A referendum on Irish unity must be held after the Assembly election result showed there is “no majority for the union any more”, according to a group of prominent nationalists.
Political parties who favour a border poll and Irish reunification received 354,432 votes in the Stormont Assembly election, compared to 349,099 votes for those parties who favour the union with Britain.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, the British government must call a border poll if it is likely to pass.
On Friday, in an initial response to her party’s success in the Assembly elections, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald suggested a Border poll on a united Ireland “would be possible within a five-year time frame” and preparation needed to “start now”.
However, the 26 County Foreign Affairs Minister Coveney said he did not see the result as bringing a Border poll any closer, claiming only that the balance between the nationalist vote and the unionist vote “hasn’t changed hugely”.
Ireland’s Future chief executive Gerry Carlile said although the “major responsibility and onus” on preparing for a united Ireland is with the Dublin government, there is an “onus on the government in London to acknowledge that change is afoot and you cannot deny people a referendum indefinitely”.
“Democracy must be upheld,” he said. “There is no majority for the union any more.”
Ireland’s Future is holding a public meeting at Westminster on Wednesday May 18. Mr Carlile said the group wanted to let people in Britain know that the political situation in the north had changed.
“It will be the British government who decide on the timing of the referendum so it’s important that the government and broader British society know that things have changed here significantly,” he said.
He said the north is “on a one-way trajectory to a referendum” after Sinn Féin became the largest party in the assembly.
“We’re bringing our message to London,” he said.
“It’s our intention to let people know that those who are involved in the conversation come from a wide range of backgrounds.”
He added many of those who haven’t taken a view on Irish unity are prepared to have these conversations.
Mr Carlile said “let’s plan, let’s prepare” has been the group’s mantra.
“If you know something is coming, prepare for it,” he said.
“Bringing this to Westminster is another important step for us, as was bringing it to the (Irish) diaspora in America and all around the island.”
Mr Carlile said the group has not set a time-frame on when a referendum should be held.
“While a date would focus minds our view is that it’s more important to have conversations, answer questions, have a citizens’ assembly and have the government in Dublin produce a white paper,” he said.
“We need to have conversations with people the length and breadth of Ireland, particularly our unionist friends and neighbours and work colleagues.”
Responding to Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald’s suggestion that a referendum could be held within the next five years, Mr Carlile said: “Our view is that a referendum is happening, whether it happens in five years or seven years.”
“It’s not the most important thing at the moment,” he said. “The most important thing is that we plan and prepare and we approach the conversation in a mature fashion.”