Varadkar, Heaton-Harris unveil PEACEPLUS Programme, but conflicts remain

15 September 2023

There have been recent developments to support peace and prosperity between Northern Ireland and the border counties of Ireland in the form of the PEACEPLUS programme, funded by the European Union. With the main aims including building peaceful communities, driving socio-economic regeneration, and encouraging a more integrated future, one would imagine that this €1.14 billion investment could not be upstaged. Yet, at the launch of the €1.14 billion fund to encourage reconciliation and support in Belfast this week, it was Northern Ireland‘s Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, whose reaction to Varadkar’s recent remarks made headlines, igniting a clash between the two leaders.  

In an interview with RTÉ Radio 1 last week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar chimed in on a question about the surge in popularity of the Irish rebel band, The Wolfe Tones, and redirects his response to the ever-controversial debate surrounding the likelihood of a ‘united Ireland’. In his response, Taoiseach Varadkar appeared upbeat on the idea in the future and believes that “we are on the path to unification” and that “there will be a united Ireland in my lifetime”.  

It was these comments that sparked some irritation with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris who claimed that “occasionally unhelpful comments down in Dublin do resonate up here amongst the unionist community” and seemed rather defensive when addressing talk of Varadkar’s ‘Plan B’ suggestion.  Unsurprisingly, this back-and-forth war of words between Varadkar and Heaton-Harris hasn’t gone unnoticed. Tánaiste Micheál Martin weighed in on the debate and admitted his surprise upon hearing the criticism voiced by the Northern Irish Secretary, and further confirming his “aspiration of a united Ireland”, while Northern Ireland Minister Steve Baker alluded to the fact that this opinion may not be “a good idea” at this time.

This leaves the question of whether or not Varadkar’s comments were as “ill-timed” as Heaton-Harris claims. Varadkar has been vocal in the past about his vision of a united Ireland in the future, such as in October 2022 where he tweeted his hopes for Irish unity as “noble and legitimate”. On the other hand, at the World Economic Forum in January, Taoiseach Varadkar opted against expressing his stance on unification due to delicate EU-UK negotiations around the Northern Ireland Protocol. At the conference about the PeacePlus Programme this week, Varadkar did express how every time he expresses his view on a united Ireland, “it is not the right time”, which does pose the question of when is the right time to discuss this contentious topic? Considering these comments were made after an event intended to promote peacebuilding and prosperity, it would appear a little odd to deem Varadkar’s hopeful comments as unhelpful. With Varadkar’s ‘Plan B’ offer presumably acting as the root of this frustration, it may be wise for Heaton-Harris to consider this alternative to get Stormont back up and functionally running given the increasing pressures to return to business as usual and, also, given Varadkar’s visible support both economically and politically.