Sinn Fein US newspaper adverts calling for unity vote ‘unhelpful’, says Varadkar

Sinn Fein newspaper adverts in the US calling for a date for an Irish unity referendum have been branded “unhelpful” by the Taoiseach.

Leo Varadkar expressed concern at the ads that were carried in papers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post on Wednesday at what he described as a “sensitive moment” in efforts to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson criticised the adverts, saying it was “incredible” that Sinn Fein was focusing on a “divisive border poll campaign” that, he claimed, would create further divisions in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein leaders Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill, Mr Varadkar and Sir Jeffrey are all in Washington this week for St Patrick’s Day events.

Taoiseach visit to the US
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking in the Senate Room at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC (Niall Carson/PA)

The traditional week of high-profile engagements in the US capital focusing on the island of Ireland come at a time when the DUP continues to consider whether it will accept the UK and EU’s new post-Brexit deal on trading arrangements for Northern Ireland – the Windsor Framework.

Earlier this week, Sir Jeffrey said the framework does not deal with some “fundamental problems” created by the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol on Irish Sea trade.

The DUP is currently blocking the functioning of devolution in Belfast in protest at the trade barriers the protocol has created between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Sinn Fein adverts claimed the UK Government has broken its obligations in the Good Friday Agreement to trigger referendums on unification.

They call on the US government to hold the UK to account on the issue and further urge the Irish government to “plan, prepare and advocate” for Irish unity.

“The next chapter of Ireland’s history is being written. Together we can be the generation to build a new Ireland. A home for all. United, peaceful and prosperous,” read the adverts.

“The future is in the hands of the people. It is time to agree on a date for the Unity Referendums. Let the people have their say.”

Asked about the adverts on Wednesday, Mr Varadkar said: “I just don’t think that’s helpful at this time. I’m somebody who believes in unification. But I don’t think that’s helpful at this time. 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.

A person looks at an advert in The New York Times as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is in Washington DC during his visit to the US for St Patrick’s Day
A person looks at an advert in The New York Times as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is in Washington DC during his visit to the US for St Patrick’s Day (Niall Carson/PA)

“We’re marking 25 years of the Good Friday Agreement this year, it brought peace to Ireland. What does it say? It says that there can be a border poll when it’s clear that a majority of people north and south would vote for it, that’s not clear at all at the moment.

“So, I think we need to focus on what’s important in the here and now and what’s most important in the here and now is getting everyone on board for the Windsor Framework and getting the Assembly and executive up and running because what people in Northern Ireland want more than anything is to have the politicians they elected dealing with the everyday problems that they face, whether it’s the cost of living or problems in the health service, or housing, all the same problems that we experience in the Republic are being experienced in the north, but there’s no government in the north to do the people’s work.”

Addressing an event in Washington on Wednesday, Sir Jeffrey said Stormont operated best when parties worked together.

“Over the last few days in the United States, I have focused on growing our economy and boosting jobs in Northern Ireland and bringing stability,” he said.

“Therefore 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.

“Whilst I am using my time in the US to impress upon decision-makers and investors the potential of Northern Ireland, 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.

NI Executive Formation Bill
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (PA)

“There is no place for my unionism or my British identity in a Northern Ireland outside the United Kingdom, therefore the message from Sinn Fein is not one of working together but rather one of ourselves alone.”

On the framework deal, Sir Jeffrey added: “Unionism rejected the NI Protocol from day one. It took others time to realise and recognise our objections. Whilst the Windsor Framework goes some way in addressing our concerns, there is still more work to do.

“The Windsor Framework does not deal with some of the fundamental problems at the heart of our current difficulties.

“As I said yesterday, it is my current assessment that there remain key areas of concern which require further clarification, reworking and change as well as seeing further legal text.

“A key flaw in trying to proceed with the unworkable NI Protocol was the absolute disregard for unionist objections. Northern Ireland has never made progress if one side is trying to ride roughshod over the views of the other side. Mutual respect is the only route forward.

“This week I have been emphasising the need for us to move forward together and secure a solution to the NI Protocol which outlives us all. A solution which can not only lead to a restoration of Stormont but can cement devolved government for the next generation.”