Sinn Fein has denied media claims of internal disagreements after a significant shift in the party’s attitude on Irish reunification was unveiled by party leader Mary Lou McDonald on Monday but largely recanted less than 24 hours later.
In a surprise statement, Ms McDonald said it was “not our preferred option” that a Six-County vote on Irish unity should be held in the context of Britain’s departure from the European Union. She argued that this would not “maximise consent” by unionists.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement provides a ‘border poll’ mechanism for reunification if the British government believes a majority exists for unity within their Six County jurisdiction. Some Sinn Fein leaders have previously made statements in favour of ‘unity by agreement’, requiring consent greater than a simple majority referendum, although that has never become official party policy.
Ms McDonald’s comments are the first time a Sinn Fein leader has said the party is prepared to suspend its demand for Irish unity. She spoke out after former DUP leader Peter Robinson, now retired, warned unionists to be prepared for the possibility of reunification as a result of Brexit.
Speculation has been rising that a majority in favour of unification may soon or already exist within the Six Counties after surveys by the online polling company LucidTalk showed a jump in support for nationalism.
“I am very, very conscious that you can’t come at this issue in that simplistic way,” Ms McDonald said in an interview with the Press Association.
“It’s very important when we come to addressing the issue of partition we do it in the best possible climate and we do it in a way that maximises consent.
“It is not my preferred option or our preferred option that we deal with the issue of Irish unity in a climate that is unsteady or unstable or chaotic, in other words in the context of a crash Brexit or a very hard Brexit.”
While indicating that Sinn Fein still wanted a vote within five years, Ms McDonald said the Border poll question should be put to one side until the “dangers” posed by Brexit to “economic and social certainty” are removed.
“I would prefer... that we have sequencing that firstly delivers a level of economic and social certainty, in as much we can be certain, and stability and from that base we then continue the conversation about Irish unity,” she said.
Ms McDonald also said unionists who failed to countenance the possibility of a united Ireland in the future were burying their heads in the sand, and praised Peter Robinson for speaking out in the face of criticism from fellow unionists such as DUP MP Sammy Wilson and UUP leader Robin Swann.
Ms McDonald’s comments were very much in line with recent remarks by potential future coalition partner, Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. He has said that calls for a border poll at this time “wouldn’t be helpful”.
There was a further surprise on Tuesday when Ms McDonald changed course again, insisting her party wanted a referendum held “as soon as possible” and were seeking to win it with “maximum consensus”.
“If the Tories continue to pursue a negotiation stance that can only lead to a crash Brexit, the British government will have to put the question on Irish unity to the people in a referendum,” she said.
“Irish unity makes sense. It has always made sense. Brexit is simply the latest political mess to underline that fact.”
Sinn Fein veteran Gerry Kelly denied claims that there had been a u-turn by the party’s new leader, who is in her post less than six months, and said the party had “consistently” sought a border poll. “She is the leader and she is leading us,” he said.
DUP leader Arlene Foster insisted that Sinn Fein’s position had changed, and that she was tempted to agree to a border poll.
“As tempting as calling Sinn Fein’s bluff might be, the principle of consent is in place and should be respected. Few dispute there is a clear majority in favour of staying within the United Kingdom,” she said.
The DUP leader also was asked about former DUP leader Peter Robinson’s comments that while he did not foresee a united Ireland, people should prepare for that possibility.
Ms Foster said: “There is absolutely no point in preparing for a united Ireland because it is simply not going to happen. Such work would be ludicrous, such work would be pointless.”