Belfast Telegraph

Unionists anger at Sinn Fein's call for Irish border poll in wake of SNP Scotland referendum move

UUP MP slams 'political stunt' as O'Neill reiterates republican demand

By Noel McAdam

Sinn Fein has been accused of a "clear disregard" for trying to make Northern Ireland work after calling for a border poll following Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's demand for a second independence referendum.

Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill made no direct connection between Ms Sturgeon's call to the Government for permission to hold another referendum in Scotland.

Instead, she put it down to a Government that "refused to listen" to the majority here who voted to remain in the EU.

Ms Sturgeon said she hoped the next referendum would take place between the autumn 2018 and the spring of 2019.

That will coincide with the anticipated conclusion of the UK's two-year negotiations over EU withdrawal.

She said it was a necessary move to protect Scottish interests, and is to ask the Scottish Parliament to engage with Westminster to enable another referendum.

Back in Belfast, Mrs O'Neill said the need for an "Irish unity referendum" was urgent, and her party wanted to see it take place "as soon as possible".

But, speaking in the Great Hall in Parliament Buildings, she indicated a border poll was not a prerequisite for Sinn Fein going back into an Executive.

The republican party is just one Assembly seat and fewer than 1,200 votes behind the DUP after the election.

"The British Tories are on the verge of triggering Article 50 to take the North out of the EU against the wishes of the people. This will significantly undermine the Good Friday Agreement and lead to the imposition of a hard border," she said.

"The British Government are refusing to listen to the majority of people and parties in the North, as well as the majority of parties across Ireland, who support the North securing designated special status within the EU.

"Brexit would be a disaster for Ireland, north and south. It would negatively impact on our economy, our communities and our public services. All of this increases the urgency for a referendum on Irish unity as set out in the Good Friday Agreement and Sinn Fein wants to see that happen as soon as possible."

Asked if her call was in response to Ms Sturgeon's speech earlier in the day, Mrs O'Neill said Scottish independence remained an issue for the Scottish people. But UUP MP Danny Kinahan said: "Have Sinn Fein not destabilised Northern Ireland enough? They have shown a clear disregard for making Northern Ireland work, so I am not surprised by their latest political stunt.

"As for Sinn Fein calling for a border poll, they would be better served concentrating on establishing a working Northern Ireland Executive rather than agitating for a united Ireland."

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds branded the SNP call as "another prime example of opportunistic nationalism".

"It is only a few years ago that the SNP told people that a referendum would settle the issue of Scottish independence for a generation," he said.

"Now Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed she wants to repeat the process within a few years.

"Should the UK Government not accede to this demand it will simply be presented as another grievance, regardless of the facts."

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan said calls for a border poll were "premature", and an issue for another day.

He said restoring Stormont, setting a budget and dealing with Brexit were more urgent matters.

"As far as border polls or a united Ireland is concerned, these are much longer-term issues," he said. "Anything else is premature, anything else is for the longer term."

Secretary of State James Brokenshire has made clear he will only agree to a border poll if there is evidence there was a majority backing reunification.

"We are not at that point yet," a Government source said.

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