Varadkar 'very happy' to help launch 'Republican' festival
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is "very happy" to be associated with a West Belfast festival that many, including DUP leader Arlene Foster, link with the Republican movement.
Ms Foster has described herself as "very concerned" about the Taoiseach's decision to launch Féile an Phobail today.
He is also facing strong criticism from IRA victims, including Máiría Cahill and Austin Stack.
But Mr Varadkar insisted it was a "community festival" and the headline act, popstar Olly Murs, could not be accused of being "a diehard republican".
Speaking to reporters ahead of a visit to Northern Ireland, the Taoiseach said: "It's been running in Belfast for decades now, including during very dark periods. When it was a difficult city to live in, it was something that lifted the spirits. I'm very happy to be associated with it."
The festival in West Belfast was borne out of the Troubles in 1988. Former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams was instrumental to its foundation and has remained actively involved.
Among the events planned is a talk by the leaders of 'The Great Escape', when 38 IRA prisoners broke out of a H-Block in Long Kesh in 1983.
Mr Varadkar has scheduled a series of engagements for today, including a meeting with the leaders of the Orange Order.
But it's his attendance at Féile an Phobail that has gained most attention.
Abuse victim Ms Cahill, who was subjected to an IRA kangaroo court, said: "I think it's a huge error of judgment and particularly hurtful for me and my family."
And Mr Stack, whose father Brian was murdered by the IRA, said the Taoiseach's decision was further evidence of a growing "romance" between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin.
In a tweet, Ms Foster said: "Very concerned at the message Leo Varadkar is sending with his apparent endorsement of all events at West Belfast festival.
"My thoughts are with the families of Brian Stack, David Black, Adrian Ismay & the families of prison officers who face daily threats."
But Mr Varadkar noted that the DUP leader had herself attended the festival in the past.
"I'm looking forward travelling to Belfast. It's going to be my sixth visit to Northern Ireland as Taoiseach.
"Every time I go there, I have to say I feel very welcome. There's a number of different parts to the programme tomorrow which talk to both communities," he said.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald defended the Taoiseach, saying the festival has included leading unionists in the past.
"I think it's right that the Taoiseach is there to launch the programme for it on the 30th anniversary. I think people need to be just a bit more thoughtful when they react to initiatives like this," she said.
"It's a good thing that the Taoiseach would visit Belfast. It's a good thing that he would support a community event."
What is Féile an Phobail?
Féile an Phobail was established at the height of the Troubles in 1988.
According to its website, "Its purpose was to celebrate the positive side of the community, its creativity, its energy, its passion for the arts, and for sport."
But critics say it has helped celebrate IRA activities over the decades, including a talk planned for this year by the leaders of 'The Great Escape', which saw 38 prisoners breakout from Long Kesh. One prison officer died.
Another event on August 6, entitled 'From Guerrilla War to Government -The Ballymurphy Story Tour', has also drawn criticism.
But organisers say Féile an Phobail has something for everyone.
It gets funding from a variety of bodies including Belfast City Council and Tourism Northern Ireland.