has made a major contribution to cultural life on both sides of the border and I’m sure the Taoiseach will be warmly received.”
Billy Hutchinson, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, said: “We welcome the visit of Leo Varadkar to the headquarters of the GOLI and the Museum of Orange heritage. Hopefully it is an educational visit where he can experience the rich cultural exhibits and gain an understanding of this part of the UK.”
Alliance leader and East Belfast MLA Naomi Long welcomed the news on Twitter.
“The ongoing outreach work of the Orange Order is important and this is another valuable opportunity to further understanding and respect,” she said.
Her party colleague, South Belfast MLA Paula Bradshaw, added: “This move is to be welcomed, provided it is not simply used as tokenism by either the Taoiseach or the Orange Order.
“Instead, it should be taken as an opportunity for dialogue and to understand each other’s views, beliefs and traditions.”
The SDLP’s reconciliation spokesperson, Justin McNulty MLA, called the anticipated visit “a powerful illustration of the peace process in action”.
“Credit must also go to the Orange Order for opening their doors to the Irish government for the first time,” he said. “As political tensions in the north seem to rise as the impasse continues into its 18th month, historic acts like these are a great reminder of how far we have come in the north.”
While the tone of political statements was positive overall, some east Belfast residents voiced their objections online.
Laurence Davidson commented on Twitter: “As a resident my view is that Varadkar isn’t welcome in the Lisnasharragh area at all.
“Maybe they should rename themselves the Green White and Orange Order?” Another pointed to a recent reference to the Orange Order Mr Varadkar made in Washington DC to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Commenting on how Ireland had changed, Mr Varadkar said at the time: “The biggest parade that happens in Northern Ireland every year is not a march of the Orange Order, or a march of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
“It is, in fact, Belfast Pride.”