The main contender for the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party has said unionists should have nothing to fear from a border poll in the North on reuniting Ireland.
Mike Nesbitt also said a parallel poll could be held in the 26 County state on whether it should join the Commonwealth (of former British Empire states).
Nesbitt was responding to calls from the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, that a referendum be held to determine the North of Ireland’s constitutional status. Last week British Secretary Owen Paterson ruled out any border poll in the near future.
In an interview published last week in the US, Adams said he believed the reunification of Ireland could take place “in our time”. He pointed out that “the British still have an illegal, immoral and illegitimate claim to part of Ireland”.
But he also said Ireland had already “transcended” the partition of the island through the infrastructure of the Good Friday Agreement. “When a majority of the people (within the Six Counties) wish for unity it will happen,” he said.
He also referred to his party’s “unionist outreach” program of building relationships with the unionist community, which has recently seen unionists addressing Sinn Fein events.
“You couldn’t have imagined that sort of thing happening five to ten years ago in the mood and spirit this was conducted,” he said. “The more we do of this the better for all.”
For his part, Nesbitt said he wanted to reach out to a substantial number of Catholic voters in the Six Counties who were “pro-union” but traditionally turned off voting for unionist parties.
On a possible poll similar to the referendum Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond is proposing in Scotland, Nesbitt said: “I would argue that even those who would be aspirationally pro-united Ireland but would quietly utter under their breath: ‘Please not yet.’”
The UUP will vote on their next leader at a special delegate conference in Belfast on 31 March. Once the dominant unionist party in the North of Ireland, the UUP fell into decline as unionist voters backed the more hardline policies of the DUP in the aftermath of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Nesbitt, a former Ulster Television News presenter, became the main contender when Newry-based Assembly member Danny Kennedy quit the contest this week. Nesbitt’s only rival is the current deputy leader, South Down Assembly member John McCallister, who is seen as a relative hardliner but who also describes himself as “a liberal unionist”.