Latest: Taoiseach stresses need to restore powersharing amid Brexit talks

Latest: Taoiseach stresses need to restore powersharing amid Brexit talks
Leo Varadkar (centre) is greeted by Professor David Jones (left) and Queen's University President and Vice-Chancellor James McElnay. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Update 5.20pm: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he and Theresa May are prepared to get directly involved in the Stormont talks, stressing the need for devolution ahead of crucial Brexit negotiations.

Taoiseach Mr Varadkar said the restoration of a powersharing government in Northern Ireland was necessary to try and achieve the best outcome for the island of Ireland after the UK leaves the European Union.

He said that he is "willing to drop everything" to help end the political deadlock - but only if he believes it will make a difference.

Mr Varadkar arrived in Northern Ireland on Friday for his first visit since becoming Taoiseach.

He said that his meetings with political parties will focus on Brexit and the political crisis at Stormont.

Describing the gulf between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party as "wide and deep", the Taoiseach said he did not believe the differences between the two main parties were insurmountable.

He said that having spoken to Theresa May on the phone they have both agreed to become directly involved in negotiations to restore the executive if they believe it will make a difference.

"If the main parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, come to a point where an agreement can be sealed, we are willing and able to do what we can to get the executive up and running again and have the assembly meeting.

"If there is a point at which an intervention would make a difference we are absolutely willing to drop everything and deal with that," he said.

Relations between the DUP and the Irish Government have become strained over the issue of a post-Brexit border.

Before he arrived in Belfast, the DUP accused the Taoiseach of being incoherent and incompetent on what would happen to North-South relations in the wake of Brexit.

Party leader Arlene Foster also described comments Mr Varadkar had made about the border as "not helpful".

In a more conciliatory tone the Taoiseach said he has not spoken "in disparaging terms about any politician or party" and added that he does not intend to do so.

Earlier, during a speech at Queen's University in Belfast, Mr Varadkar urged the region's politicians to resolve their differences.


He told an invited audience that "every single aspect of life in Northern Ireland could be affected by Brexit" and that it is "the challenge of this generation".

Mr Varadkar highlighted that the EU 27 would meet in October to decide whether sufficient progress had been made in the initial phase of negotiations - focused on the financial settlement, citizens' rights and the Irish border - to enable talks to proceed to the next phase.

He stressed the need for Northern Ireland's voice to be heard ahead of the crunch autumn decision.

"Today we need an answer to the question, of who do we - and others in Europe - talk to in Belfast?

"Who will speak for Northern Ireland and her 1.8 million people?

"Time is running out, and I fear there will be no extra time allowed."

He said those hard Brexiteers who advocated a hard border had to come up with proposals as to how that would work.

"They've already had 14 months to do so," he said.

Mr Varadkar said a meaningful solution could be the establishment of an EU-UK customs union.

The Taoiseach also suggested that if the UK does not want to stay in the Single Market, it could perhaps enter into a deep Free Trade Agreement with the EU and re-join The European Free Trade Association.

He said if this cannot be agreed now then perhaps there can be a period of transition during which the UK stays in the single market and customs union while the issues are worked out.

Mr Varadkar promised that the Government will do all it can in the Brexit negotiations to achieve the best outcomes for peace, freedom, rights and prosperity on the island of Ireland.

"At a time when Brexit threatens to drive a wedge between north and south we need to build more bridges and fewer borders.

"I promise I will play my part in helping to do exactly that," he added.

During a Q&A session following his speech, Mr Varadkar was challenged on domestic issues at home, notably the timing of a future referendum on whether or not the eighth amendment on abortion should be repealed.

Three students sitting adjacent to Mr Varadkar made their point by wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Repeal".

ends

Asked about the prospect of the Taoiseach participating in powersharing talks, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said it was vital the Irish Government engaged with the UK Government on an ongoing basis.

"When and how they (Mrs May and Mr Varadkar) would engage in any future talks process is something we don't have to deal with today," he said.

"The ongoing work with engaging with the British is very, very necessary and in fact will help to create the circumstances where these institutions can be back in place."

Mr Adams repeated his insistence that devolution could only be restored once the DUP backed a "right-based" approach to government.

Updated: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has urged the North's politicians to resolve their differences and restore powersharing as the Brexit talks enter their crucial stage.

Mr Varadkar has arrived in the North for his first visit since becoming Taoiseach.

In a speech at Queen's University in Belfast, he warned that time is running out to try to achieve the best outcome for the island of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU.

He told an invited audience that "every single aspect of life in the North could be affected by Brexit" and that it is "the challenge of this generation."

Leo Varadkar makes a speech at Queen's University in Belfast on his first visit to North. Picture: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Leo Varadkar makes a speech at Queen's University in Belfast on his first visit to North. Picture: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Mr Varadkar highlighted that the EU 27 would meet in October to decide whether enough progress had been made in the initial phase of negotiations - focused on the financial settlement, citizens' rights and the border - to enable talks to proceed to the next phase.

