An acknowledgement by the head of Britain’s government in Ireland that there should be a ‘conversation’ about Ireland’s constitutional future has been welcomed.
The British Direct Ruler in Ireland, Brandon Lewis said on BBC’s Question Time that he agreed with Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill and the DUP’s Gavin Robinson that it was right to “debate and discuss” Irish unity.
Ms O’Neill told last Thursday’s programme it was important not to “fall into the trap of Brexit” by failing to plan ahead of a referendum.
A growing numbers of unionist political figures in both Britain and Ireland have called for a debate ahead of a possible referendum or border poll.
A batch of opinion surveys last week confirmed the growing expectation and demand in both the Six Counties and across England, Scotland and Wales for votes on Irish unity, as well as Scottish and Welsh independence. The poll in the North showed a clear majority want a referendum on unity within five years.
Ironically, DUP leader Arlene Foster claimed that any such vote would be “divisive”. She said that she was disappointed to see talk about constitutional politics during the Covid-19 crisis, and said a border poll would be “absolutely reckless at this time”.
While Lewis has previously ruled out a vote, his comments are being seen as a potential start to the process. He made no direct reference to a border poll, but when he was asked specifically by presenter Fiona Bruce if “you welcome a conversation about a united Ireland”, he did not say no, saying he “respected everybody”.
He added that the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement meant “we can have these debates in a proper way”.
The remarks followed his comments last week that he was “not neutral” on the north of Ireland, but “unapologetically pro-Union”. Those fuelled concerns the British government could adopt an actively unionist approach to such a poll, contrary to the Good Friday Agreement.
However, Lewis’s acceptance of a debate was welcomed by ‘Ireland’s Future’ secretary Niall Murphy, who said it was “yet another step change that should not be ignored”.
“[Lewis] joins a growing number of people, including key figures in political unionism such as Peter Robinson, Gavin Robinson and Gregory Campbell, who have all said it is important to have this conversation,” he said.
“The significance of this step change from the British government should not be lost on the current Dublin government.”
Murphy said Dublin needed to “take heed of the fast moving and quickly evolving conversation regarding Irish unity” and that the British government needed to outline its proposed criteria for a referendum.
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane also called on the Dublin government to step up its preparations.
“There is an unstoppable, vibrant and flourishing conversation underway on the constitutional future of our island,” he said.
“It is an inclusive conversation which involves nationalists, unionists and those who consider themselves to be neither. The Irish Government cannot be bystanders in this conversation, they must step up to the mark and lead in the conversation.”