Sinn Fein party leader Mary Lou McDonald has insisted that she is ready for a border poll and wants a debate on Irish reunification, including the possibility of rejoining the British Commonwealth.
The Six County statelet was planned in 1921 to create a unionist majority against the wishes of the nationalist majority on the island as a whole. However, unionist numbers have declined sharply over the decades. Since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, allowing the possibility of a future vote within the north of Ireland on reunification, Sinn Fein has directed its efforts to winning a Six County ‘border poll’.
In her latest comments on the issue, Ms McDonald said the Dublin government needs to take the lead in the debate about a united Ireland and start making plans about how it might be achieved.
“I am firmly of the view that we are now on the way to a unity referendum. I think the genie is out of the bottle. I think the discussion around a new Ireland, how we might get there, and what it might look like is already underway,” she said.
She denied that she had recently argued against holding an immediate border poll, but added that “we need space”.
“Brexit is a very bad thing for Ireland”, she told the Journal. “For us to have a debate around the new Ireland and to have a referendum poll, obviously a chaotic Brexit is not the ideal music for that to happen”.
She added: “I am an Irish republican, I am the leader of Sinn Fein, I want us to achieve Irish unity and I want us to do it as soon as we can and I know for that to happen we need space and the best atmosphere we can have in which to have that debate.”
She wanted to encourage unionists to participate in a discussion about a united Ireland, but could not “censor the idea” of rejoining the British Commonwealth before the debate has begun. The idea of Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth has been floated on previous occasions.
“There are some people who think that rejoining the Commonwealth is a worthy proposition,” she said. “I think those that hold that view need to put that view forward, and I think it needs to be looked at, and debated, and it needs to be discussed.” However, she added that it was not her position.
She said that if the Tories insist on crashing out of Europe, and take the north of Ireland out of the European Union “in a chaotic manner”, then the next question to be asked is “the Constitutional one”.
“The Constitutional question [of a border poll on a united Ireland] would have to be put - there is no way the Tories could inflict that level of disorder, of uncertainty, and damage on the island of Ireland and imagine that they are not going to put the Constitutional question.
“But it does not represent the optimal atmosphere in which to have the discussion and debate, so that was the point I was making,” said the Dublin Central TD.
Her comments come after the former leader of the DUP Peter Robinson said he believed unionists should prepare for the possibility of Irish unity. Although he said he did not believe a border poll would be successful, he admitted the “battle for the union.. is raging”.
He was bitterly opposed by former colleagues, particularly DUP MP Sammy Wilson, who said the comments were “dangerous” and “adding to the Sinn Fein narrative”.
Ms McDonald said it is important that unionism “finds its space, finds its voice and follows the advice of Peter Robinson and takes its head out of the sand”.
Meanwhile, speaking at a panel debate before a mainly nationalist audience at the West Belfast Festival last week, former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party Mike Nesbitt notably rejected the idea that a simple majority in a border poll would not be enough to reunite with the rest of Ireland.
“It can’t be anything other than 50% plus one - that’s democracy,” he admitted.
He added that, in terms of the Dublin parliament, unionists could find themselves “perpetual king-makers” in a united Ireland and joked to the audience: “So be careful what you wish for.”
He went on to tell a story about a frog being placed in cold water which was slowly heated up, which caused it to die, because it did not sense the change.
“The atmosphere and environment around this country, between these islands and Europe, everything has changed. Unionism needs to wake up, otherwise it’s going to be that frog.”