The Irish prime minister has been accused of more “disrespect” for the constitutional position of Northern Ireland by “waltzing” into the Province on Monday and his approach to Brexit.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited New-Bridge Integrated College in Loughbrickland, The Jethro community centre in Lurgan and Warrenpoint Harbour, as part of a programme which he said aimed to engage ordinary Northern Ireland people on Brexit.
He insisted he had followed correct protocol by informing the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) of his plans with 24-hours notice.
But DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson rebuked the Irish government for what he said was “another display of disrespect”.
He said: “The normal protocol for a visiting prime minister is to seek permission to visit a part of the UK.
“Although we do have a common travel area between the UK and Irish Republic, that is no excuse for formal visits of this nature not being subjected to normal protocol arrangements.
“This includes informing public representatives in the areas to be visited.
“We welcome a good neighbourly relationship with Mr Varadkar’s government but his actions today are disrespectful and damaging to relations at a crucial time.”
The MP said it was “another demonstration of the poor manners and disrespect which appears to be the Irish government’s Brexit strategy”.
He added: “Having told unionists just over a month ago that he recognised statements and actions by the Irish government were unhelpful or intrusive, he follows this up with a visit which no local representative is informed about and none of the other normal protocol is followed.”
“It is increasingly apparent that the Irish government does not seem to care about securing a sensible and pragmatic outcome from Brexit which can work for both Northern Ireland and the Republic. Their preferred approach is to use Brexit in whatever way possible to undermine Northern Ireland and particularly its constitutional position.”
However, rejecting criticism, Mr Varadkar said that he normally meets “only politicians and officials” when he visits Northern Ireland and that he “wanted to use this opportunity to meet with real people and talk about their real concerns in how Brexit might impact on them”.
He told UTV: “Of course I informed the Northern Ireland Office that I was coming and indeed they have provided security. And that is the protocol – it is government to government – and at the moment there is no government, there is no Executive in Northern Ireland. So the protocol is to contact the Northern Ireland Office.”
He said there was “no hidden agenda” and he had full respect for the Good Friday Agreement principles of “consent, peaceful politics, democratic institutions, reconciliation and co-operation”.
But former Stormont finance minister Mr Wilson said Mr Varadkar had behaved in “an appalling way towards Northern Ireland” and had encouraged the EU to insist on requirements in the December Brexit agreement which would have “in effect have separated Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK”.
Both Mr Varadkar and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney are still doing this, the DUP MP said, “and then today he waltzes into Northern Ireland as if he owned the place”.
TUV leader Jim Allister said the visit shows that “the pattern of seeking to lord it over us is clear”. Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, which laid claim to Northern Ireland, may have been amended, he said, “but clearly not the mind-set of Republic of Ireland leaders”.
Normally the visit of a foreign prime minister to the UK would follow established official protocols. While Mr Varadkar claimed the normal protocol for his visit is to “inform” the NIO of his plans, Mr Donaldson said foreign prime ministers normally “seek permission” to do so.
However, it is understood that such protocols have been relaxed in north-south relations over time, but that the government still considers that it is up to Dublin to inform Northern Ireland elected representatives if an Irish minister is visiting their constituency.