A border poll and Irish unity could follow quickly after the Assembly election in two weeks time – that’s according to unionist politicians who have been ramping up sectarian fears ahead of the vote.
The rules of power-sharing mean that the five-party Executive must be returned after the election, although the relative strength of each party will be closely watched as an indicator of the future direction of northern politics.
While the past two Assembly elections had little effect in terms of the make-up of the Executive, one significant change this time out could be Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill emerging as First Minister instead of Deputy First Minister.
The possibility of Sinn Féin becoming the largest party in the Assembly, and holding the top post, is expected to bring changes. But it is the hardline unionist DUP which has been making the case most strongly that a long sought referendum on Irish reunification will follow.
With Brexit concerns failing to interest unionist voters, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has pivoted his campaign to make stopping a border poll a central plank.
Donaldson has been urging unionists to transfer their votes to other unionist candidates specifically to hinder any chance of Sinn Féin “advancing plans for a border poll”.
The DUP focus on the issue has ironically far outstripped that of Sinn Féin itself, which has been canvassing on day-to-day issues such as healthcare, housing, and the cost of living.
The DUP leader insisted that “this election is the most important for a generation”. In his Easter message to party colleagues, Donaldson spelled out his belief a Sinn Féin victory in the poll could help deliver a referendum on Irish unity.
The election would set the direction of the country for the next decade, he declared.
“This election is the most important for a generation. Make no mistake, if Sinn Féin win this election, their plan for a divisive border poll will be advanced.
“I want to see pro-union voters working together to ensure more unionists are elected. If unionists want to see more unionist seats in the Assembly then they need to vote for it.”
So far, there has been little sign of co-operation among the nationalist and republican parties, but that could change in the last two weeks of the campaign.
The election will be seen as an indicator of demographic changes in the North, and the hopes that the nationalist community could become a majority at some point in the future.
Unionist concerns of becoming outnumbered have motivated one of the most bizarre controversies of the campaign – a call for the election rules to be changed so that supporters of the Rangers soccer team are allowed a special postal or proxy vote.
The application date for such ballots has passed, but the club, with large support in the Protestant community, are due to play in a European semi-final against RB Leipzig on election day, May 5.
Unionist politicians fear some of their supporters could prove more interested in attending the match than attending the voting stations.
They have claimed that Rangers supporters planning to make the journey to Glasgow are being “disenfranchised” – despite the match kicking off a full 13 hours after voting stations open.
Chief electoral officer Virginia McVea has appeared to rule out an exception. She said that increasing postal or proxy vote applications for unionist soccer fans would require a special change in the legislation.