Sinn Féin is to hold a major conference in Dublin this weekend to launch the party’s campaign for a Border poll.
The possibility of a poll of all voters in the North was included as an item of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which is 15 years old this Easter. Under such a poll, a simple majority vote can determine the constitutional status of the North.
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said such a poll would provide an opportunity for “a historic debate on the future of this island”.
The North is “in transition”, he writes. “It is no longer an orange state.”
He suggested that the major changes in the last 15 years -- “the enormous economic changes of recent decades, the diminished influence of the Catholic hierarchy, and the disclosure of corruption in the golden circles and in politics” -- would facilitate the debate.
He concluded by saying, “Politics across this island is in flux. A new Ireland can be what we make it. The Border poll is a key element of this.”
The appeal has drawn a mixed response.
Nationalists have pointed to an apparent demographic shift between the two communities in the 2011 census as fuelling the demand for a change. Those identified as having a Protestant background in the Six Counties, and separately, those identifying themselves to be in some way ‘British’, were both under 50%.
But DUP’s Arlene Foster described it as a “stunt politics” and claimed there is “no evidence” that a Border poll would serve any purpose.
“It is very lazy sectarianism to look at the census and say that there has been a change,” she said.
“If there has been a change, it is actually the fact that people in the Nationalist community are content in calling themselves Northern Irish and I think that is very significant because people are content in their identity here in Northern Ireland.
“They accept that that is the case and in actual fact a border poll can only take place if the Secretary of State - and Sinn Féin know this, so it is a stunt - it can only take place if the Secretary of State decides that there is evidence to support such a change and there is no such evidence.”
Independent socialist commentator Eamonn McCann said Sinn Féin had to be “seen to be doing something”. He warned a Border poll would be increase sectarian divisions at it would “literally be a flag-waving exercise” and asked: “Do we really want that?”
Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty defended the timing of the campaign, amid the unrest over the flying of the British flag on Belfast City Hall.
“That shouldn’t be an excuse to not pursue a campaign which the majority of people on the island of Ireland would like to see,” he said.
“The majority of people in the island of Ireland want to see Irish reunification but we recognise that the Good Friday Agreement allowed for a border poll and it would be a decision for people within the north.
“This isn’t about sectarianism, this is about having a conversation with Unionists.
“This is about allowing people to make their own decision and to have that option of where they would like to see their future lie and what is in the best interests of them economically.”
* Mr Adams’s article on the Border poll is included below