24 Jun 2016

UK Government rejects Sinn Fein referendum call

The Government rejects a demand from Sinn Fein for a referendum to be held on Irish unity in the wake of the UK vote to pull out of the EU.

Northern Ireland voted 56/44 per cent in favour of staying in the EU, and Sinn Fein said people there were being taken out of Europe against their will – an argument also put forward by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon about her country.

A border poll can only be called by the Northern Ireland Secretary if there is clear evidence of public opinion swinging towards Irish unity.

But Theresa Villiers, who campaigned for the UK to leave the EU, said she did not believe the criteria for triggering a poll had been met.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny agreed, saying: “That [provision for a border poll] is contained in the Good Friday Agreement, provided that the Secretary of State of the day considers that there would be a serious movement of a majority of people to want to have a situation where they would join the Republic. There is no such evidence.”

Nothern Ireland Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein assembly member, Martin McGuinness, said: “The people of the north of Ireland – nationalists, republicans, unionists and others – have made it clear at the polls that they wish to remain in the EU.

“The British Government now need to take account of that and recognise that reality and allow the people of the north to have their say on their own future.”

‘As predictable as flowers in May’

Stormont’s First Minister Arlene Foster, whose Democratic Unionist party shares power with Sinn Fein on the Northern Ireland Assembly, said: “The call for a border poll was as predictable as the flowers in May. We knew it would come, but the test has not been met so therefore I don’t believe it will happen.”

Mr McGuinness said he had been in contact with Mr Cameron and Ms Sturgeon to express his views, and would seek “urgent” talks with the Irish and Scottish governments and EU institutions on “how we move forward in the best interests of all of our people”.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement acknowleged that a majority of people in Northern Ireland wanted to remain in the UK, but also recognised that a substantial number of people there, and a majority of the people of the island of Ireland, wanted a united Ireland.

It was approved in a referendum in Northern Ireland with a 71 per cent majority. In the Republic of Ireland, it attracted 94 per cent support.

The vote for Brexit also has implications for Northern Ireland’s open border with the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of the EU.

During the referendum campaign, some Remainers argued that leaving the EU would see a return to border checkpoints, but this was dismissed by Ms Villiers.

Mr Kenny said he would want the common travel area that exists between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to continue.