THE new Irish deputy prime minister has said he is not ashamed to be a nationalist as he hit back on attacks made against him by hardline unionists.

Simon Coveney said he should not have to hide his views as he defended his desire to see a united Ireland in his “political lifetime” after being criticised by the Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster.

He told a Belfast-based newspaper: “I’m a constitutional nationalist – I don’t have to hide that.”

He continued: “For me to refuse to talk about these things when I’m asked a straight question almost suggests I’m ashamed to be a nationalist – and I’m not.”

He was responding to comments he made when he was questioned about a united Ireland at a recent meeting of the Irish Senate’s Good Friday Agreement Implementation Committee.

He also told the Irish News no-one should be ashamed to be a unionist either.

Coveney was appointed to the post of deputy prime minister or Tanaiste yesterday and will continue to be the country’s foreign minister.

His interview was given to the paper before his new appointment.

He spoke out after remarks expressing a wish to see an all Ireland Republic in the not too distant future were described as “aggressive” by Foster.

The 45-year-old Fine Gael deputy leader had previously told members of the Irish Senate, that he wanted to see the island reunited.

“I would like to see a united Ireland in my lifetime – if possible, in my political lifetime,” he said.

But Coveney went on to tell the Irish News he did not expect a border poll “any time soon”.

He said: “For me the context around the border poll needs to be very different from what we have today.

“One thing the Irish government needs to do is reach out to both communities – but particularly to unionist communities – to try and deal with the issues that some people understandably feel threatened by.”

With little sign of a breakthrough in efforts to restore devolution in Northern Ireland, Coveney said “nobody wants direct rule”.

“That would create tensions we don’t need,” he said.

He added: “I don’t believe the policy gaps between the two parties are huge but they are emotive and they are difficult in the context of two very divisive elections.”

Coveney replaced Frances Fitzgerald as deputy prime minister after she stood down on Tuesday over claims she was aware of a campaign to smear a whistleblowing police officer that could have brought down the country’s minority government.

He was defeated in the Fine Gael leadership race earlier this year by Leo Varadkar, who appointed him deputy leader of the party.

Announcing Fitzgerald’s replacement on Thursday, Varadkar described Coveney as “very conscious of the important role he plays as minister of foreign affairs, as minister responsible for Brexit”.

He added: “I believe his appointment as Tanaiste and deputy prime minister will enhance his position in representing the government overseas in the negotiations currently under way.”

Fianna Fail, which props up Varadkar’s government, wanted Fitzgerald out in regards to the long-running police scandal which emerged after an officer raised concerns about police corruption but then found himself targeted by colleagues.