Leo Varadkar's comments on a united Ireland 'in my lifetime' have been described as both unhelpful and ill-advised by the British Government and by unionists in the north.
At his party's Ard Fheis on Tuesday evening, the Fine Gael leader said he believes the "unification of our island can happen in my lifetime” and outlined plans for a party branch in the north.
He later said Fine Gael has no plan to run candidates in elections in Northern Ireland but wants to build alliances with like-minded parties.
Mr Varadkar denied the comments at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis were simply a political move against Sinn Féin ahead of next month's by-election.
"We have an Ard Fheis every year or every 18 months where we talk about the future. And there's never a bad time to talk about the future of Ireland and Ireland's place in Europe and the world. That's what we're doing.
"There might be a political party who wants it to be that way but that's wrong. This is a legitimate objective. It's also in the Good Friday Agreement.
"What I'd like us to talk about, though, rather than the shrill calls for border polls, which are divisive in my view, what I’d like us to talk about instead is what unification might look like.”
Speaking at Dublin Zoo, Mr Varadkar said he wants to establish a single branch for members in the North, "which would have the same status of the constituency in our rules so they would have voting rights at the ard fheis, voting rights at leadership elections, and voting rights on whether we enter coalition or not".
He added: "It is not envisaged that we're going to contest elections in Northern Ireland.”
Asked about the timing of the comments, Mr Varadkar said the issue of a united Ireland is not being raised with him during by-election canvasses.
“I am out in Dublin Bay South two or three times a week, nobody's talking much about Irish unity to me or unification.
"Unfortunately, the issues that people are talking about there are different. It is BusConnects, it's Sandymount cycle lanes, it's housing, it's the pandemic. That doesn't mean that we can't also talk about some of those bigger, longer-term issues.”
However, Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said Mr Varadkar's ard fheis speech was "unhelpful" and UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, described the comments as “ill advised” at a time of uncertainly in Stormont.
The Tánaiste said he does not believe his comments “will or should affect relations between the parties in Northern Ireland".
“If they're unable to put together an executive in the next week, that would be because of relations between the parties in Northern Ireland, not for anything external in my view. But I do think that they will be able to do that, by the way.
“It may be the case that an executive is formed in the next week or so, the protocol will still be an issue, and maybe for a number of months ahead, then we're into Northern Ireland Assembly elections.
"That's why I say it's never a bad time to talk about the future. My view in the round is that it's always a good time to talk about the future.”