He stressed the need for the North's voice to be heard ahead of the crunch autumn decision.

"Today we need an answer to the question, of who do we - and others in Europe - talk to in Belfast?

"Who will speak for Northern Ireland and her 1.8 million people?

"Time is running out, and I fear there will be no extra time allowed."

Leo Varadkar (left) is greeted by Queen's University President and Vice-Chancellor James McElnay as he arrives at the university in Belfast
Leo Varadkar (left) is greeted by Queen's University President and Vice-Chancellor James McElnay as he arrives at the university in Belfast

He said those hard Brexiteers who advocated a hard border had to come up with proposals as to how that would work.

"They've already had 14 months to do so," he said.

He again insisted that the Irish Government will not design a hard border for Brexiteers.

Mr Varadkar said a meaningful solution could be the establishment of an EU-UK customs union.

"After all, we have one with Turkey. Surely we can have one with the United Kingdom?" he said.

The Taoiseach also suggested that if the UK does not want to stay in the single market, it could perhaps enter into a deep free trade agreement with the EU and rejoin the European Free Trade Association.

He said if this cannot be agreed now then perhaps there can be a period of transition during which the UK stays in the single market and customs union while the issues are worked out.

Mr Varadkar promised that the Government will do all it can in the Brexit negotiations to achieve the best outcomes for peace, freedom, rights and prosperity on the island of Ireland.

"At a time when Brexit threatens to drive a wedge between north and south we need to build more bridges and fewer borders.

"I promise I will play my part in helping to do exactly that," he added.

Mr Varadkar will later hold separate meetings with the leaders of the North's main political parties.

Leo Varadkar (right) is greeted by Professor David Jones (left) and Queen's University President and Vice-Chancellor James McElnay.
Leo Varadkar (right) is greeted by Professor David Jones (left) and Queen's University President and Vice-Chancellor James McElnay.

Earlier: The Taoiseach will today warn that every single aspect of life in the North could be affected by Brexit.

In his first visit to the North since taking over as Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar is due to make a keynote speech at Queen's University in Belfast.

He will then meet with the region's political parties who are struggling to reach an agreement to restore the powersharing institutions at Stormont.

Brexit is expected to be one of the main issues on the agenda at the party talks.

Mr Varadkar, who has been vocal on his views against a post-Brexit border, will warn in his university speech that "every aspect of life" in the North could be affected by the outcome of the UK leaving the European Union.

"The challenge in our generation is Brexit.

"The Brexit negotiations are well under way in Brussels. And, to quote Michel Barnier, the clock is ticking.

"Every single aspect of life in Northern Ireland could be affected by the outcome, jobs and the economy, the border, citizens' rights, cross border workers, travel, trade, agriculture, energy, fisheries, aviation, EU funding, tourism, public services, the list goes on," he will say.

In October, he will meet with the European Council to discuss whether sufficient progress has been made on key issues to allow the Brexit negotiations to proceed to the next phase.

"The three key issues are citizens' rights, the financial settlement and issues relating to Ireland.

"It is my fervent hope that progress will have been made, but I do not underestimate the challenges we face," Mr Varadkar will say.

Latest: Taoiseach stresses need to restore powersharing amid Brexit talks

"For our part, the Irish Government will discharge our responsibilities as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement.

"We will do all we can, in Brussels, in London and in Dublin, to achieve the best outcome for everyone on this island to protect our peace, our freedom, our rights, and our prosperity," he will add in his speech.

Mr Varadkar will also stress the importance of hearing the voice of the North's elected representatives on Brexit and encourage parties to work to restore the Executive.

"We need the Executive, the Assembly, the North South Ministerial Council and the British Irish Council up and running and acting in the interests of our peoples. We need that more than ever, and we need it now," the Taoiseach will add.

Mr Varadkar is expected to meet separately with Stormont's main political parties.

Key issues on the agenda will be Brexit and the region's political crisis.

Relations between the Irish Government and the DUP, the region's biggest party, remain strained after Mr Varadkar said Ireland would not help Britain design an economic border for Brexiteers.

He said Brexiteers were the ones who wanted a border so it is up to them to design one.

The DUP's Arlene Foster described the comments as "not helpful" and said she was looking forward to meeting with the Taoiseach to discuss a number of issues.

On Thursday the SDLP said it intends to ensure Mr Varadkar will not sway from his position that there can be no new economic or physical border imposed on the island of Ireland.

Party leader Colum Eastwood also said he will be asking the Taoiseach to become more directly involved in the crisis talks at Stormont aimed at restoring powersharing.

Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams said his party will be telling Mr Varadkar that the Irish government has a responsibility to defend the Remain vote and to challenge any proposals that would see an economic border on the island of Ireland.

The issue of same-sex marriage may also be discussed as Mr Varadkar intends to participate in a gay pride event in Belfast on Saturday to promote the rights of the LGBT community.

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