The Sinn Féin vice president has said there is a need to fill in a grey area of the Good Friday Agreement on the circumstances for holding a referendum on constitutional change.
Her comments come after 26 County Tánaiste Leo Varadkar joined those calling for clarity on the mechanism for calling a border poll on Irish reunification.
Under the terms of the 1998 peace deal, a unity referendum should be held if it appears likely (to the British Direct Ruler) that a majority would back constitutional change.
At this month’s Assembly elections, votes for nationalist parties outnumbered those for unionist parties for the first time. However, unionists argued that when votes for independent candidates are included, the condition for holding a border poll has not yet been met.
Michelle O’Neill was asked about the situation as she spoke to reporters in Belfast on Wednesday.
“There is a need for clarity, we should always have clarity,” she said.
“We should know what are circumstances in which a unity referendum will be called.
“I think that would be really important for the public to understand what we’re working towards. So, I think there’s no doubt that the Good Friday Agreement is a bit grey in terms of the criteria, but yes that should be clarified.
“It says it’s for the [Direct Ruler] to call the unity referendum whenever he thinks that there will be a successful outcome to that referendum. So I just think we need clarity around that, I think that would be helpful for everybody.”
Giving a speech at a business dinner on Tuesday evening hosted by the peace building organisation Co-Operation Ireland, Mr Varadkar said there could be a role for the Stormont Assembly in triggering a future poll.
Asked about Mr Varadkar’s suggested role for the Assembly, Ms O’Neill urged the Tanaiste to concentrate his efforts on establishing an all-island citizens’ assembly tasked with planning for unification.
“There’s no doubt the conversation around the unification of the country constitutional change is under way,” she said.
“That was the case before the election, it’s the case after the election.
“I think that’s a healthy debate for us all to be engaged in. Those of us that want unity and those that are against it – let’s get around the table and actually have the conversation.
“That’s why Leo Varadkar’s energies would be best placed in trying to bring about a citizens’ assembly ensuring that people have an opportunity to have their say to talk about the things that are important to them, to talk about what the health service would look like, what the education system would look like, what our economy could look like.
“So, I think now is the time to plan, that would be the responsible thing to do and I encourage Leo Varadkar and the Taoiseach (Micheal Martin) to do likewise.”
A senior member of Varadkar’s own party has also called on the Dublin government to establish a parliamentary committee on Irish unity.
Neale Richmond TD, a frequent contributor to debates on Brexit, agrees that the Irish government must move to form a parliament committee on Irish unity ahead of a possible border poll.
He believes that a poll on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, provision for which was contained in the Good Friday Agreement, could be held in the next decade.
The told an event in London hosted by Ireland’s Future, a campaign group calling for greater debate on the unification of the island, that Brexit had fundamentally “changed the tone of debate” when it comes to Irish unity.
“The fact that this British government has chosen to pursue the hardest possible form of Brexit has put in stark context the divisions that exist across these islands,” he said.
“It is now very conceivable that a British secretary of state for Northern Ireland could call a border poll on Irish unity within the next decade.
“It is therefore the Irish government’s duty to ensure that we are as best prepared as possible to meet the challenge of such a referendum.”
He said that an all-party committee could look at the “challenges and opportunities” that might emerge through the potential reversing of partition.
“Those of us who want a united Ireland, a new Ireland, must be prepared to put in the work to present our vision to all the people of these islands.”