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I'm a neighbour, not an invader Varadkar tells Orange Order leaders

Order’s warmest welcome to Taoiseach as he insists visit has ‘no hidden agenda'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during his visit to headquarters of the Orange Order
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during his visit to headquarters of the Orange Order
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar paid his respects at a memorial window dedicated to members killed in Troubles
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during his visit to headquarters of the Orange Order
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arriving at Queen's University Belfast
Mr Varadkar meets Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill at launch of festival, where he watched a young dance troupe
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaks to the media following a visit to the Museum of Orange Heritage in Belfast
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visits the Museum of Orange Heritage in Belfast
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar watches a young dance troupe perform

By Suzanne Breen, Political Editor

The Taoiseach has said he hopes his historic visit to Orange Order headquarters in Belfast will help build better relations between the organisation and the Irish government.

Leo Varadkar said he came to Northern Ireland "as a neighbour, not as an invader", as he received a warm welcome at Schomberg House in east Belfast yesterday.

On the first-ever visit by a Taoiseach to the Order's headquarters, he posed beside a sign commemorating the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, and also paid his respects at a memorial window dedicated to the 336 members of the institution who were killed during the Troubles.

Mr Varadkar met with the Order's leadership, including senior Orangemen from the Republic. Local DUP MP Gavin Robinson was also present at the event.

The Taoiseach said: "I believe that Protestant heritage, Protestant history, Orange heritage is part of our shared history.

"It's not just something that is about Northern Ireland - it's something that applies in all parts of Ireland and very often we can be too binary. Things are never as simple as North versus South or orange versus green - our history is very complex."

He said he hoped "new relationships can be forged and old difficulties overcome" between the Orange Order and Irish nationalists.

Mr Varadkar insisted he came with "no hidden agenda".

He said: "I want to ensure a future where identity, in all its complexity, whether it's Irish or British or Northern Irish, or all of these things, is respected and celebrated across the island."

The Taoiseach was asked about recent tensions between himself and the DUP over Brexit and the protocol for his visits across the border.

"My mother brought me up to have very good manners, so I hope people don't think I am ill-mannerly at all," he said.

"When I come north I see myself as a neighbour, not as an invader, as the head of government of another jurisdiction.

"I see this place, Northern Ireland, as a neighbouring jurisdiction, but also one in which there are almost a million people who are Irish citizens and we need to acknowledge the fact that it does make it a unique place.

"What I am trying to do on this trip is to reach out to all communities in Northern Ireland to understand their needs and perspectives better, and try to cement relationships that I think we can build on the in the future."

The Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, Edward Stevenson, said: "We are very pleased to welcome the Taoiseach to the Museum of Orange Heritage in Belfast.

"We acknowledge this is a significant moment; as it is the first time a serving leader of the Republic of Ireland government has visited the headquarters of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland.

"As a cross-border organisation, we welcome the Taoiseach's direct engagement with our members based in the border counties of the Republic and in so doing, recognising the long-standing cultural identity of the Orange family in the South."

Mr Stevenson added: "It is also important to acknowledge the importance of the Taoiseach paying his respects to those members of our institution, many of whom served in the security forces, who were murdered by terrorists.

"Such a gesture should not be under-estimated and will, I believe, be deeply appreciated by many relatives of the deceased, and the Orange membership as a whole."

Asked about Brexit, Mr Varadkar said the Government's proposals on a backstop position to avoid a hard border in Ireland "fall short" of what the EU requires.

He said the concept of a deadline or time limit on the customs arrangement was not acceptable, insisting any fall-back position to enable free movement over the frontier should only expire at such time that a broader trading deal between the EU and UK was struck.

"Just putting off a hard border for three years or four years or six years or 20 years isn't enough - it has to be permanent," he added.

On Boris Johnson's unguarded comments in which he downplayed concerns over a hard Irish border as "pure millennium bug stuff", Mr Varadkar said it wasn't for him to comment "on the internal divisions that may exist in the British government".

Mr Johnson had previously "described the border that exists (as) similar to that between two London boroughs - that is just not the case," the Taoiseach said.

"When it comes to wanting to know and understand what the British government position is, I listen to the Prime Minister Theresa May and she understands it."

The Taoiseach kicked off a day of engagements in Belfast with a private meeting with Baroness Paisley, the widow of former DUP leader Ian Paisley, at a library dedicated to his memory in the east of the city.

In the afternoon, he met with Queen's University Belfast's acting president and Vice Chancellor to discuss Brexit and Higher Education.

Mr Varadkar also attended a civic engagement with business and community leaders, hosted by Professor Richard English, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Internationalisation and Engagement.

Later he launched the Feile an Phobail festival in west Belfast.

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