President Higgins shares concerns over hard border violence risk

President Michael D Higgins has said he shares the concerns of Leo Varadkar that there is a risk of a return to violence if a hard border is imposed post-Brexit.

Mr Higgins said: “I do share the Taoiseach’s concern.”

The presidential candidate, who is running for a second term in office, added: “When there was a hard border in place it encouraged an extraordinary level of violence and killings.

“I agree with the Taoiseach … it is a risk that we should not take.”

Mr Varadkar warned last week there was a “real risk” of a return to violence in Ireland if a hard border was re-instated.

His comments drew considerable criticism from the Democratic Unionist Party’s Sammy Wilson who branded Mr Varadkar “vile” and accused him of using terrorist victims to scaremonger over Brexit.

Mr Higgins said whatever the outcome of the Brexit discussions between the United Kingdom and the EU, people in Ireland would always have to work for peace.

“The agreement is not something on paper, the peace must exist in the minds of people,” he said.

“We’ve a long way to go.”

He added that the communities were “still too divided”.

In an interview with Press Association, Mr Higgins also dismissed attacks made by Sinn Féin candidate Liadh Ní Riada about his presidential expenses as “outrageous”.

Ms Ní Riada wrote to Mr Higgins’ campaign office on Monday over his use of public money and asked him to explain reports that asserted Mr Higgins has been “using the OPW (Office of Public Works) to maintain the garden and grounds” of his private residence in Galway.

Mr Higgins said: “I have asked the Office of Public Works to do nothing in my house in Galway. The only works that have been carried out have been at the requests of An Garda Siochana and the OPW has fulfilled the Garda Siochana’s request.”

He continued: “The suggestion that there was anything either requested by me, or by my wife or my family, for the enhancement of our (residence), is simply an outrageous untruth.”

Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina live in Áras an Uachtarain in Dublin, whereas the Galway house is their former family home.

The president said the works carried out in the Galway property included the construction of a Garda hut, some stone flags to enable the hut “to be accessed in bad weather” and the cutting of some branches for CCTV cameras.

The presidential hopeful also said the other candidates’ queries about his expenses “shouldn’t be used as a substitute for the absence of a platform”.

Elected in 2011, Mr Higgins said he had put his own stamp on the presidency, as his predecessors had done before him.

“I am someone who came out of poverty with no prospects of education and became a university teacher and then left the university to take my stand on particular public issues,” he said.

He said he knew what was achievable within the confines of the Irish Constitution and he had never promised any initiative that was not achievable.

Asked about the other candidates’ campaign promises, he replied: “I think some of what has been proposed would be difficult to fit within even a stretched role of the president.”

He added: “What people will vote for on Friday is my record and my probity as a public representative for so long and in so many different offices.”

- Press Association

Earlier: UK Government will not want to move away from backstop commitments – Varadkar

Leo Varadkar has said he has “every confidence” that the UK Government will honour its commitment to the so-called Northern Ireland “backstop” in Brexit negotiations.

The Taoiseach stressed that British officials have committed to the agreement, which would guarantee no return to a hard border with the Republic, “in principle and in writing”.

Speaking in Dublin on Tuesday, Mr Varadkar said: “From our point of view, what Ireland is looking for is what we have always been looking for from day one and what has been committed to by us and the UK Government in principle and in writing on a number of occasions now.

“That is, we have a backstop that gives us an assurance that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland no matter what happens, that that backstop is legally operable and that applies unless and until there is a new agreement.

That is something that the UK Government has committed to in principle, committed to in writing, and I have every confidence that the UK Government will honour that commitment.

“Britain is an important country, a serious country, a great country with great history. I don’t think they will want to be moving away from their commitment.”

The Fine Gael leader said his warning during last week’s EU summit that violence could return if a hard border was imposed in Ireland post-Brexit was a “reasonable concern”.

He pointed out that his concerns were in line with those of former PSNI deputy chief constable Drew Harris, who told a House of Commons Brexit committee last year that a return of custom posts and physical infrastructure could become a target.

DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson said Leo Varadkar’s comments were ‘despicable, low and rotten’ (Michael McHugh/PA)

It comes after senior Democratic Unionist Sammy Wilson described Mr Varadkar’s comments as “despicable, low and rotten”, claiming he was scraping the bottom of a “very deep barrel of threats, deception and rhetoric”.

East Antrim MP Mr Wilson said the Taosieach had taken a “sledgehammer” to years of cross-border political relationship-building.

Responding to Mr Wilson’s comments, Mr Vardakar said: “The concerns that I was raising about the possibility of any physical infrastructure on the border becoming a target has been raised before.”

During last weeks EU summit, Mr Varadkar used a newspaper article on an IRA bombing of a customs post as a “prop” to emphasise the importance of the Irish border issue to EU leaders.

He told reporters on Tuesday that he used the newspaper to demonstrate that border infrastructure and violence is something that “people are very concerned about on the island of Ireland”.

“I think it is something that we need to be wise to,” he added.

“A lot of the reason why I believe we have peace on our island is because of the European Union, because over a number of decades the EU, through regulatory alignment, swept away a lot of the differences between North and South and that created the environment in which we could have the Good Friday Agreement.

“I think any change to that environment is a risk for the future and we should be wise to that. I really hope I am not proven right.”

- Press Association

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