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UK criticises Leo Varadkar over united Ireland comments

UK criticises Leo Varadkar over united Ireland comments

The British government has rebuked Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Leo Varadkar, for saying he believed there could be a united Ireland within his lifetime.

Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, told the Commons on Wednesday the comments were “unhelpful and ill-advised”.

The blunt reprimand came amid a fresh effort to defuse a political row in Northern Ireland that threatens to collapse its power-sharing government.

Boris Johnson told the Commons that people in Northern Ireland wanted a “stable, functioning and mature executive”. The prime minister said a deal in 2020 that revived the region’s assembly and executive – and included a commitment to Irish-language legislation – should be implemented.

Lewis is to meet the region’s party leaders in Belfast later on Wednesday to discuss an impasse over Irish-language legislation that has hobbled the executive and could trigger early elections.

Sinn Féin wants the British government to bypass the executive and assembly at Stormont and to pass the legislation at Westminster, but some unionist leaders have warned London to not intervene.

The language row has aggravated tension over a separate flashpoint – the post-Brexit Irish Sea border – that has fuelled loyalist street protests and rancour between London and Brussels.

Varadkar, 42, made a pointed intervention on Tuesday night in Dublin when he told the annual conference of his Fine Gael party 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 it. We can do so in many ways,” he said.

“Unification must not be the annexation of Northern Ireland. It means something more, a new state designed together, a new constitution and one that reflects the diversity of a binational 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 the views of unionists must be understood and respected but that no one group had a veto on Ireland’s future. He said Fine Gael may start to organise, but not contest elections, in Northern Ireland.

Varadkar’s comments – unusually limpid for a centrist party accustomed to woolier 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 fraught political climate. “Good man, Leo, for bringing up Irish unity again when we are in a crisis,” Doug Beattie, the Ulster Unionist party leader, told RTÉ. “Let’s throw that into the mix, because that is really going to be helpful for people here in Northern Ireland.”

In the House of Commons, Lewis called the comments “unhelpful” and urged all sides to “dial down the rhetoric”.

The secretary of state gave no indication whether he would heed Sinn Féin’s request to introduce Irish-language legislation at Westminster to try to break the impasse in Belfast.

The Democratic Unionist party (DUP) has nominated Paul Givan to replace Arlene Foster, who stepped down as first minister on Monday after being ousted in a party revolt.

However, Givan cannot take the post unless Sinn Féin renominates Michelle O’Neill as deputy first minister. The party said it will not do so without commitments on long-promised Irish-language legislation.

If the stalemate is not resolved by 21 June, the devolved power-sharing institutions will collapse and there will be an early assembly election, with no guarantee of any subsequent agreement to revive Stormont.

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