Speaking at a protest against Brexit on the Irish border on the day Britain leaves the EU, taking the northeast of Ireland with it, the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said preparations for constitutional change on the island “needed to start”.
“I cannot understand political leaders or political parties who refuse to see what is in plain sight and that is that change is happening,” she said.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that a border poll on Irish reunification would be “divisive”, while Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said a border poll should only happen “when the conditions are right.”
But Ms McDonald said “you don’t bury your head in the sand and pretend that change isn’t happening. It is happening.”
There have been increasing calls for a poll on Irish unity. Academics have called for a date to be set now to allow for a realistic debate to get underway, while Sinn Féin has said that a poll should be held within five years.
Micheál Martin used his address at the European Institute on Thursday to again play down calls for such a poll, and claimed Sinn Féin was using the issue for “party politics” in a “sectarian and partisan” approach.
“When the point is reached that we can have a referendum in a constructive and respectful atmosphere, with all issues about what might happen dealt with openly and conclusively, then no party will be more energetic in campaigning for it than Fianna Fáil,” he declared.
“But that point will only be pushed off further into the future if we continue seeing the essentially sectarian and partisan approach to this issue promoted by one party.”
Ms McDonald pointed out that the conversation around Irish unity is happening among nationalists and unionists alike.
“This needs to be a respectful conversation and it’s the job of the government in Dublin to shape that conversation,” she said.
“Brexit has accelerated this conversation. It’s reckless not to plan. It is game on for unification and I think the thoughtful thing, the wise thing to do, is to plan from now.”
She said it was not a uniquely Sinn Féin issue.
“The future of the island, the constitutional, political and economic arrangements and welfare on the island, is everybody’s business,” she said.
“Any thoughtful party seeking to be in government, to occupy high office, should recognise that as an objective reality.”
She said a five-year timeline is reasonable to get the “spade work done”. She added that the call for a referendum by the British government will only take place when the Dublin government is proactively planning for Irish unification.
“We’re not the only people asking those questions – those questions are being asked by individuals and organisations, beyond ourselves. This isn’t a matter of this being a uniquely Sinn Féin issue, this isn’t simply a Sinn Féin concern.”
Civic nationalism group ‘Ireland’s Future’ has this week called on candidates in the election to support a Citizens Assembly on Irish unity.
The group’s representatives have written to hundreds of candidates asking them to back the forum if they are elected to the Dublin parliament on February 8.
‘Ireland’s Future’ staged the Beyond Brexit rally at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall last year, followed by similar events in Newry and Dublin.
The group seeks to promote discussion about a united Ireland in the context of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
Its letter to candidates urges the incoming Dublin government to support this process in line with the Good Friday Agreement by convening an all-island Citizens Assembly.
“It is only right and prudent that a government plans for the future,” the letter to candidates states.
“We must learn from the mistakes of Brexit. We must debate and discuss, plan and prepare for constitutional change on our island.”
The letter says the forum must be entirely representative of all views and traditions in Ireland. The group plans to publish the responses it receives from the election candidates.