Britain rules out border poll ‘diversion’
The British Direct Ruler Theresa Villiers has dismissed nationalist calls for a border poll on Irish unity, saying political attention was “better focused elsewhere”.
The abrupt British rejection came as a blow to Sinn Féin who on Saturday held a major party conference on the issue. The party has pinned its hopes for eventual Irish unity on a unification vote within the Six Counties, which is permitted under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement but must meet the approval of both the Dublin and London governments.
DUP Stormont Minister Arlene Foster had earlier raised hopes for the plan when she said her party might “call Sinn Féin’s bluff” over a referendum. She claimed that such a vote would be strongly rejected in the Six Counties in order to maintain the annual British subvention (payment) of ten billion pounds which is paid annually to sustain the failed local economy.
“Whilst Sinn Féin talks about a border poll it is the last thing they would want as they know the outcome would be so resounding - they should be careful what they wish for,” she said.
But in Dublin last Saturday, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams argued that unification would bring greater prosperity in both parts of the island.
He said that a “planned single island economy would be good for prosperity; good for jobs; good for investment”.
In a wide ranging speech, the Sinn Féin leader pointed out that the Good Friday Agreement commits the British government to holding a border poll and London has undertaken to legislate for a united Ireland if a majority of those voting express a wish that the north should cease to be part of the British union.
“It is time for the governments to set a date,” he said.
On the issue of the political geography of the north, Mr Adams said that the northern state was “gerrymandered to allow for a permanent unionist two thirds majority”, but pointed out that recent census figures reveal that only 40% of citizens there stated that they had a British only identity, and a quarter stated that they had an Irish only identity.
Commenting on the issue of identities and traditions, the Louth TD said that Sinn Féin wanted to “hear what unionists have to say” and would “use every opportunity to engage in dialogue at a personal level as well as in more formal ways”.
Foster, considered a unionist hardliner, said the DUP had not yet reached a conclusion on the matter. But she suggested her party could decide to “put an end to this foolish talk once and for all” by backing the poll.
The 26-County Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, expressed wariness. He said: “I think we have a lot of work to do both here and up North before people’s mentality and views change about the future of the island.”
The situation was also complicated by the announcement of British Prime Minister David Cameron that he intends to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU by 2017. A British decision to withdraw from the EU could have major consequences for the North of Ireland, probably requiring the return of police checkpoints and customs controls along the border with the South.
Despite Sinn Féin’s calls for movement on the issue, the London government made clear that while they would allow the British public to vote themselves out of the European Union, there were “no present plans” to allow the people of the Six Counties a choice on the Union with Britain.
In a prepared statement, Theresa Villiers said: “Given the state of opinion in Northern Ireland, which is clearly expressed in election results and opinion polls, the [British] government has no present plans to call such a poll.
“It is crucial that political leaders here concentrate on working together on pressing economic and social issues, including the rebalancing of the Northern Ireland economy and building a genuinely shared society, rather than being diverted into divisive constitutional debates.”
Sinn Féin did not respond to Villier’s statement.