Ireland's Tanaiste Leo Varadkar said this week that he believes a united Ireland can happen in his lifetime and that Fine Gael should start to prepare for their own version of it.

“I believe in the unification of our island and I believe it can happen in my lifetime," Leo Varadkar, Ireland's Tanaiste and president of Fine Gael, told his party's Ard Fheis (annual party conference) on June 15.

“It means the unification of the people of our island as well as territory of Ireland and it is a legitimate political aspiration. It is in our Constitution and is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement should a majority of people in the North and South vote for it.

“The views of unionists must be acknowledged, understood, and respected but no one group can have a veto on Ireland’s future.

“We should be proud to say that unification is something we aspire to. It should be part of our mission as a Party to work towards it.”

Varadkar said a United Ireland would depend on a “working and working fully” Good Friday Agreement, as well “increased engagement with people and communities in the North.”

He added: “As well as this, I believe we should establish a branch in Northern Ireland with the same status as a constituency organisation in our rules.

“Not with a view to contesting elections, but with a view to recruiting members and building networks with like-minded people including those in other parties. We need to reach out to all sides. And we need a presence on the ground to do so.”

Varadkar continued: “I believe we as a party also need to develop our own vision of what unification should look like. We know the crude vision espoused by Sinn Féin, it’s not an inclusive one – a cold form of republicanism, socialist, narrow nationalism, protectionist, anti-British, euro-critical, ourselves alone, 50% plus one and nobody else is needed. That is not a 21st-century vision.

"Our vision should be different. It should be one that has the best chance of carrying the greatest number of people with us, North and South.

"It should appeal in particular to that middle ground I spoke about earlier, to gain the support of people who identify as both British and Irish.

“So, Unification must not be the annexation of Northern Ireland. It means something more, a new state designed together, a new constitution, and one that reflects the diversity of a bi-national or multi-national state in which almost a million people are British. Like the New South Africa, a rainbow nation, not just orange and green.”

He acknowledged, however, that “until we have a clear proposition to put to the people on both parts of our island, then a border poll is premature.”

Concluding his address, Varadkar said: “A hundred years ago, our party founded this State, and in the next century, I believe our party is best placed to unify our island.

“I look forward to the debate.”

You can watch the entire first evening of Fine Gael's Ard Fheis here, with Varadkar's speech beginning at 9:45:

Unionists respond to Varadkar's United Ireland comments

In response, Arlene Foster, who this week formally stepped down as the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party as well as the First Minister of Northern Ireland, questioned whether or not Varadkar believes in the Good Friday Agreement's critical principle of consent.

Her tweet, of course, comes in direct contrast to Varadkar's comments that a border poll would be premature without "a clear proposition" from people North and South.

Does @LeoVaradkar believe in the Belfast agreement’s principle of consent for the people of NI or not? Seems not.

— Arlene Foster #WeWillMeetAgain (@ArleneFosterUK) June 16, 2021

Northern Ireland's Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, who is "unapologetically pro-Union," said on Wednesday that he felt "some surprise" towards Varadkar's comments.

Lewis said in the House of Commons: “We would be concerned about any deviation from the principle of consent as enshrined in the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, but that agreement of course does respect the right of anyone to express their views and we fully support that.

“We do note the recent Life and Times survey which has support for a united Ireland at a low of 30% in Northern Ireland.

“I also am aware of the polls which put Sinn Fein ahead in the Republic, which may explain the timing of some of these comments from the Tanaiste.

“I would urge everyone to dial down any rhetoric, particularly at this time of year, I think it is unhelpful and ill-advised.

“Whatever the circumstances, this Government will support the principle of consent and all of our obligations under the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.”