Tanaiste Leo Varadkar has said he will “do his best” to have a good relationship with DUP leader Edwin Poots.
The former Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader was asked about his relationship with the party boss, after the latter accused Mr Varadkar and former Tanaiste Simon Coveney of behaving in a “frankly disgraceful” way in the run-up to Brexit.
Mr Poots claimed the pair “took photographs of blown up border posts to impose upon Northern Ireland people a harshest form of customs, and an internal market that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world”.
He was referring to an incident in 2018, in which Mr Varadkar brought a copy of the Irish Times newspaper to a European Council meeting in Brussels, to highlight his concerns over the Irish border issue.
The paper featured a story about an IRA bombing of a border customs post in 1972 that left nine people dead.
Mr Varadkar responded in an event with business leaders on Wednesday in the latest in the Shared Island Dialogue programme of discussions, which was considering economic recovery.
The Tanaiste said: “I’ll certainly to my best to have a good relationship with him, he’s a party leader, I’m a party leader, I really want to get along with him on a personal level.
“We’ll have to see where things settle. As deputy head of a sovereign government my main interactions will be with the first and deputy first ministers - that will be my priority to build a relationship with whoever they’re going to be.
“Party leader to party leader we’ll have an interaction, too, but party leaders don’t set policy.”
And he dismissed Mr Poots’ assessment of relationships between Northern Ireland and the Irish government as at an all-time low. “I don’t accept that. I don’t think we should characterise north-south relationships as between one government and one party…
“Northern Ireland is a territory of minorities now.”
Mr Varadkar said he was “always optimistic” that an agreement would be reached over the protocol. Its failure would mean the collapse of the UK and EU’s Trade and Cooperation Agreement, he said.
“It’s in the interests of the Commission and UK to come to an agreement, and the Irish government is central to that given we’re part of the EU.”
Angela McGowan, director of the CBI in Northern Ireland, who participated in the event, said business leaders saw potential in the protocol.
“That is seen as being quite a big differentiator, in terms of access to both markets. I know companies across NI and businesses, despite a lot of that political rhetoric, are very keen to make that work.”
She said she regarded the all-island economy has having reached about one-third of its potential.
Neil Gibson, chief economist at business advisory firm EY Ireland, said there had already been strong progress in sectors such as agriculture and professional services towards operating on an all-Ireland basis.
But he said that factors such as different currencies on either sides of the border would always act as “headwinds” in the way of full co-ordination. “I think we’re only beginning that journey of what the true potential is,” he said.
Richard Kennedy, head of Belfast-based Devenish Nutrition, said his company had thrived by making use of the potential of the all-island economy, growing from 22 staff in 1998 to 700 staff in 2021.
“We have always seen the potential of the island and that shared ambition, that shared innovation and inquisitive culture, and the appetite to build and grow businesses.”