Belfast Telegraph

Varadkar vow to unionists: Republic of Ireland does not have any hidden agenda on agreement

By Suzanne Breen

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar today gives a personal guarantee to unionists that his government has no hidden agenda to exploit Brexit and bring about a united Ireland.

But as he moved to reassure unionists in today's Belfast Telegraph, he also sent a strong message to nationalists that he would protect their interests. "You will never again be left behind by an Irish government," he pledges.

In writing his piece, the Taoiseach is recognising the need to allay unionist fears amidst his admission that relations between Dublin and London have been strained by Brexit.

As he was acknowledging the need to ease tensions, Ian Paisley claimed Mr Varadkar had been "done over" by the DUP, the government, and the EU in last week's Brexit deal.

The Taoiseach had "a ball at this toe and believed he was about to pull off a major coup" with "Northern Ireland harmonised with the Republic", the DUP MP said.

"Frankly, whatever efforts are made to characterise this week, Leo Varadkar was done over by the EU, the UK and the DUP," he added.

His comments came as London and Dublin clashed over whether last week's EU-UK agreement - intended to pave the way to move on to stage two trade talks - was legally binding or not.

Brexit Secretary David Davis insisted it was much more a statement of intent than "legally enforceable".

But the Irish government maintained it was "binding" and vowed to hold London "to account".

In his Belfast Telegraph article, the Taoiseach says: "Today I want to recognise the concerns of the unionist community in Northern Ireland.

"To those who are reading this article, I want to assure you that the Irish Government has no hidden agenda. There is no question of us exploiting Brexit as a means of moving to a united Ireland without consent.

"We do not want to see a border in the Irish Sea, any more than we want to see a border between Newry and Dundalk or between Letterkenny and the city of Derry.

"We want to build bridges, not borders. We want reconciliation and respect to grow."

Ensuring the Good Friday Agreement continued to operate in full after Brexit and that people could go about their normal lives and business as before had been his government's "guiding light", he says.

Last week's agreement recognised the consent principle which was "the foundation stone" on which the future would be built, Mr Varadkar states.

Turning to nationalists, the Taoiseach pledges: "I want to assure you that we have protected your interests throughout these negotiations. Your birth right as Irish citizens, and therefore as EU citizens, will be protected.

"There will be no hard border on our island. You will never again be left behind by an Irish government."

Mr Varadkar says he hopes to see a restoration of the Stormont Executive and North South Ministerial Council soon as they would be "a vital voice as we move forward together into Phase 2 of the Brexit talks".

Tensions between London and Dublin increased again yesterday as Mr Davis told the BBC that last week's agreement was "much more a statement of intent than a legally enforceable thing".

But Irish government chief whip Joe McHugh challenged that assertion and said Dublin and Brussels would hold the UK to account on its commitments. He told RTE that the agreement was binding in principle and questioned the point in London signing up to a deal it wouldn't uphold.

Mr McHugh said there would be lots of "rhetoric" and noise about the agreement and he didn't want to be drawn into the internal issues in British politics.

"There has been a lot of bruising over the last fortnight," he added.

Meanwhile, Theresa May will today tell the House of Commons that she expects the EU to agree the second phase of talks at a Brussels summit this week.

The Prime Minister is expected to say: "This is not about a hard or a soft Brexit. "I know some doubted we would reach this stage.

"I have always been clear this was never going to be an easy process. It has required give and take for the UK and the EU to move forward together. And that is what we have done."

But writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, TUV leader Jim Allister accuses the government of falling "hook, line and sinker for Dublin's blarney" when it signed Friday's deal.

"Sadly, they were not the only ones cajoled or manoeuvred," he says.

"The DUP was clearly bounced when Mrs May told them she was proceeding, with or without their blessing.

"Now, they are left to sell a deal they must know either neuters proper Brexit for the whole UK or is threatening to the integrity of the UK and which could yet leave us as a place apart shackled by EU rules and alignment."

Belfast Telegraph

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