Northern Ireland: Brandon Lewis slams 'rhetoric' on unity
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But conversely, arch-Rejoiner Lord Adonis has praised the “thoughtful speech”, claiming it was “most important political event of the week for the UK”. Fine Gael leader Mr Varadkar, Ireland’s former Taoiseach and current Tanaiste – equivalent to deputy Prime Minister – raised eyebrows in Belfast, Dublin and Westminster with his comments in an online speech at the start his party’s annual ardfheis, or conference, when he said the “tectonic plates were shifting in Northern Ireland”.
Mr Lewis was put on the spot in the House of Commons yesterday by DUP MP Gavin Robinson, who referred to ongoing tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which Unionist critics believe is driving a wedge between the region and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Mr Robinson, MP for Belfast East said: “Can I ask the Secretary of State what reflections he has to make on the deeply unhelpful and destabilising contribution from the Irish tanaiste yesterday at such a grave tie of political instability in Northern Ireland?”
Mr Lewis replied: “I join the honourable gentleman in some surprise at the comments we saw yesterday.
“I have to say we would be concerned about any deviation from the principle of consent as enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.
“Though that agreement, of course, also does express the right of anyone to express their views and we fully support that.”
Mr Lewis also brought the attention of MPs to an annual poll of 1,200 people in Northern Ireland on the subject of a united Ireland which was published earlier this month.
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I would urge everyone to dial down any rhetoric, particularly at this time of year. “I think it’s unhelpful and ill-advised
He explained: “We do note the recent Life and Times Survey which had support for a united Ireland at a low of 30 percent in Northern Ireland.
“I am also aware of the polls that put Sinn Fein ahead in the Republic, which may explain the timing of some of these comments from the Tanaiste.”
In a message aimed squarely at Mr Varadkar, Mr Lewis added: “I would urge everyone to dial down any rhetoric, particularly at this time of year.
“I think it’s unhelpful and ill-advised.”
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Lord Adonis, who has made no secret of his wish to take the UK back into the EU, tweeted: “Leo Varadkar’s thoughtful speech this week about a united Ireland and the form it might now take is the most important political event of the week for the UK.”
Mr Varadkar, 42, is scheduled to return as Ireland’s leader next in line with a deal struck with coalition partners Fianna Fail, led by Micheal Martin, the country’s current Taoiseach.
Speaking on Tuesday evening, Mr Varadkar said: “A few years ago, I said that the tectonic plates were shifting in Northern Ireland. In the centenary year of its foundation, I believe that to be more true than ever.
“The Assembly elections and the census tell us that in Northern Ireland there is no majority anymore.”
He added: “There are three minorities, one that defines itself as British and Unionist, another as Irish and Nationalist, and a third and growing middle ground, many born since the Good Friday Agreement, who refuse to be defined in this way.
“They see themselves as both Irish and British or perhaps simply Northern Irish.”
Mr Varadkar predicted: “I believe in the unification of our island and I believe it can happen in my lifetime.
“It means the unification of the people of our island as well as territory of Ireland and it is a legitimate political aspiration.
“It is in our Constitution and is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement should a majority of people in the North and South vote for it.”
In remarks unlikely to have impressed Mr Robinson, he added: “The views of unionists must be acknowledged, understood and respected but no one group can have a veto on Ireland’s future.
“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.”
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