The British government has reprimanded Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar for saying he believed there could be a united Ireland during his lifetime.
Brandon Lewis, the secretary of Northern Ireland, told the Commons on Wednesday that the comments were “useless and ill-advised.”
The forceful reprimand came amid a new effort to defuse a political dispute in Northern Ireland that threatens to topple his power-sharing government.
Boris Johnson told the Commons that people in Northern Ireland wanted a “stable, functional and mature executive.” The prime minister said an agreement should be implemented in 2020 that revived the region’s assembly and executive, and included a commitment to Irish-language legislation.
Lewis will meet with the region’s party leaders in Belfast later Wednesday to discuss a stalemate over Irish-language legislation that has hampered the executive and could trigger snap elections.
Sinn Féin wants the British government to bypass the executive and assembly in Stormont and pass legislation in Westminster, but some union leaders have warned London not to intervene.
The dispute over the language has compounded tension over a separate flash point, the post-Brexit Irish Sea border, which has fueled loyalist street protests and grudge between London and Brussels.
Varadkar, 42, made a one-off speech Tuesday night in Dublin when he told his Fine Gael party’s annual conference that both sides of the island could be united in his lifetime.
“We should be proud to say that unification is something we aspire to. It should be part of our mission as a party to work towards this. We can do it in many ways, ”he said.
“Unification must not be the annexation of Northern Ireland. It means something else, a new state designed together, a new constitution, and one that reflects the diversity of a bi-national or multinational state in which almost a million people are British. Like the new South Africa, a rainbow nation, not just orange and green. “
Ireland’s deputy prime minister said unionists’ views should be understood and respected, but that no group has a veto over the future of Ireland. He said Fine Gael can start organizing, but not contesting elections, in Northern Ireland.
Varadkar’s comments, unusually limpid for a centrist party accustomed to more confused sentiments about a united Ireland, followed a surge in support for Sinn Féin, the main opposition party in the republic.
Unionists in Northern Ireland accused Varadkar of worsening a tense political climate. “Good man, Leo, for bringing Irish unity back when we are in a crisis,” Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist party, told RTÉ. “Let’s put that in the mix, because that will really be useful for people here in Northern Ireland.”
In the House of Commons, Lewis called the comments “useless” and urged all parties to “cut back on the rhetoric.”
The secretary of state gave no indication as to whether he would heed Sinn Féin’s request to introduce Irish-language legislation in Westminster to try to break the deadlock in Belfast.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) nominated Paul Givan to replace Arlene Foster, who resigned as prime minister on Monday after being overthrown in a party revolt.
However, Givan cannot take office unless Sinn Féin renames Michelle O’Neill as Deputy Prime Minister. The party said it will not do so without compromises on long-promised Irish-language legislation.
If the deadlock is not resolved by June 21, the institutions delegated to share power will collapse and there will be an early assembly election, with no guarantee of any later agreement to revive Stormont.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism