The Irish prime minister has played down the need for the UK government to alter the new UK-EU post-Brexit deal, despite the DUP calling for it to be “changed”.
Speaking to reporters in Washington DC, Leo Varadkar said it is “very important that we listen to the DUP, that we hear their concerns”, adding: “They’re the largest unionist party after all, and that does matter.”
Asked by Sky News if he thinks the UK government should tweak the framework with Brussels in order to appease the DUP, Mr Varadkar replied: “In fairness, I don’t think anyone has asked for that. My understanding is that the DUP has asked for some clarifications from the British government.
“What the British government has said is that they would engage with all five major parties in Northern Ireland on any changes they were going to make to their domestic law, and I’m sure that’ll happen.”
But that appears to contradict DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who wants to see “change” to the new agreement. Addressing the National Press Club in Washington today, he said that certain key areas of the deal “require further clarification, re-working and change”.
“Whilst the Windsor Framework goes some way in addressing our concerns, there is still more work to do,” he said.
“The Windsor Framework does not deal with some of the fundamental problems at the heart of our current difficulties.”
The DUP has refused to take its place in Northern Ireland’s devolved government at Stormont while the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol exists. The party sees that arrangement as putting a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The Windsor Framework – a deal between London and Brussels announced with much fanfare on 27 February – was supposed to resolve the impasse, but the DUP has refused to bow to pressure to accept it.
Mr Varadkar also described Sinn Fein adverts in US newspapers today calling for a referendum on Irish unity as unhelpful to acceptance of the Windsor Framework.
“I’m someone who believes in unification but I don’t think that’s helpful at this time,” he said.
“It’s a sensitive moment. We’re trying to get everyone on board for the Windsor Framework, and we shouldn’t forget what the Good Friday Agreement says.
“It says there can be a border poll when it’s clear that the majority of people north and south would vote for it, and that’s not clear at all at the moment.”
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The adverts, placed by Sinn Fein’s US agents Friends of Sinn Fein, were heavily criticised by the DUP.
“I find it incredible that in newspapers across the USA this morning there is a full page advert from Sinn Fein calling for a referendum on Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom,” Sir Jeffrey said.
“Sinn Fein is drumming up hundreds of thousands of dollars for a divisive border poll campaign. There is no evidence of growing support for Northern Ireland leaving the United Kingdom. Indeed, every major poll points in the opposite direction.
“Northern Ireland’s future is with unionists and nationalists working together. A border poll would pitch unionists and nationalists against each other and lead to further divisions.”
Why are Irish politicians from north and south in the US?
Every year, in the week leading up to St Patrick’s Day, the top political figures from the island of Ireland decamp en masse to the United States.
For the Taoiseach [Irish PM] it’s the annual opportunity for precious facetime with the US president – guaranteed access that no other small country in the world enjoys. For the leaders of the opposition parties, and the Northern Ireland parties, it is equally an opportune time to press their agendas to the global audience, surfing on the annual American wave of positivity towards all things Irish.
The Taoiseach’s Oval Office bilateral meeting is a key plank of Ireland’s soft diplomatic power. But the announcement of the Windsor Framework just weeks before this year’s visit means Leo Varadkar must tread carefully.
He will bask in the warm embrace of proud Irish-American Joe Biden, and the positive publicity of the newly-announced visit to the island next month for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
But he also wants to avoid heaping more pressure on the DUP to hurry up and accept the deal. Many feel Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s instinct is to at least partially accept the arrangements, and get Stormont back up and running, but he needs to figure out a way to appease the more hardline rump of his party.
The one thing that may move his hand in the other direction is strong, castigating language from the leader of the Dublin government. He cannot, in unionist eyes, be seen to be weak in the face of any such perceived provocation.
The rewards of the annual Irish exodus are high. So too, this year, are the stakes.