Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he wanted to be viewed in Northern Ireland as a neighbour not an invader, as he made a symbolic visit to the headquarters of the Orange Order in Belfast.
Mr Varadkar received a warm welcome for his tour of the Museum of Orange Heritage at Schomberg House in a staunchly unionist part of the city, with locals applauding him on arrival and departure.
As he became the first Irish premier to visit the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland’s HQ, the Taoiseach said he hoped to forge better relations with the Orange Order, and move on from past tensions between the organisation and the Irish state.
“It’s not just something that is about Northern Ireland – it’s something that applies in all parts of Ireland and very often we can be too binary.
“Things are never as simple as north versus south or orange versus green – our history is very complex.”
“My mother brought me up to have very good manners so I hope people don’t think I am ill mannerly at all,” he replied.
“When I come north I see myself as a neighbour not as an invader, as the head of government of another jurisdiction.
“And I see this place Northern Ireland as a neighbouring jurisdiction, but also one in which there are almost a million people who are Irish citizens and we need to acknowledge that, the fact that it does make it a unique place.
“What I am trying to do on this trip is to reach out to all communities in Northern Ireland to understand their needs and perspectives better and try to cement relationships that I think we can build on in the future.”
Moments later he was surrounded by a group of local women who had been waiting at the gates of Schomberg House, keen to shake his hand.
Earlier, during his tour of the museum, Mr Varadkar met the leadership of the Order, including senior Orangemen from the Republic of Ireland.
He posed beside a sign commemorating the 1690 Battle of the Boyne and also paid respects at a memorial window dedicated to the 336 members of the organisation who were murdered during the course of the Troubles.
Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland Edward Stevenson said: “We acknowledge this is a significant moment, as it is the first time a serving leader of the Republic of Ireland government has visited the headquarters of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland.
“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.
“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 Taoiseach kicked off a day of engagements in Belfast with a private meeting with Baroness Paisley, the widow of former DUP leader Ian Paisley, at a library dedicated to his memory in the east of the city.
He will later launch the Feile an Phobail festival in west Belfast.