The historic confirmation of Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill as the First Minister in the north of Ireland has pushed a referendum on Irish reunification up the political agenda, and increased speculation that a ‘border poll’ is now only a matter of time.
Speaking on RTÉ shortly after taking up the role and ahead of top-level meetings earlier this week, Ms O’Neill said she would be raising issues around a border poll with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and British Direct Ruler Chris Heaton-Harris.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, a majority vote in referendums in both parts of Ireland would deliver Irish unity. The power to call a border poll rests with Heaton-Harris, a Tory MP from central England.
Ms O’Neill said it was “the beauty of the Good Friday Agreement” that “only people here will decide whenever there’s going to be constitutional change.
“And when I talk about change here today, and I talk about the historical significance of the fact that I am actually now the First Minister, that speaks to actual… the kind of change is happening across the island.
“And I have always said for some time now that I believe we’re in a decade of opportunity, and I do believe that we will get the opportunity to have a referendum.”
O’Neill also stressed the historical importance of her new role, and what it would mean people of her mother’s and grandmother’s generation.
“The Northern State was built in such a way with an inbuilt Unionist majority. An Irish nationalist was never supposed to come to the fore, certainly never supposed to hold the position of First Minister,” she said.
“So it’s a huge day because people from my parents’, my grandparents’, generation never thought a day like this would come.”
Ms O’Neill also said that despite having sharp differences in views over the future of the Six Counties between the DUP and Sinn Féin, there was “far more that unites us than actually divides us”.
“We might have very different positions in terms of the constitutional future. And that’s okay, we can do two things at once. We can advocate, I – as an Irish republican – for constitutional change here on the island.
“And from a unionist perspective they’ll advocate wanting to be part of Britain. And that’s okay, but let’s to do that alongside sharing power together in this building and actually getting down to the bread and butter issues of health and housing and education.”
Her comments, which she also voiced on Sky News, came after party leader Mary Lou McDonald last wee argued the deal to restore the Stormont Assembly in Belfast meant “Irish unity is within touching distance”.
Recent elections have brought major gains for nationalists at the expense of unionists, with a surprise success for Sinn Féin last year in becoming the largest party in the historically unionist-dominated Six County statelet.
But unionists and the British government have been insisting this doesn’t mean the Union with Britain is under pressure.
Former DUP leader Arlene Foster claimed Sinn Féin was only talking about a “unity poll” because they feel under pressure in the wake of a deal to end the unionist boycott of the Stormont institutions.
“Still administering UK rule in NI and will be,” she tweeted. “Looking forward to strengthening the UK through the new bodies brought about by this deal.”
Ulster Unionist Robin Swann, who is returning as Minister for Health in the Six County Executive, says he “absolutely” doesn’t agree that Irish unity is imminent.
“I think the restoration of Stormont strengthens the Union and strengthens our part within the Union... it strengthens our ties with all four nations,” he said.
But British Labour MP Chris Bryant, a member of the opposition front bench at Westminster, said a border poll may come at some point.
He said: “You can never predict what is going to happen in the future just because of what happened in the past but, yes, that (a border poll) may come at some point, I don’t know.”
When asked whether there should be a poll, he said: “That is for the people of Northern Ireland to decide but, as I say, it depends on how the politicians play their hands over the next few years.”
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald must have the “longest arms on this island” to state Irish unity is within touching distance.
The DUP leader told the Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk Radio that “Gerry Adams once predicted there would be a united Ireland by 2016, we are almost 10 years on from that and we are nowhere near a united Ireland.”
He said talk of a border poll is “divsive”
“I think Sinn Féin are trying to up the ante, they are trying to reassure their base after the gains the DUP have made in this agreement that bind Northern Ireland more closely into the United Kingdom.
“It is really smoke to cover what they know and recognise: we are not moving closer to a united Ireland.”
The Tory government are also hostile to the idea of Irish reunification in the short term. Despite recent election results which show greater support for nationalists than unionists, Heaton-Harris bluntly claimed the conditions were “definitely not met” for a ballot on Irish unity.
And he patronisingly suggested Ms O’Neill should focus on improving public services.
He said: “I really don’t think that’s going to happen but as Secretary of State I am the person responsible in government to check whether the conditions for that have been met.
“They’re definitely not met at this point in time, and I would suggest that actually top of the in-tray for an incoming Executive has to be things like public sector pay, the health service, which needs massive transformation here, funding on education and a whole host of other things that actually all people in Northern Ireland from both communities truly care about.”
He said he would have to be “confident” that there was a potential majority of people in Northern Ireland “who would like to depart from their current constitutional status” for the conditions to be met.
Sunak, who also met the North’s political leaders, said constitutional change was not the priority, which he insisted was “delivering on the day-to-day things that matter to people.”
He greeted Ms O’Neill with a hug, but after holding talks which included the 26 County Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, he continued to antagonise nationalists.
He said ““It’s great to be back in Northern Ireland - a special part of our United Kingdom” – then departed with an admonishment to the First and Deputy First Ministers to “get back to work”.