The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has ruled out a referendum on a united Ireland, claiming survey evidence showed support for change was minimal.
But Sinn Fein have challenged Owen Paterson to put the issue to the people in the next census.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, the Secretary of State can call a poll on the issue if he believes there is a mood for change, but can only do so once every seven years. For unity to occur, there would have to be yes votes in referendums on both sides of the border.
Mr Paterson was replying to a question from Nigel Dodds, the DUP MP for North Belfast at Westminster yesterday.
He quoted a recent Queen’s University poll, which found that less than a fifth of people here would vote for Irish unity.
Mr Paterson said: “At 17.4% and the fact that I've hardly had a single phone call, email or letter on this issue, I really have no intention of calling a poll at the moment and we should concentrate on the economy and building a shared future, that's the real priority of people in Northern Ireland.”
The Belfast Telegraph has obtained more detailed figures from the poll carried out for Dr John Garry, a political scientist at Queen’s University. It was conducted amongst a random sample of 1,200 people last May.
It found that amongst Catholics, only 39.4% of respondents wanted Northern Ireland to unify with the Republic, even in the long-term. More than 47.1% preferred devolution, as at present, and 13% preferred direct rule. Amongst Protestants, support for Irish unity stood at 2.7%, the same as the percentage of Catholics who said they had voted DUP.
Last night, Sinn Fein challenged Mr Paterson to put this theory to the test in a referendum and said it should have been included in last year’s census.
“This would have given the British Secretary of State a foundation on which to base his decision instead of arrogantly dismissing such an exercise,” said the party’s Mitchel McLaughlin.