The leader of the British Labour Party has cast doubt on the prospect of the peaceful reunification of Ireland, saying that a referendum on Irish unity is ‘not even on the horizon’.
Keir Starmer, who became leader of Britain’s main opposition party in 2020, described a border poll as set out in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement as ‘absolutely hypothetical’.
His statement followed a series of meetings last week between the new Labour Party spokesperson on the north of Ireland, Hilary Benn, and the major political parties here, including Sinn Féin.
At the time, Belfast MP John Finucane said he and Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill had a “very positive and constructive meeting” with the Labour MP.
But speaking ahead of his party conference last weekend, Mr Starmer said questions about any referendum on a united Ireland were “absolutely hypothetical” .
“I don’t think we’re anywhere near that kind of question … It’s not even on the horizon”, Mr Starmer told BBC on Thursday.
Ironically, Starmer claimed that he was concerned the British government had moved away from the role of “honest broker” in the north of Ireland.
“The wrong thing to do is to simply say there are issues that need resolving. The right thing to do is to get in the room and resolve,” Mr Starmer said.
Current polls suggest the London barrister is set to lead the next British government. No friend of Ireland, he has previously said he would “make the case for the United Kingdom” in any future vote on reunification.
Mr Starmer’s comments drew criticism from pro-unity groups and academics.
Ireland’s Future, a civic organisation that is pushing for a united Ireland, described them as an example of the “arrogance of Westminster” and added they were contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
“When the time for a border poll comes, English attempts to block democracy in Ireland will fail,” the group said.
Colin Harvey, professor of human rights law in Queen’s University Belfast, said the principle of consent in the north of Ireland meant that no British government could “definitively rule out” a border poll being held.
Commentator Brian Feeney claimed Starmer’s statement was a response to comments made by the British Direct Ruler Chris Heaton-Harris at the Tory Party conference the previous weekend, in which he claimed that if Starmer were elected Prime Minister, he would “take a sledgehammer to the union”.
“Starmer can’t let an accusation like that go unanswered. He cannot be seen to be soft on the union and supply any ammunition to the Conservatives,” Mr Feeney wrote.
He added: “Even the most ardent advocates of a referendum see 2030 as a likely date, probably two general elections away in Britain and the Republic. Secondly, referendum supporters demand the Irish and British governments begin planning because at present there are no agreed processes for a referendum, what question or questions would be posed, or what form reunification will take.
“In other words it is hypothetical.”