SDLP backs border poll in pre-election play


In a move which has brought the two nationalist parties in the North closer than ever politically, the SDLP is backing calls for a border poll on Irish reunification.

The leader of the SDLP, Colum Eastwood, said a poll on a united Ireland within the Six Counties should be called after the Brexit negotiations are concluded.

Launching his party’s Westminster election manifesto in Belfast on Tuesday, Colum Eastwood said a referendum on Irish unity would “need to happen after Brexit”.

He did not give a specific date for the vote, but suggested it should take place when the negotiations on taking Britain out of the European Union are completed.

Previously the party had said the time ‘wasn’t right’ for the move, which was advocated by Sinn Fein before the outcome of the Brexit referendum brought new momentum to the campaign.

Mr Eastwood said the SDLP would campaign on creating an “Ireland based on reconciliation and working together”.

He referred to how the British government accepted that, in the event of a vote for unity, the Six Counties would rejoin the EU. Mr Eastwood claimed that it was pressure from Foyle MP Mark Durkan which convinced the British Brexit secretary David Davis to accept that the North of Ireland was “the only place in these islands with an automatic path back into the EU as a result of the principle of consent and the Good Friday Agreement”.

“While others were waving banners, the SDLP made the prospect of a successful unity referendum much more possible because a Border poll is no longer solely the project of Irish nationalism but of pro-European internationalism,” he declared.

“We think there’s now a route for actually winning a border poll,” he said. “In terms of timescale, I think it would need to happen after Brexit when we see the dust settling.”

The two parties’ varying approach to the parliaments in London and Dublin is now the only difference between them on the major constitutional questions. The SDLP does not contest elections in the 26 Counties, while Sinn Fein MPs refuse to take their seats at Westminster.

The SDLP leader again defended the position of his party’s MPs, who must pledge their allegiance to the British Crown before they can take their seats and salaries at Westminster. Mr Eastwood criticised Sinn Fein for refusing to take its seats in the House of Commons, particularly at a time when he said there was real prospect of a hung British parliament.

He said the political calculus of the Westminster election was simple: “A DUP seat will only add to Tory numbers - a Sinn Fein seat won’t even get counted.”

The SDLP is struggling to hold on to its three seats held by three former leaders, Alasdair McDonnell in South Belfast, Mark Durkan in Foyle and Margaret Ritchie in South Down. It is under pressure from Sinn Fein in Foyle and South Down, and from the DUP in South Belfast.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams welcomed the SDLP’s change in stance in favour of an Irish Unity referendum.

“Sinn Fein have called for such a vote to be held within the next five years,” he said. “All parties that claim to support Irish Unity, including Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, and Labour, should now make the call for referendums North and South in line with the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.

“The imposition of Brexit underlines the undemocratic nature of partition and its impact on citizens, the economy, and public services. A Unity Referendum is an opportunity for the people to have their say and to build a new, united, and agreed Ireland.

“So, parties should support the call and make the case for unity.”

However, launching the Conservatives’ ‘Northern Ireland’ manifesto, British Direct Ruler James Brokenshire again declared the conditions for calling a Border poll on unification were “not remotely satisfied”.

“I remain satisfied on the basis of all reliable indicators of the continued support for the devolved administration, the principles and the structures and institutions that are underpinned within the Belfast Agreement (1998) and its successors, and I am very clear that the requirements for a border poll are not remotely satisfied,” he said.

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