Fine Gael leader and 26 County Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has suggested the north of Ireland should remain under British rule in the short term, even if there a majority in favour of unification with the south.
In comments to the BBC, Varadkar cast doubt on a central aspect of the 1998 Good Friday peace Agreement, that a simple majority vote in the north in favour of unity should be sufficient to bring about a United Ireland.
Sinn Fein’s calls for such a ‘border poll’ have so far been refused by both the Dublin and London governments.
In a BBC television interview, Varadkar said: “I wouldn’t like us to get to the point whereby we are changing the constitutional position here in Northern Ireland on a 50% plus one basis.
“One of the best things about the Good Friday Agreement is that it did get very strong cross border support - that’s why there was a 70% vote for it.”
His comments came amid speculation of a further decline in the number of unionists in the Six Counties, exacerbated by Britain’s impending departure from the European Union.
Varadkar warned this week of the numbers of unionists now seeking Irish passports, and the prospect of a future majority of Irish passport-holders within the Six Counties.
He said he warned EU leaders of the problem at a meeting of the European Council meeting in Brussels. “Even people from a unionist background will want to become Irish and European citizens at the very least for the convenience,” he said.
In recent weeks some right-wing and reactionary figures in the 26 Counties have been increasingly calling for the south to reject Irish unification, even if a majority in the North wants it.
Sinn Fein MEP Matt Carthy criticised Varadkar’s comments, which he said were “legally wrong” and “politically dangerous”. He said the Good Friday Agreement was “specific and unambiguous” on this central point.
“The Taoiseach cannot cherry pick the Good Friday Agreement which is legal, and internationally binding,” he said.
“He is saying that the rights of nationalists are are less than those of those favouring the Union.
“It is clear that a 50%-plus-one vote will secure unity. But, let’s not have things so close. Sinn Fein certainly doesn’t want to have it that close.”
Unionists praised Varadkar’s comments. Prominent unionist figure John Taylor also warned that a small majority vote for a united Ireland in a border poll “would spark a civil war”.
The UUP veteran, who now styles himself as ‘Lord Kilclooney’, said: “Can you imagine the loyalists in Belfast taking it quietly? I couldn’t.”
Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy pointed out that an overwhelming majority of people in Ireland support reunification.
He said the Dublin government should defend the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, including the right to secure a united Ireland with a simple majority.
He said the Good Friday Agreement was “absolutely clear” in enshrining the right of the Irish people to self-determination through referenda “north and south”.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the Good Friday Agreement gave prominence to the principle of consent and affirmed the right to bring about a united Ireland by referenda.
“The legitimacy of that aspiration and the right for the people of Ireland to exercise our right to self-determination on the basis of consent must be respected and protected,” he said.
“It would be unwise to attempt to renegotiate the principle of consent at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement.”