Tuesday 21 January 2020

Taoiseach believes united Ireland is 'further away' after controversy over RIC commemoration

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Cormac McQuinn and John Downing

TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar has said that a united Ireland is "further away" in the wake of the controversy over plans to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).

Mr Varadkar also said there are "lessons to learn" from the furore over the event that had been planned for next week but is now cancelled.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan postponed the ceremony after a massive backlash over the plans to remember a police force that was reinforced by the notorious Black and Tans during the War of Independence.

Mr Varadkar said Mr Flanagan was right to defer the commemoration but expressed hope it will still take place at a later date "in a way that’s more appropriate and allows us to consult with the opposition and with others".

However, he said he believes a united Ireland has been delayed as a result of this week's row.

Unionists in the North have expressed disappointment that the event is not going ahead and questioned if they would be welcome in a future united Ireland.

Charlie Flanagan Photo: Arthur Carron
Charlie Flanagan Photo: Arthur Carron

Mr Varadkar said he firmly believes in a united Ireland and that it's possible within his lifetime.

He added: "For a united Ireland to work it is going to have to be a very different State, a State that recognises that there are over a million people on our island who identify as British and come from the Unionist tradition.

"We have to understand that as a country, as an island, we have a shared history that people north and south, catholic and protestant, unionist and nationalist fought on different sides, but they all fought for what they believed in".

Mr Varadkar added that people on both sides were victims of, and involved in atrocities.

"We need to embrace and understand that shared history if we are going to build a united Ireland.

"It is my deep regret that this week, embracing that shared history, moving towards a united Ireland feels to me to be a little bit further away than it was before."

He said he regrets that there has been a "setback for unity and a set back for reconciliation" but added: "I think that can be changed... we have lessons to learn and work to do.”

Mr Varadkar also said he regrets that some members of the Opposition misrepresented the plans for the commemoration adding that this was "wrong".

Meanwhile, Charlie Flanagan has been hit by criticisms from one of his own government team in the bitter row over plans to honour police officers who operated under the old British regime.

The Government’s chief whip, Seán Kyne, has said he sees plans for the event to honour the Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police, as a “solo run” by Mr Flanagan which did not have full Government endorsement.

Mr Kyne said the week-long controversy has been “a learning curve for Government” – and much more widespread consultation must accompany further commemorations of the turbulent centenary year of 1920 and beyond.

Mr Kyne, a Galway West TD also responsible for Gaeltacht affairs, made his intervention on Wednesday’s main evening news on the Irish language station TG4.

When asked if the plans for the event - now delayed beyond the January 17 date - were a “solo run” by Mr Flanagan, the Government’s Dáil enforcer did not mince words.

"That is a question for Minister Flanagan but as I said, it wasn't on the official list that we got before Christmas. We got an invitation on the 6th January. And there has been a lot of controversy since and it is clear that more consultation is needed with the parties, organisations in order to discuss this...," Mr Kyne told TG4.

Asked if the controversy of the past week were “a learning curve” for the Justice Department, and for the Government, Mr Kyne was unequivocal. "Yes, definitely, and it is important that there is more consultation from now on and everything is brought to government to discuss," Mr Kyne said.

The Galway West TD further distanced Government and Fine Gael from the ill-starred commemoration. "It was a decision by the Department of Justice. This commemoration was not on the list that came before government before Christmas so it wasn't on the list of what we discussed,” Mr Kyne said.

“But it was proposed by the Advisory Committee that the RIC and the DMP be looked at and do something but no decision was made on what type of commemoration or what kind of event to commemorate the RIC and DMP,” he continued.

“In my opinion, I welcome the decision to go back on this decision and that more consultation is needed on this complicated topic and it is important that Minister Flanagan does that now," Mr Kyne concluded.

The Justice Minister delivered a low-key response to the Government chief whip’s intervention. He said thousands of commemorative events spanning the “Irish Revolution” had been organised by diverse groups across the country – including local and national government.

Earlier this evening, Minister Regina Doherty insisted Charlie Flanagan never intended to "make a mess" with plans to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) but suggested there was not enough consultation on the controversial event.

Ms Doherty also said the controversy was a "real eye opener" if a border poll on a United Ireland is to be seriously considered in the coming years.

Ms Doherty was asked by reporters if Mr Flanagan should apologise to his Fine Gael colleagues for "making a mess" of the issue.

She said: "Look, I don't think Charlie's intention was ever to make a mess."

She said family histories in Ireland are complex and pointed to how one of her great grandfathers had fought in the British Army in World War One, while another was an IRA man who was on the Black and Tans wanted list.,

Ms Doherty added: "We need to find a route to remember the history that has brought us to where we are today and to be thankful for it but I think, as well as just looking back, we need to look forward."

She said there's been a lot of talk about a border poll from Sinn Féin.

"Maybe there wasn't as much consultation with regard to this commemoration as there should have been or could have been.

"But I think it's a real eye opener to how we need to reflect on what the country is going to look like for the next number of years if we are to seriously consider having a border poll and talking about a United Ireland in my lifetime."

Elsewhere, Business Minister Heather Humphreys argued that there was "a lot of misinformation about this particular commemoration."

She insisted it was never about remembering the Black and Tans, but rather about the Irish men that lost their lives while working for the RIC.

Ms Humphreys said: "I think it’s a good idea that the minister has postponed the event but I do look forward to it taking place because there have been a number of people who contacted me because their family members served in the RIC and they did make sacrifices and I do believe they deserve to be remembered."

She added: "We need to look at our history in a fair and balanced way, in an inclusive way and try to understand the different narratives.

"It is a very, very complex and difficult period in our history and we need to look at it with an open mind."

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