Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last week became the first Taoiseach to visit the Orange Order’s Headquarters in Belfast on his sixth visit to Northern Ireland since winning the office.
In the course of a visit that included all sides of the community Mr Varadkar emphasised that Ireland does not want to, and will not, exploit Brexit to achieve a united Ireland.
“We never wanted Brexit in the first place and have no interest in exploiting it,” he said.
On the contrary, Ireland wants Northern Ireland to have the best of both worlds of being in the UK and Ireland, rather than – as for so much of its history – the worst of both worlds, he said. He also said he believed women in Northern Ireland should have the same access to abortion as they will soon have in the Republic.
Mr Varadkar was welcomed, with applause from some of the audience, by the Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, Edward Stevenson. He was given a tour of the Museum of Orange Heritage – during which he tweeted that people should visit to see the original Game of Thrones – and was introduced to senior Orangemen including some from the Republic of Ireland. He posed beside a sign commemorating the 1690 Battle of the Boyne and also paid respects at a memorial window dedicated to the 336 members of the organisation murdered during the during The Troubles.
Meeting people from across Northern Ireland’s communities today. Watch my weekly message below. pic.twitter.com/QlA46SH2GQ
— Leo Varadkar (@campaignforleo) June 8, 2018
Mr Stevenson said: “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.
“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 underestimated and will, I believe, be deeply appreciated by many relatives of the deceased, and the Orange membership as a whole.”
The Taoiseach started his day of comprehensively cross community engagements with a private meeting with Baroness Eileen Paisley, the widow of former DUP leader Ian Paisley, at a library dedicated to his memory in the east of the city in Banside.
He later went on and launched the west Belfast Feile an Phobail at St Mary’s University College. During his visit he said he was reminded of the words of Louis MacNeice:
‘Sleep, the past,/ and wake, the future, /And walk out promptly/ through the open door’.
“This is my sixth visit to Northern Ireland since I became Taoiseach. On each of my previous visits I have been deeply struck by the appetite of people on the ground for engagement and discussion with respect for differing viewpoints. The welcome has always been warm.
“This is a reflection of how far we have advanced in the twenty years since the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. It has allowed peace and reconciliation on this island to develop and grow and change the way that we relate to each other and has been of immense benefit to all communities here and across Ireland and Britain. While the Agreement now faces new and different challenges, I firmly believe that it represents the best – indeed, only – basis for moving forward so the Irish Government is fully committed to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement in all its parts.
“This includes the principle of consent with regard to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, and the choice for the people of Northern Ireland to be British or Irish, or both and accepted as such. This month sees the second anniversary of the Brexit referendum which has given rise to so much uncertainty. Brexit, itself, is now only nine months away. I fully appreciate the range of concerns for nationalists and unionists alike.
“I want to emphasise that the Irish government has no hidden agenda. We never wanted Brexit in the first place and have no interest in exploiting it.
“Our only goal is respect for the primacy of the Belfast Agreement and everything it represents: power sharing in Northern Ireland, increased north-south cooperation and peace on our islands. We want to protect the rights, freedoms and identities of all communities here and ensure that there is no hard border on this island.
“Whatever our allegiances and political persuasion, we all care deeply about Northern Ireland and how it is run – now and for future generations.
“You deserve to have your interests safeguarded and progressed. That includes having your elected politicians working on your behalf to make progress on the social, economic and political issues that will define our future.
“Coming here in the wake of the overwhelming vote by the people of Ireland to repeal the eighth amendment to our Constitution and three years since we enshrined marriage equality in our constitution, I am well aware of the challenges of achieving fundamental change on divisive issues. I am also aware of how the seemingly impossible can be done.
“Sometimes nothing changes for decades and then it changes all of a sudden.
“It is my personal belief that all the rights and freedoms that British citizens have in Great Britain and all of the rights that Irish citizens have in the Republic of Ireland should also apply in Northern Ireland. Such changes should be brought about by a fully functioning Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly which should respect the majority view of the people of Northern Ireland on such issues.
“It is my view that Northern Ireland should be a place that has the best of both worlds between the United Kingdom and Ireland. Too often, it seems to be in the caught in the worst of both worlds. That can change if we want it to.
“I firmly believe that in an increasingly open and connected world, we must learn to build bridges between communities and on the island of Ireland to create the best possible future for all of us.
You may also be interested in: