There has been an angry response in both Ireland and Scotland after British Prime Minister Theresa May said she would block referendums on Irish unity and Scottish independence following the Brexit vote to leave the European Union.
In last year’s shock referendum on EU membership, both the north of Ireland and Scotland voted to remain, but England and Wales voted to leave.
Hours after Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon demanded a new independence vote on Monday, Sinn Fein said it also wanted a referendum on Irish reunification “as soon as possible”.
Sinn Fein has been regularly calling for a ‘border poll’ to decide on whether the Six Counties of Ireland under British rule should reunite with the rest of Ireland. Support for a united Ireland has increased dramatically since Britain voted to leave the European Union last June, and there was a surge in support for Sinn Fein at assembly elections a week ago. The party has also overtaken Fine Gael in an opinion poll for the first time to become the second most popular party in the south.
And in a significant u-turn, the most popular party in the 26 Counties, Fianna Fail has now said it is working on its own plan for a united Ireland.
“Brexit will be a disaster for the economy, and a disaster for the people of Ireland. A referendum on Irish unity has to happen as soon a possible,” Sinn Fein’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, told reporters in Belfast.
She made no direct connection between Ms Sturgeon’s call to the British government for permission to hold another referendum in Scotland, just hours earlier.
She said the prospect of the triggering of Article 50 by Theresa May, the formal and apparently irreversible act of leaving the EU, increases the urgency for a referendum on Irish unity.
“The British Tories are on the verge of triggering Article 50 to take the North out of the EU against the wishes of the people. This will significantly undermine the Good Friday Agreement and lead to the imposition of a hard border,” she said.
“They are refusing to listen to the majority of people and parties in the North, as well as the majority of parties across Ireland, who support the North securing designated special status within the EU.”
In the European parliament, Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson also launched a blistering attack on the British position, as well as that of the EU and rejected even the existing border arrangement as a solution.
Addressing fellow MEPs in Strasbourg on Monday, Ms Anderson told Theresa May to “stick it where the sun doesn’t shine” over her Brexit plans. In remarks which drew predictable condemnation from unionists, she quoted from the anti-interment song ‘The Men Behind the Wire’.
“And let me put the record straight for everybody here, no border hard or soft will be accepted by the people of Ireland,” she said. “What British armoured cars and tanks and guns couldn’t do in Ireland, 27 member states will not be able to do in Ireland.
“So, Theresa (May), your notion of a border, hard or soft, stick it where the sun doesn’t shine because you’re not putting it in Ireland.”
Earlier, Theresa May told the House of Commons: “It is not right to have a border poll at this stage. What we should all be focusing on is bringing the parties together to ensure that we can continue to see the devolved administration in Northern Ireland working, as it has done, in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
“We want to see that devolved administration being formed and that is what all the parties should be looking for at the moment.”
She also said she would block any independence referendum for Scotland until after Brexit has been completed. She said, without irony, that “there is much that binds us, and I do not want to see anybody doing constitutional game-playing with the future of the United Kingdom.”
Nicola Sturgeon responded indignantly, insisting the vote should be held when there is a clear choice to be made. “The Scottish government has a cast-iron democratic mandate for an independence referendum, and the vote must take place within a timeframe to allow an informed choice to be made -- when the terms of Brexit are clear but before the UK leaves the European Union or shortly afterwards,” Ms Sturgeon said.
And amid speculation that new border controls could become a factor on both islands, the London government’s ‘Brexit secretary’ continued to make contradictory statements regarding his plans.
David Davis insisted his government is determined to use technology to ensure an “invisible, frictionless border between north and south”, but also referred to a need for customs checks along “a very light border”. He said there was “quite a lot of design work to do”.
Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd has said the attempts to offer reassurances on the border were “laughable” and had not allayed any fears.
“He claims there will be a digital border and that his government will develop the technology to manage it. But given his government’s track record of trying and failing to develop bespoke computer systems his comments will not reassure anyone,” he sad.
“And his comments are all the more ridiculous because it won’t be up to Britain to decide what any EU border will look like. That decision will be taken by the 27 member states.”
Speaking from the US, Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams repeated calls for north to have a special designated status within the EU. “This is the only logical way to avoid a hard economic border, job losses and business closures,” he said.