Belfast Telegraph

Varadkar vows to help end talks deadlock in Northern Ireland

Fine Gael leader vows he and Theresa May will 'drop everything' to strike a deal

By Suzanne Breen

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has pledged to "drop everything" and become directly involved in the Stormont talks if he thinks it will improve the chances of a deal.

Mr Varadkar said it was vital that Northern Ireland politicians resolved their differences and restored power-sharing as Brexit talks entered a crucial stage. The Taoiseach was speaking at Queen's University Belfast yesterday on his first official visit to Northern Ireland.

The Fine Gael leader is seen as being more active and high-profile in events on this side of the border than his predecessor, Enda Kenny.

He agreed that there may be a difference in both "style and substance", but said this was partly due to the rapidly evolving situation with Brexit.

Although he has clashed with the DUP over the UK leaving the EU, Mr Varadkar stressed that he was committed to building a constructive relationship with the party.

He pointed out that, in previous roles, he had worked closely with DUP ministers including Arlene Foster, Simon Hamilton and Jim Wells.

The Taoiseach said that the restoration of power-sharing was necessary to try and secure the best outcome for the island of Ireland after Brexit.

He described the gulf between Sinn Fein and the DUP as "wide and deep", but insisted he did not believe the differences were insurmountable.

He said that, in a telephone call with British Prime Minister Theresa May, they had both agreed to become directly involved in the Northern Ireland talks if they believed it would be instrumental.

"If the main parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, come to a point where an agreement can be sealed, we are willing and able to do what we can to get the Executive up and running again and have the Assembly meeting," Mr Varadkar added.

"If there is a point at which an intervention would make a difference, we are willing to drop everything and deal with that.

Mr Varadkar addressed an invited audience from political and civic society at Queen's.

Guests included DUP South Belfast MP Emma Little Pengelly, former SDLP MP Alasdair McDonnell and MLA Claire Hanna, UUP MLA Doug Beattie, Co-operation Ireland chief executive and former Assistant Chief Constable Peter Sheridan, Ardoyne priest Fr Gary Donegan and business leaders.

Mr Varadkar claimed that "every single aspect of life in Northern Ireland could be affected by Brexit", which was "the challenge of this generation".

He pointed to a crucial EU meeting to discuss Brexit matters in October and said: "Today, we need an answer to the question of who do we, and others in Europe, talk to in Belfast?

"Who will speak for Northern Ireland and her 1.8 million people? Time is running out and I fear there will be no extra time allowed."

He said those Brexiteers who advocated a hard border had to come up with proposals as to how that would work. "They've already had 14 months to do so," he added.

Mr Varadkar said that if the UK remained in the customs union and single market, special status wouldn't be needed for Northern Ireland.

Such an option under a soft Brexit should appeal to those who wished to "preserve and protect the Union", he added.

Without such a deal, he proposed an EU-UK customs union.

"We have one with Turkey, surely we can have one with the UK?" Mr Varadkar asked.

He also proposed the UK entering a deep free trade agreement with the EU and rejoining the European Free Trade Association.

"At a time when Brexit threatens to drive a wedge between north and south, we need to build more bridges and fewer borders. I promise I will play my part in helping to do exactly that," he pledged.

Mr Varadkar repeated his hope that Brexit might not happen, suggesting that a second referendum could deliver a different outcome.

He pointed to the precedent of those unionists who opposed the Good Friday Agreement, later coming on board with the St Andrews Agreement.

Mr Varadkar said that his attendance at a Gay Pride breakfast today wasn't intended to "unsettle anyone" in Northern Ireland.

The Taoiseach "accepted fully" that marriage equality was a devolved issue to be dealt with by the Assembly. He was attending the breakfast to express his and his government's support for equality, he added.

Belfast Telegraph


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