Ireland will unite in my lifetime – and must protect its British minority, says Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar told reporters he expects to see a united Ireland in his lifetime
Leo Varadkar believes he will see a united Ireland in his lifetime - BRIAN LAWLESS/PA

Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, has said he expects to see a united Ireland in his lifetime and British people in the country will become a minority in need of protection.

The Taoiseach said the new country would be judged on how it treated British people after reunification with Northern Ireland.

The debate over Irish reunification has gained impetus after Brexit and historic election victories for Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland.

“I believe we are on the path to unification. I believe that there will be a united Ireland in my lifetime,” Mr Varadkar, 44, said in his most explicit public comments on the subject so far.

“In that united Ireland there is going to be a minority. Roughly a million people who are British. And you judge the success and quality of a country by the wait it treats its minorities. That is something we are going to have to think about.”

In January, at the World Economic Forum, Mr Varadkar refused to say whether he thought Ireland would unite in his lifetime.

A Sinn Fein mural in Belfast calls for Irish unity
A Sinn Fein mural in Belfast calls for Irish unity - CHARLES MCQUILLAN/GETTY IMAGES

Opinion polls last month showed Sinn Fein, the party making the most strident calls for Irish unity, increasing its lead over Mr Varadkar’s Fine Gael and its coalition partner Fianna Fáil.

Sinn Fein’s support is at 34 per cent compared with Fine Gael’s 19 per cent and Fianna Fáil’s 18 per cent. Irish elections must be held by March 2025, but there has been speculation a snap vote could be held as early as this year.

Gavin Robinson, the deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, said: “Leo Varadkar’s optimism about a united Ireland in the past has had an all-too-close correlation with opinion poll results.

“Playing up republican credentials hasn’t worked before and it’s unlikely to work now.”

Northern Ireland celebrated its centenary in 2021 and it is now 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement ended the Troubles.

The peace deal states that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should call a border poll if it “appears likely” a majority would be in favour of reunification.

The Irish government would also have to hold a border poll in the Republic.

‘Ill-fated overtures’

“There have been predictions that a united Ireland is just around the corner virtually since the moment Northern Ireland was established,” said Mr Robinson.

“Support for Northern Ireland within the Union however remains strong and the benefits are clear. Neither Mr Varadkar nor his ill-fated overtures will change that reality.”

Polls show a majority of people in Northern Ireland would vote to remain part of the UK if there was a referendum, while most people in the Republic would back reunification.

But Ireland’s recent strong economic performance, and the DUP’s almost 19-month boycott of Stormont over the Brexit treaty, which involves an Irish Sea border, have increased calls for Irish unity.

In the Brexit referendum 55.8 per cent of people in Northern Ireland voted to Remain and reunification with Ireland would mean the six counties would rejoin the EU.

In September last year, a census showed that Catholics, who traditionally favour unity, outnumbered Protestants, who are traditionally unionist, for the first time in the 1.9 million-strong region’s history.

Earlier this week, Wallace Thompson, a founding member of the DUP and close ally of the late Ian Paisley Snr, told the Belfast Telegraph that there was an “inevitability” about Irish unity.

A UK Government spokesman said: “Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK for as long as its people wish for it to be.

“We are absolutely clear that there is no basis to suggest that a majority of people in Northern Ireland wish to separate from the United Kingdom.

“Northern Ireland, its people, and future generations have a bright and prosperous future within the UK.”