There are fears the London government could seek to prevent referendums on Irish unity and Scottish independence for decades in light of recent statements by its most senior representatives in both countries.
The Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack (pictured, right), insisted on Friday his government could continue to refuse permission for a second independence referendum for up to 25 or 40 years regardless of the level of support for independence in Scotland.
And Brandon Lewis (left), the British Direct Ruler in the north of Ireland, claimed this week there’s no legal requirement for him to set out any criteria under which he might call a reunification vote, despite the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The intransigent declarations by the two Tory ministers come in the wake of a letter by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to the 26 County Taoiseach Micheál Martin welcoming his ‘Shared Island’ initiative.
The Fianna Fáil leader has stressed his plans are for cross-border infrastructure and will “increase momentum” towards a border poll, but unionists have been cool on the idea.
However a letter from Johnson has welcomed the unit. It talks positively about improving bilateral relations between the two islands and between the two jurisdictions of Ireland.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the letter had demonstrated that no one, including Boris Johnson, can “ignore the appetite for change”. He said the conversation about Ireland and Britain’s constitutional future was “happening at kitchen tables and workplaces”.
Irish politicians and prominent northern nationalists have repeatedly pointed to an intensifying conversation about reunification in the north of Ireland, which even the former hardline leader of the DUP, Peter Robinson, recently acknowledged. He urged a unionist response and warned of “complacent and dangerous thinking”.
A recent online poll by LucidTalk confirmed a majority of decided voters in the north now favour Irish unification, despite doubts over the potential impact on the North’s ailing health services.
But unionist leaders have so far refused to engage even with Martin’s ‘Shared Ireland’ unit. Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken described the initiative as “political expediency” designed to counter “the scourge of Sinn Féin”.
The UUP leader was also scathing of Mr Johnson, whom he accused of “attempting to curry favour” with Dublin.
“The prime minister is using this method to try and rebuild relationships between London and Dublin, which have been badly battered of late,” he said.
“It’s part of Boris’s outreach and diplomacy but no unionist sees any merit in the Shared Island Unit and we’ve told the Taoiseach that directly.”
But one of the main contenders to succeed Micheál Martin as leader of Fianna Fáil has urged his party to prepare for a border poll, and welcomed Peter Robinson’s remarks in which he urged unionist to prepare for it.
“I don’t know when it’s going to happen but I do know, as Peter Robinson knows, it is going to happen,” said Dublin Bay South TD Jim O’Callaghan.
He said it was “incumbent” on republicans and nationalists to “put forward our vision” of a united Ireland.
“It will be for the secretary of state to decide but we can’t simply wait around,” he said.
“My fear is that a border poll would end up the same way as the Brexit poll, which was chaotic – people just had simplistic poll about ‘get me out of the EU’ and nobody knew what was going to happen.”