“I believe in the unification of our island and I believe it can happen in my lifetime.”

Leo Varadkar has told the Fine Gael Ard Fheis that they are the party to “unify our island”, calling for a branch to be established in Northern Ireland which would not contest elections, but would work with “like-minded people, including those in other parties”.

Speaking online, Varadkar said “tectonic plates were shifting” in Irish history and “it means the unification of the people of our island, as well as the territory of Ireland, is a legitimate political aspiration.”

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

“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.”

The Tánaiste condemned what he labelled the “crude vision espoused by Sinn Féin” of a “cold form of republicanism” that he alleged anti-British and euro-critical.

“That is not a 21st-century vision,” he said, insisting his party could appeal to the “middle ground” of those who see themselves as Irish and British.

“Unification must not be the annexation of Northern Ireland,” he remarked.

“We have to be willing to consider all that we’d be willing to change; new titles, shared symbols, how devolution in the North would fit into the new arrangements, a new Senate to strengthen the representation of minorities, the role and status of our languages, a new and closer relationship with the United Kingdom.

“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.”

Varadkar also suggested there could be two legal systems operating on the island after a potential reunification, whilst the “best of both jurisdictions”, such as the NHS and Ireland’s welfare system, could be implemented in the north and south.

“Until these questions are answered, until we have a clear proposition to put to the people on both parts of our island, then a border poll is premature,” Varadkar insisted.

“We have a duty to engage with each other and others to find answers to these questions…the future is not yet written and nothing is inevitable.”

The reaction online to Varadkar’s comments appeared mixed, with a few labelling it opportunism, some supportive of the policy, and others quite unhappy.