Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar met with the Grand Master and leaders of the Orange Order in Belfast yesterday in a move to facilitate friendly relations and overcome historical differences.
Varadkar is the first sitting Taoiseach to visit the Orange Heritage Museum in east Belfast according to The Irish Times. He insisted that he came up north to visit “with no hidden agenda,” as he was shown around the museum by Orange leaders.
His hope is that through this meeting, there can be reconciliation between both nationalists and the Orange Order in the north, with the intention of fostering better relations between the two groups.
Also had a really fruitful meeting with civic unionists and others last night in Belfast. It’s been great to meet people from across Northern Irish society on this trip pic.twitter.com/lAMcqFqYGd— Leo Varadkar (@campaignforleo) June 8, 2018
One man in the area, John Sloane, wondered, “Can you imagine this happening with Jack Lynch or Charlie Haughey coming here, or even Bertie Ahern and that wasn’t that long ago? It just would not have happened.”
DUP MP Gavin Robinson from East Belfast argued that the meeting was of great importance, which is particularly significant given that his party has frequently criticized Varadkar for interfering in Northern Ireland.
Robinson stated that “It is important not least because it is the first time the leaders of the lodges from the south have had the opportunity to meet the Taoiseach in the headquarters or the organisation, which of course is an all-Ireland organisation.”
Despite arriving at the meeting late and leaving early, Varadkar was welcomed by local residents with applause and there were no protests or demonstrations outside the building.
The Taoiseach had met with Eileen Paisley, the wife of the late Rev. Ian Paisley Sr. before this meeting, which is an even further motion of reconciliation. He plans to pay a visit to the Orange Museum of History in Loughall in County Armagh now but made sure to tell Orange leaders of the Dáil’s commitment to bridging distinctions.
A plaque commemorating the first meeting of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, as Varadkar put it, is “just a stone’s throw from the Dáil.”
The Orange Order is seeking to now expand its relations with the Irish Government, which had formally begun under the former Grand Secretary of the organization, Drew Nelson. The current Grand Master, Edward Stevenson, called Varadkar’s visit a “significant moment” because of the Irish Government’s recognition of Orange culture and identity in the south of Ireland as well.
“I believe building a better future is the best way of honoring the loss of the past,” as Varadkar said with hope for the future.
In a symbolic gesture of goodwill, the Taoiseach was given a Galway Crystal replica of the Boyne Obelisk, which was destroyed in 1923 but had stood where the Battle of the Boyne took place in 1690.
Could this meeting mark a shift for the better regarding nationalist and unionist relations in the North?