Mr Varadkar ran into trouble while talking to Pat Kenny, a presenter on the Newstalk radio station, during a discussion about international membership of his Fine Gael party. He said: “We don’t have a lot of overseas members.
“We do have some overseas members though.
“We have members in Belfast for example.
Emma Sheerin, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for mid-Ulster, said: “The Taoiseach has again demonstrated that he is increasingly out of touch with people north and south at a time when people on the ground are struggling with the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis.
My sincere apologies to anyone I offended
“His comments are bizarre and insulting to the nationalists in the north he pledged never to leave behind again and he should unreservedly withdraw them.”
In a statement issued in response to the criticism, Mr Varadkar said: “My sincere apologies to anyone I offended.
“I have crossed the land border dozens of times in my efforts to prevent a hard border and to bring both jurisdictions closer together.
“To clarify, Fine Gael has a Belfast Branch and we also have branches overseas like Brussels.
“The context, which some have neglected to mention, was me defending the right of Green Party and Fine Gael members living in Northern Ireland to have a say on whether we form a government together.
Mr Varadkar added: “In the interests of goodwill all round, I do hope Sinn Fein figures will also stop referring to the State as the South of Ireland, Free State or the Southern State.
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“Some find that offensive too and it is geographically incorrect, especially if you consider the location of Donegal.”
In a further sign of tension, Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein’s vice-president, subsequently accused Ireland’s Taoiseach of “paying lip service” to a pledge to share information about Dublin’s coronavirus strategy, while accusing him of adopting an opportunistic approach as he tries to forge a coalition government which would keep him in power.
She told the Irish News: “We held a general meeting the day before about the lifting of measures.
“We had a discussion around the fact we needed to work together in terms of the exit strategy and how the disease could spread across the island – and therefore the need for that joined-up approach.
“As I said previously, I was disappointed that they didn’t take the time to share information with us because it would have been helpful in terms of our own deliberations.”
Ms O’Neill said: “If we’re going to be joined up then it needs to be more than lip service.
“I suppose the challenge at the moment is that Leo Varadkar and co are trying to form a government to the exclusion of Sinn Fein and are perhaps being opportunistic in the middle of what is a very serious crisis to try and feather their own nests in terms of getting themselves into government.”
A Memorandum of Understanding signed last month between the health departments on either side of the border expressed a “mutual willingness to promote cooperation and collaboration” in tackling the pandemic.
Because the virus did not “respect borders”, there was “a compelling case” for co-operation including information-sharing and, where appropriate, a “common approach to action in both jurisdictions”.
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