The Taoiseach has come under fire for “inflaming tensions” with “reckless and irresponsible” warnings of a return to soldiers and checkpoints along the border if there is a no-deal Brexit.
Opposition parties have rounded on Leo Varadkar after he painted a graphic picture of a return to the border of the Troubles with physical infrastructure, cameras, and an army presence which he said could become a terrorist target.
In a significant change of tone and messaging, Mr Varadkar said: “If things go very wrong it will look like it looked 20 years ago.
“It would involve customs posts, it would involve people in uniform and it may involve the need, for example, for cameras, physical infrastructure, possibly a police presence, or an army presence to back it up.
The problem with that, in the context of Irish politics and history, is those things become targets and we have already had a certain degree of violence in the last few weeks,” he told Bloomberg TV in Davos.
His comments were described as “unhelpful rhetoric” by the DUP, which remains vehemently opposed to the backstop option.
The remarks came ahead of another critical Brexit vote in Westminster next Tuesday, after the House of Commons rejected the withdrawal agreement.
Mr Varadkar stressed that Ireland and the EU are “not going to give up a mechanism that we know will work, that is legally binding” and said “ultimately it’s the people who caused all of this and started this who have to come up with solutions”.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin told the Irish Examiner that Mr Varadkar had “heightened tensions” and his comments would raise significant concern, especially among people living in border areas who lived through the Troubles.
Mr Martin said the Taoiseach’s comments represented a “marked change in language” but said that Government had been putting out “different messages every day in the last few weeks”.
He is heightening tensions when he references soldiers along the border,” said Mr Martin. “I personally think he should cool it.
The Cork South-Central TD pointed to the fact that the Taoiseach’s comments seemed to directly contradict the head of Revenue Niall Cody, who told the Finance Committee this week that there were no plans to install any physical infrastructure.
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said the comments were “reckless and irresponsible” and “totally contrary to previous assertions regarding the Government’s commitment to the backstop”.
She said Mr Varadkar had painted a doomsday scenario of the return of soldiers to the border in the event of a no deal Brexit.
“If that is the case then the only way to prevent such a scenario is by affording the Irish people their say in the form of a border poll on Irish unity,” said Ms McDonald.
Despite Mr Varadkar’s detailed description of the return to troops and checkpoints, the Government yesterday remained adamant that no planning is under way for a border with the North and all contingencies are based around the east-west links at ports and airports.
While a Government spokesman stuck hard to the line that they are not contemplating a hard border, it is understood that at a private briefing this week, Opposition leaders were told there have been “general discussions” around border checks with the EU.
Labour leader Brendan Howlin said the Taoiseach has “questions to answer” on his remarks in Davos.
For a Government who apparently are not contemplating a hard border, the Taoiseach seemed to be able to conjure a vivid description of just what a hard border might entail,” said Mr Howlin.
“These kind of hardline gestures will infuriate those in the UK who already see Ireland’s concerns as the main barrier to a UK deal with the EU.”
Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson said the remarks would “wind things up”.