US paper Sinn Fein not helping ads calling for unity vote, Varadkar says

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

Leo Varadkar expressed his concern about the ads published in newspapers including the New York Times and the Washington Post on Wednesday, at what he described as a “sensitive time” in efforts to restore power sharing in Northern Ireland.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson criticized the ads, saying it was “unbelievable” that Sinn Fein was focusing on a “divisive border poll campaign” which 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.

The traditional week of high-profile engagements in the US capital centered on the island of Ireland comes as the DUP continues to consider whether to accept the UK and EU’s new post-Brexit deal on trade arrangements for Northern Ireland – the Windsor Structure.

Earlier this week, Sir Jeffrey said the framework did not address some “fundamental problems” created by Northern Ireland’s controversial Irish Sea Trade Protocol.

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

Sinn Fein’s ads claimed the UK government breached its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement to trigger referendums on unification.

They call on the US government to hold the UK to account on the matter and further urge the Irish government to “plan, prepare and support” 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 everyone. United, Peaceful and Prosperous,” the ads read.

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

Asked about the ads on Wednesday, Mr Varadkar said: “I just don’t think it’s useful at the moment. I am someone who believes in unification. But I don’t think it’s useful right now. It’s a sensitive time, we’re trying to get everyone involved in the Windsor Framework. And we must not forget what the Good Friday Agreement says.

“We are celebrating 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement this year, it brought peace to Ireland. What it says? He says there can’t be a border poll when it’s clear the majority of people north and south would vote for it, that’s far from clear at the moment.

“Well, I think we need to focus on what’s important here and now and what’s most important here and now is to get everybody involved in Windsor and get the Assembly and the executive going because what people in What Northern Ireland wants more than anything else are the elected politicians to deal with the everyday problems they face, whether it’s the cost of living or health or housing problems, all the same problems we experience in the Republic are being dealt with in the north, but there is no government in the north to do the work of the people”.

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

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

“Therefore, I find it incredible that in the papers in the US this morning there is a full page ad from Sinn Féin calling for a referendum on Northern Ireland being part of the UK.

“While I use my time in the US to impress upon decision-makers and investors the potential of Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin is raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for a divisive border poll campaign.

“There is no sign of growing support for Northern Ireland to leave the UK. Indeed, every major poll points in the opposite direction.

“Northern Ireland’s future is with unionists and nationalists working together. A border poll would pit unionists and nationalists against each other and lead to further divisions.

“There is no place for my unionism or my British identity in a Northern Ireland outside the UK, so the message from Sinn Féin is not to work together but rather to stand alone.”

On the framework agreement, Sir Jeffrey added: “The union rejected the NI Protocol from day one. It took time for others to realize and acknowledge our objections. While the Windsor Framework goes some way to addressing our concerns, there is still more work to do.

“The Windsor framework does not address some of the fundamental problems at the heart of our current difficulties.

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

“A key flaw in trying to proceed with the unenforceable NI Protocol was the complete disregard for trade unionists’ objections. Northern Ireland has never made progress if one side tries to override the other side’s views. Mutual respect is the only way forward.

“This week I have emphasized the need to move forward together and secure a solution to the NI Protocol that outlives us all. A solution that can not only restore Stormont, but can strengthen devolved government for the next generation.”

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