Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has expressed his surprise at comments from Irish Tanaiste Leo Varadkar that a united Ireland could happen in his lifetime.
Lewis also suggested in the House of Commons that the comments could be explained because of the success of Sinn Fein in opinion polls in the Republic.
Varadkar, the deputy prime minister of Ireland, said during Fine Gael’s annual conference on Tuesday that Irish reunification should be the party’s “mission,” and he called for an increase in engagement with communities in Northern Ireland.
Varadkar said the “tectonic plates were shifting” in the region and called for his party to establish a branch across the border.
He said: “It means the unification of the people of our island as well as [the] territory of Ireland and it is a legitimate political aspiration. 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.”
The comments were raised at Northern Ireland questions in the Commons by DUP lawmaker Gavin Robinson.
Robinson 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 time of political instability in Northern Ireland?”
Lewis replied: “I join the honourable gentleman in some surprise at the comments we saw yesterday. We would be concerned about any deviation from the principle of consent as enshrined in the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, but that agreement of course does respect the right of anyone to express their views and we fully support that.
“We do note the recent Life and Times survey which has support for a united Ireland at a low of 30 percent in Northern Ireland.
“I also am aware of the polls which put Sinn Fein ahead in the Republic, which may explain the timing of some of these comments from the Tanaiste.
“I would urge everyone to dial down any rhetoric, particularly at this time of year, I think it is unhelpful and ill-advised.
“Whatever the circumstances, this government will support the principle of consent and all of our obligations under the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.”
Speaking in Dublin on Wednesday, Varadkar defended his comment.
“There is never a bad time to talk about the future of Ireland and Ireland’s place in Europe and the world,” he said.
“I don’t think the debate around reunification belongs to any one political party.
“There may be a political party who wants it that way but that’s wrong. This is a legitimate objective, it’s in our constitution. Irish people voted in a referendum to enshrine it in our constitution in 1997. It’s also in the Good Friday Agreement. What I would like to talk about though is what reunification might look like. A lot of questions [are] unanswered about that and I want my party to be involved and lead the debate and discussion on what [the] position may be and that’s my motivation about it.”
Responding to criticisms that his comments are unhelpful during a time of political instability in Northern Ireland, Varadkar said it should not affect relations between the parties in Northern Ireland.
“If they are unable to put together an Executive in the next week, it will be because of relations between parties in Northern Ireland and not for anything external,” he added.
“My view in the round is it’s always good to talk about the future.”
By Cate McCurry, Jonathan McCambridge, and James Ward