The British and Irish governments have both slapped down speculation on a border poll, despite demands for one from Sinn Fein and qualified support from the DUP’s Arlene Foster.
Unity could only come about if polls held separately on both sides of the border voted for it, a spokeswoman for the Irish Government confirmed.
“It is important to point out that the conditions for holding a poll do not currently exist,” she added.
This was a point highlighted by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers. In a hard-hitting statement which rebuked the parties, she said: “The provisions for calling a border poll are set out in the Belfast Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
“Given the state of opinion in Northern Ireland, which is clearly expressed in election results and opinion polls, the Government has no present plans to call such a poll,” she said.
She criticised politicians for getting “diverted into divisive constitutional debates” and urged them to “concentrate on working together on pressing economic and social issues, including the rebalancing of the Northern Ireland economy and building a genuinely shared society”.
DUP minister Arlene Foster raised the debate when she flirted with the idea in response to a campaign for a poll by Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein.
At first she stuck to the established DUP line. “Gerry Adams knows well that the overwhelming majority in Northern Ireland want to remain part of the United Kingdom,” she told the BBC’s Stephen Nolan.
But then she changed tack.
“We may call their bluff. We may put an end to this foolish talk once and for all,” she said.
“Those who are advocating a poll could get a clear answer but it will not be the one they want. The DUP is having this discussion but has not reached a conclusion on the matter.”
A DUP source confirmed that Ms Foster had discussed the idea of a poll with First Minister Peter Robinson and other senior |members on Monday.
Sinn Fein reacted enthusiastically to Ms Foster’s apparent change of heart.
The party’s Mitchel McLaughlin said the intervention could “usher in a new era” and “provoke clear, radical and open debate in regards to the social, economic and political benefits of a united Ireland”.
But Jim Allister from the TUV questioned whether Ms Foster’s statement was “stunt politics or a thought-out strategy”.
The UUP’s Tom Elliott dismissed Sinn Fein’s proposal as a way of “wasting time and money”.
Story so far
Sinn Fein has been calling for a border poll as a means of raising a debate on Irish unity. Until now, the DUP has opposed such a referendum as divisive, saying the recent census and all opinion polls indicated a sizeable majority want to maintain the British link. Now Arlene Foster has suggested it might be a good idea to “call Sinn Fein’s bluff”.
Surveys show the issue is settled
By Liam Clarke
Theresa Villiers has been criticised for appearing vague and non-committal as she found her feet as Secretary of State.
But she hasn't missed and hit the wall as she called time on the campaign for a border poll.
In reality there is no immediate prospect of a border referendum being held — everything counts against it.
To be effective, both the British and Irish governments would have to agree to hold separate referenda and there would have to be clear indications that a yes vote was likely. That is quite a high hill to climb. Recent polling and census all suggest about 65% to 80% support for the British link, including a majority of Catholics. Our own LucidTalk poll last May found that only 7% would vote for immediate Irish unity and another 25% would back it in 20 years.
Other polls, like the Life and Times survey carried out by our two universities, have found that support is even lower still. The question wasn’t put in the census but only 20% of people carried an Irish passport compared to 59% with a UK one.
The economy counts against it. The UK subvention is £10bn a year and the Republic’s 4.7m inhabitants would hardly vote to pick up the tab in the midst of a recession.
A yes vote for Irish unity would be more likely if both economies were booming. |Promoting that growth, as Ms |Villiers points out, should be the focus of our politicians.