Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has apologised for claiming that Sinn Féin does not have senior politicians who are Protestant. 

The inaccurate remark drew sharp criticism from the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald who said: "The religious beliefs or tradition of any TD (Sinn Féin or otherwise) is none of Leo Varadkar's business." 

The party's TD for Clare, Violet-Anne Wynne, stated: "I am a Protestant and I am proud to be a representative for Sinn Féin. Changing facts is not the change that people voted for!!"  

In a statement this afternoon, Mr Varadkar said: "I did not make any remarks, at all, about deputy Wynne personally. I was unaware of her religious affiliation and I stand corrected. I fully retract my remark and apologise for any offence caused." 

Mr Varadkar made the inaccurate comment on RTÉ's News At One programme, when he contended that Sinn Féin was "an obstacle to Irish unity".

He said: "They have a relationship with unionism that is one of mutual hostility. They're sectarian. They're still very anti-British. They have no Protestant TDs, MLAs or Senators."

Deputy Wynne subsequently called the remarks "unacceptable".

Sinn Féin TD Kathleen Funchion said the Tánaiste "did the right thing" by apologising.

Speaking on RTÉ's Drivetime, Ms Funchion said his comments were "absolutely ridiculous" and showed "really how ill-informed he is."

Earlier, Sinn Féin's Vice-President and Deputy First Minister of the Stormont Executive Michelle O'Neill said that it was time for the Irish Government to prepare and plan for a united Ireland, as it is best thing that can be done for the people on this island.

Her comments came after a Sinn Féin organisation placed advertisements in a number of US newspapers today calling for the Irish Government to prepare and plan for a united Ireland.

Half page ads appeared in The Washington Post and the New York Times, with full page colour ads in the Irish American newspapers the Irish Voice and the Irish Echo.

The ad, taken out by Friends of Sinn Féin, which is registered with the Department of Justice in Washington, also call for a date to be set for a referendum on a united Ireland.

The united Ireland advert has been endorsed by a number of Irish American groups including the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Brehon Law Society and the Irish American Unity Conference.

The Sinn Féin leader said that Irish America had been central to the signing and safeguarding of the Good Friday Agreement.

"The central principle of the Agreement is the right of the people to determine their constitutional future.  A unity referendum is the measure of that right and an essential commitment of the Agreement," Ms McDonald said.

Ms O'Neill described it as a timely initiative as there is a debate under way on unity that "has never been witnessed before".

Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, she said: "It's very clear that in a post-Brexit world, there's a stark reality opening up for the people who live here and the reality is that people have a choice to make between an inward looking Brexit Britain or an outward looking inclusive Ireland".

She said Irish America has been very supportive and vested in the Irish peace process and "it's very timely that they enter the debate" and "make a very clear challenge to the Irish Government that now is the time to plan, now is the time to make the preparations for constitutional change and now is the time to try to make this a very normalised inclusive conversation because everyone can see this is going in one direction".

Ms O'Neill said the principal of consent is built into the Good Friday Agreement and it will up to the people to decide.

She said "the best thing that we can do for the people who live on this island is actually to prepare".

The Tánaiste said he does not have any objection to the party running ads in American newspapers in support of reunification of Ireland.

"Its a legitimate aspiration and one that I share with my party," Leo Varadkar added.

There were also sharp exchanges between the Taoiseach and the Sinn Féin leader during Leaders' Questions in the Dáil.

Micheál Martin claimed Sinn Féin needed to be more accountable about its finances, describing some of its funding as "a shady enough transaction that would make even a stockbroker blush".

Deputy McDonald, who had been asking questions about Davy stockbrokers, branded his comments as "pathetic".

Additional reporting Brian O'Donovan