Varadkar “I believe in the unification of our island and I believe it can happen in my lifetime”

The Tanaiste and Fine Gael Leader, Leo Varadkar is opening his party’s Ard Fheis tonight. In his speech he makes a strong pitch for Irish unification and speaks about the protocol.

On the protocol

the decision to opt for a hard Brexit made it inevitable that checks and controls would have to happen somewhere and it is much better that these should take place at two or three ports and airports rather than at multiple border posts along 10 border counties.

There were alternatives, the UK staying in the customs union and single market, we said Yes to that.

A single customs territory as a default, the ‘backstop’, we said Yes to that too.

When all these were rejected, a Northern Ireland only solution, now known as the Protocol, was the only option and we said Yes to that too.

Under terms of the Agreement it can only be disapplied should the Northern Ireland Assembly vote to do so and there is no majority for that.

There should be no unilateral action either by London or Brussels. We fully appreciate the practical difficulties the Protocol has caused for some in Northern Ireland and disturbance it has caused for unionists.

We are also conscious, that the opponents of the Protocol, have not come forward with solutions that remove the need for checks while ensuring the single market is protected and our place in it is not undermined.

We remain committed to working through the European Union to find pragmatic solutions within the parameters of the Withdrawal Agreement.  It can be done.

On unification as an aspiration;

 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.

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.

We can do so in many ways.  First of all, we need to make sure that the Good Friday Agreement is working and working fully and that all of the institutions are functioning at their optimum level.  While the North-South bodies and other institutions are operating I do not believe they are meeting their full potential.  We can work on this.

On planning;

I believe we as a party also need to develop our own vision of what unification should look like.  We know the crude vision espoused by Sinn Féin, it’s not an inclusive one – a cold form of republicanism, socialist, narrow nationalism, protectionist, anti-British, euro-critical, ourselves alone, 50% plus one and nobody else is needed.  That is not a 21st century vision.

Our vision should be different.  It should be one that has the best chance of carrying the greatest number of people with us, North and South.

It should appeal in particular to that middle ground I spoke about earlier, to gain the support of people who identify as both British and Irish.

So, 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 bi-national or multi-national state in which almost a million people are British.  Like the New South Africa, a rainbow nation, not just orange and green.

We have to be willing to consider all that we’d be willing to change – new titles, shared symbols, how devolution in the North would fit into the new arrangements, a new Senate to strengthen the representation of minorities, the role and status of our languages, a new and closer relationship with the United Kingdom.

We also need to map out how we can take the best of both jurisdictions and apply them across Ireland as a whole, perhaps our welfare and pensions system, their NHS to give just two examples.

And also what might remain different, because unification is not assimilation, for example, perhaps education or maintaining two legal systems.

Until these questions are answered, until we have a clear proposition to put to the people on both parts of our island, then a border poll is premature.

But we have a duty to engage with each other and others to find answers these questions.  And that is what we intend to do.