Leo Varadkar appeared to hit back at criticism from the UK Government over his comments on Irish unification, as he insisted it would “always be the wrong time” to discuss the issue for opponents.

The Irish deputy premier said that while he accepted criticism of his speech, there was now a “growing middle ground” of people in Ireland “who want to talk about this…and we want to talk to them”. 

It comes after Mr Varadkar, Ireland’s former Taoiseach, on Tuesday told members of his Fine Gael party that he wanted to establish a branch in Northern Ireland, adding that “We should be proud to say unification is something we aspire to.”

While he insisted that unification should not mean the “annexation” of Northern Ireland, he went on to claim that the “tectonic plates were shifting” and that the mission of the party should be “to work towards it.”

His comments came at a highly-sensitive time in Northern Ireland, with unionists increasingly angered at the disruption being caused by post-Brexit trading arrangements between the province and Great Britain. 

Loyalist anger is also being directed towards the Irish Government, which is seen to be increasingly meddling in Northern Ireland’s affairs.

The departure of Edwin Poots as DUP leader, after just 20 days in charge, is likely to exacerbate tensions, with the future of the power-sharing agreement with Sinn Fein now in doubt.

Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, on Wednesday told MPs that Mr Varadkar’s speech had been “ill-advised” and “unhelpful” and urged him to “dial down the rhetoric” in the run up to the marching loyalist season. 

But Mr Varadkar has said there would always be people who wanted to avoid the subject, despite a growing number of people in Ireland backing calls for unification. 

“I understand the criticism and I’m willing to take that on board,” he told the broadcaster RTE. “But it’s also the fact that there are people in this State who will always be uncomfortable about talking about unification.It will always be the wrong time.

“It was the wrong time during the three years of Brexit because of those sensitive negotiations.

“It was the wrong time this week because of the difficulties the DUP is having. It will be the wrong time for the next few months because of negotiations around the Protocol and the marching season.

“It will be the wrong time next year because we’re running into the Assembly elections, and it will be the wrong time after that.

“But this conversation has already happened.There is no majority anymore in Northern Ireland, either for unionism or for nationalism, and a growing middle ground of people want to talk about this. Young people in particular, and we want to talk to them.”