Northern Ireland

Leo Varadkar is first taoiseach to visit Orange Order HQ

Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland Edward Stevenson welcomed Mr Varadkar to Orange Order HQ Image copyright PACEMAKER
Image caption Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland Edward Stevenson welcomed Mr Varadkar to Orange Order HQ

Leo Varadkar has become the first Irish prime minister (taoiseach) to visit the headquarters of the Orange Order.

It was part of a day-long series of engagements in Northern Ireland, during which he also launched Féile an Phobail in west Belfast.

On Friday morning, Mr Varadkar was taken on a tour of the Museum of Orange Heritage.

There, he met with senior Orangemen, including leadership from the Republic of Ireland.

The Orange Order is the largest Protestant organisation in Northern Ireland.

It regards itself as defending civil and religious liberties of Protestants and seeks to uphold the rule and ascendancy of a Protestant monarch in the United Kingdom.

At the scene: BBC News NI's Jayne McCormack

It was a tale of two cities for Leo Varadkar.

In the morning, reporters and a crowd of onlookers sweated in the June heat, waiting for the taoiseach to make his way to the Cregagh Road in east Belfast.

One woman, who decided to stop by and watch a little bit of history being made, said she felt more politicians needed to "be like Leo" and build bridges.

Relations between the Irish government and the Orange Order have not always been that cordial, but perhaps times have changed.

After touring the Orange Order headquarters, Mr Varadkar, who is often presented with a pair of socks, received some Galway crystal - a replica of the Boyne Obelisk which was blown up in 1923.

In the evening, he crossed over to west Belfast, a nationalist area of the city, to speak at the launch of the community festival Féile an Phobhail.

He took time to greet Sinn Féin's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill and opened his remarks in Irish, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd, before going on to talk about Brexit and the Stormont stalemate.

Mr Varadkar said he came to meet the Orange Order with "no hidden agenda".

"I want to ensure a future where identity, in all its complexity, whether it's Irish or British or Northern Irish, or all of these things, is respected and celebrated across the island," he said.

Mr Varadkar proposed more work on an educational exchange scheme involving Irish pupils visiting the Orange museum.

Image caption Crowds of people queued up to shake the taoiseach's hand before he left the Orange Order headquarters

Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, Edward Stevenson, welcomed Mr Varadkar's comments.

"This announcement can only lead to a better understanding, by all those who live on the island of Ireland, of the cultural heritage and traditions of Orangeism, its history, and its continuing relevance in modern society," said Mr Stevenson.

"Our next step will be continuing our meaningful engagement with the Irish government on this, and other matters of mutual interest."

During his visit to Schomberg House, on the Cregagh Road in east Belfast, Mr Varadkar also paid his respects at a memorial window in tribute to 336 members of the Loyal Order who were murdered during the course of the Troubles.

Mr Stevenson said the visit was "a significant moment".

Image caption Leo Varadkar said he had "no hidden agenda"

"As a cross-border organisation, we welcome the taoiseach's direct engagement with our members based in the border counties of the Republic and in so doing, recognising the longstanding cultural identity of the Orange family in the south," said Mr Stevenson.

"It is also important to acknowledge the importance of the taoiseach paying his respects to those members of our institution, many of whom served in the security forces, who were murdered by terrorists.

"Such a gesture should not be underestimated and will, I believe, be deeply appreciated by many relatives of the deceased, and the Orange membership as a whole."

The chief executive of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland was asked if some members of the Orange Order opposed the taoiseach's visit.

Image caption Leo Varadkar taking questions from the media outside the Museum of Orange Heritage in east Belfast

Ian Carlisle responded: "We have a range of opinions on this but the feedback has been largely positive.

"No matter what happens with Brexit, we are neighbouring jurisdictions, with a shared membership and there needs to be a maturity and a good relationship between the government in Dublin and this institution."

Earlier on Friday morning, Mr Varadkar met Baroness Eileen Paisley, wife of the late former DUP leader Dr Ian Paisley, at the Bannside Library.

Image caption Leo Varadkar meeting Sinn Féin's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill in west Belfast

On Friday evening, Mr Varadkar launched the 30th anniversary programme of west Belfast community festival Féile an Phobail.

Speaking at the event, he said his government will work with unionist and nationalist parties to get Stormont reinstated, adding: "I believe you should have the same rights as anyone else on this island. Northern Ireland should be best of Britain and best of Ireland - often it's not."

Image caption The taoiseach speaking at the launch of Féile an Phobhail

With a hat-tip to one of Northern Ireland's best-known poets, Louis MacNeice, the taoiseach ended his speech with the line: "Sleep the past and wake the future, walk out promptly through the open door."

After a busy day of meetings, the Taoiseach then called in for a quick drink in Belfast's Maverick pub, a gay bar in the Cathedral Quarter.

It was described as "an informal stop for some refreshment" before his last official engagement of the day, which included a visit to the oldest GAA club in County Down in Mayobridge.

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