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Varadkar wants group 'to seek solutions to Northern Ireland's old problems'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Alliance Party conference last night with party leader Naomi Long and Michael Long, Alliance councillor for Belfast PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Alliance Party conference last night with party leader Naomi Long and Michael Long, Alliance councillor for Belfast PA
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has announced that his party is setting up a Northern Ireland Engagement Group to work with nationalists and unionists to help find "new solutions to old problems".

Mr Varadkar said he "deeply regretted" that Northern Ireland, which was once more liberal than the Republic, had not "kept up", and he said the vast majority of its citizens were "crying out for change".

The Taoiseach was addressing the Alliance Party conference in Belfast last night after meeting business leaders earlier to discuss Brexit and the political stalemate at Stormont. He said it was very unlikely that the UK would crash out of the EU without a deal.

In a keynote speech at the Alliance conference's opening dinner, he said: "When I grew up in Ireland, being bi-racial was unusual in what was a homogenous country. Divorce was not an option. Being gay was something you kept to yourself.

"And a young woman facing a crisis pregnancy, faced it alone. Catholic social teaching had for too long had too great an influence on public policy.

"The last 20 years have seen so much change - change for the better as we voted as a nation to legalise divorce, marriage equality and more recently the right to choose.

"I regret that Northern Ireland, which for so long was more liberal than the South, has not kept up. And it's a real shame that these issues have got caught up in the tussle between unionism and nationalism, orange and green."

The Taoiseach continued: "I believe the right to marry the person you love, the right of a woman to make choices about her own body, and the right to have your native language respected should not be about orange and green.

"These are universal rights, these are personal freedoms and should apply everywhere without exception.

"I believe the Northern Ireland of the future should embody the best of what is British and the best of what is Irish. So, any right or freedom that a British citizen has in Britain, or an Irish citizen has in Ireland, should be had here in Northern Ireland as well."

Mr Varadkar praised the Alliance Party for "its strong and progressive position" on these issues. "I believe you stand with the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland who are crying out for change. And, I believe we are on the cusp of that change happening," he said.

"We should never forget that the largest march that happens in Northern Ireland every year isn't orange or green. It's rainbow-coloured."

The Taoiseach noted the new SDLP-Fianna Fáil partnership and that Sinn Fein and the Greens organised on both sides of the border.

He said Fine Gael was choosing a different approach in order "to be able speak with and work with all parties as an honest broker" and to talk to them in confidence "without fear or favour".

Mr Varadkar didn't believe that was possible if "you have a privileged relationship with one party over the others".

He said: "We've all witnessed the dynamic created by the Conservative Party's agreement with the DUP. We need to be wise to the possibility that a similar dynamic could arise were Fianna Fáil to be in government in Dublin given its partnership with the SDLP. We want to be able to be fair and impartial when in government."

Fine Gael was committed to working with all parties in Northern Ireland but particularly "individuals, groups, and parties in civic nationalism and civic unionism who seek new solutions to old problems".

He said: "We will work with people who consider themselves to be British or Irish and the growing numbers who feel that they are and can be both.

"For this reason, we have established and resourced a Northern Ireland Engagement Group, and I hope you will come to know them well. It's something I am committed to personally."

The Taoiseach expressed optimism about a Brexit deal. "I don't want to say too much about it at this stage but I think that the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal on March 29 is unlikely," he said. "I think we either will have a deal or we will have an extension."

He urged Alliance to "continue to make the case for Europe into the future".

He said: "The majority of people in Northern Ireland are with you, especially the young.

"The Brexiteers never gave up on leaving.

!Had they lost the referendum, they would not have given up their firmly held beliefs.

"I ask that you never give up either. Europe is your home too, you helped to build it, don't let anyone say otherwise.

"You will always be welcome to return to that common European home we built together."

The Taoiseach said he regretted the suspension of devolution and the absence of the North-South Ministerial Council which had ensured practical co-operation that made a difference to people's lives.

"I would dearly love to see a resumption of that institution," he said.

"I would love to see the Dublin-Belfast rail line upgraded to high speed, reducing journey times between the two cities to little more than an hour perhaps with stops at Dublin airport, Drogheda, Dundalk and Newry. Imagine that."

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