A vote should be held in the Six Counties on the reunification of Ireland if Britain decides to leave the EU, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has said.
He believes a commitment to holding a border poll should follow in the event of a ‘Brexit’. The Deputy First Minster is among those advocating that voters in the North support Britain’s position in the European Union on June 23rd.
Mr McGuinness described Britain’s leaving the EU as a “political and economic game-changer” and said he believed “Ireland’s place North and South is in Europe and leading change in Europe”.
A majority of voters in the Six Counties and in Scotland wish to remain in the EU, but are facing a forced withdrawal due to strong anti-EU sentiment among voters in England. A British vote to leave the EU against Scotland’s will would “almost certainly” trigger another independence referendum there, according to Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party.
Provision for a ‘border poll’ in Ireland was written into the 1998 Good Friday Agreement but has never been honoured. McGuinness said the British government should finally allow it to take place in the event of a Brexit.
Mr McGuinness said: “If Britain votes to leave the European Union then that could have huge implications for the entire island of Ireland and, given all the predictions, would run counter to the democratic wishes of the Irish people.
“If there is a vote in Britain to leave the EU there is a democratic imperative to provide Irish citizens with the right to vote in a border poll to end partition and retain a role in the EU.
“I have proposed to Theresa Villiers that, given the enormous significance of these issues, the British government now give a firm commitment to an immediate border poll in the event Britain votes to leave the European Union.”
SINN FEIN BACKS MEMBERSHIP
The Democratic Unionist Party, led by First Minister Arlene Foster, is campaigning for a vote to leave, as is Traditional Unionist Voice and UKIP, the UK Independence Party.
Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the Green Party are backing the remain campaign. Last weekend, the Ulster Unionist Party officially declared its support for Britain remaining in the EU but will not force party members to follow its stated line.
Although Sinn Fein has previously campaigned against treaties to accelerate EU integration, party spokesperson Megan Fearon said both parts of Ireland would be better off staying within the European Union.
“All sections of our society from agriculture, business, education and the community and voluntary sectors have received practical support, including funding, from Europe,” she explained.
“The EU has also been a major supporter of the development of the peace and political processes over the last two decades.
“As an MLA representing a border area, I know only too well the negative impact of partition. That would only be reinforced with a new European border.
“Ireland, north and south is better in the European Union and we cannot allow policies directed from the south-east of England to change that.”
Unionist hardliners and right-wing elements in England have said withdrawal from the European Union will allow Britain to take control of its borders, including the border with the 26 County state.
A British government report has appeared to confirm that a vote to leave the EU would mean the return of customs posts at border checkpoints in Ireland. But it is unclear how controls would be re-introduced on some north-south routes.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the report brought the “danger [of Brexit] into sharp focus”.
“This is exactly the kind of threat to economic and social stability on this island that those trying to force us out of Europe are happy to risk,” he said.
“The re-emergence of a physical border between north and south with customs checks would unravel the progress we have made on north/south partnership to a pre-Good Friday level.”
INDEPENDENCE A ‘MISTAKE’
Meanwhile, a former British government minister has joked that the 26 Counties could ask to return British rule during a debate on the UK’s EU membership.
‘Lord’ Nigel Lawson, who is chairman of the Vote Leave campaign group, said it “would be great” if Ireland said it had “made a mistake” in getting independence from Britain in 1922.
During a referendum debate at the foreign affairs think tank, Chatham House, Lawson was asked about the implications along the border.
He said both states worked together to tackle the threat from ‘terrorism’ and added he believed that “very close co-operation” would continue after the UK left the EU.
“I would be very happy if the Republic of Ireland - I don’t think it’s going to happen - were to say we made a mistake in getting independence in 1922, and come back within the United Kingdom. That would be great.”
When asked if a UK withdrawal from the EU would result in the reinstatement of ‘security’ checks along the Irish border, he said: “There are checks now because of the terrorist problem. That’s one of the places where terrorists are checked. I’m not at all sure there needs to be anything further. I don’t see why there should be.”