Sinn Féin has rejected a claim by 26 County Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that a border poll should be avoided as it could be defeated.
“I don’t think it would be a good idea, certainly not at this point in time,” the Fine Gael leader said.
Varadkar was speaking to BBC Newsline presenter Tara Mills at the European Broadcasting Union’s News Xchange conference in the Convention Centre Dublin.
He was responding to calls for moves towards Irish unity after recent local elections showed voters supporting reunification now outnumber unionists in the Six Counties. The demise of the built-in unionist majority north of the border has upended the rationale for the partition of the island in 1922.
The Taoiseach suggested that Irish unification could fall off the agenda for a long time if a referendum was held and defeated. He said that the same had happened in places such as Australia, Canada, and Scotland, and that if it was held and failed in Ireland, it would cause further division.
“I think the difficulty with the border poll is that it would certainly be divisive in Northern Ireland, but it would also probably be defeated in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“If you look at what the Good Friday Agreement says, it makes provision for a border poll, makes provision for a referendum on unification, but it says in the Good Friday Agreement that it should only happen when there’s a stage Northern Ireland has formed the opinion that it might pass.”
He claimed that recent election results and opinion polls still don’t show a majority for unification.
Responding to the comments, Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill said that his energy would be better placed in preparing for the possibility of unification and repeated the party’s call for a citizens’ assembly on the issue to be established.
“I think the Taoiseach should roll up his sleeves and get to work around the preparation and planning for constitutional change,” she said.
“Let’s have a really healthy, informed debate around what the future could look like, how it could be better for everybody who shares this island.
“I would encourage the Taoiseach to actually take a role of responsibility in terms of planning for constitutional change, have the Citizens’ Assembly, let’s talk about the health service in the event of constitutional change, let’s talk about what education looks like, what the economy looks like, the benefits that it could bring. I think that’s where his energy should be better placed.”
With demographic change showing signs of accelerating, the Dublin government has been stung by increasing criticism of its inaction on the North.
This week it announced an investment in a Ulster University campus in Derry “to strengthen cross-border links”. It followed a separate announcement of a plan to fund 250 student nursing and midwifery places in the North.
And to counter Sinn Féin’s call for a citizens’ assembly, a new youth forum will also be set up, which will ask 80 young people both north and south of the border to set out their vision for the island from September.
There were also signs that there could be contributions to Dublin-Belfast railway line and the upgrade of the A5 motorway “to improve connectivity.”
Speaking at Government Buildings in Dublin on Tuesday, Varadkar was at pains to stress that the money had previously been committed in the past as part of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, and that there was “no ulterior motive” for the funding.
At Sinn Féin’s annual Bodenstown commemoration, held to commemorate United Irishmen founder Theobald Wolfe Tone, Sinn Féin MEP for Midlands-Northwest Chris MacManus said Sinn Féin’s advance into government in Dublin would be the key to “the new phase of the struggle”.
We are in the “endgame of partition”, he said.
“This year marks the 225th anniversary of the 1798 Rebellion. It also marks the 100th anniversary since the ending of the counter-revolution that was the Civil War,” he said.
“One hundred years later, as we move onwards to that day of Irish Unity, we envision an Ireland where Irish Republicanism is at the forefront, and Sinn Féin is the largest political force across our island.”