Belfast Telegraph

Border polls calls harmful to Brexit talks and Stormont restoration: Irish ambassador to UK

Diplomat says it's not the time to campaign for referendum

The EU flag outside the Houses of Parliament (Yui Mok/PA)
The EU flag outside the Houses of Parliament (Yui Mok/PA)
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

The Irish Government believes calls for a border poll harm the prospects of a Brexit deal and prevent the restoration of the Stormont institutions, the Irish ambassador to the UK has said.

Speaking to the BBC's Radio 4 This Week in Westminster Aidan O'Neill was asked if there was an increased pressure for a border poll as the EU and UK struggled to find agreement on parting company.

He said it was his government's view it was not the right time for a poll - or to be calling for such a vote.

The ambassador pointed out a border poll was provided for in the Good Friday Agreement and if the Secretary of State thought it would result in a vote for unification it would be an "entirely legitimate exercise for whenever that would occur".

"The view of the Irish government is that now is not the time to be pressing for or campaigning for such a border poll," he said.

The SDLP has said a border poll should happen but after Brexit has been settled.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald once said a border poll should not be held during the Brexit uncertainty. In August 2018 she said she would prefer not to hold a border poll in the context of a “crash or very hard Brexit”, arguing it would be the wrong “climate” for such a debate.

However, she later insisted her party wanted a poll "as soon as possible" and it has called for a poll on a number of occasions since.

Ambassador O'Neill said the view of his government was that finding agreement with Brexit should not be "conflated" with the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.

"We think that would actually only perhaps degrade the prospects of finding a way through on Brexit, and perhaps also inhibit our chances of getting the devolved institutions of Northern Ireland back up and running," he told the BBC.

"That is the priority of the government - getting those devolved institutions up and running and we are really hopeful we can make a break through there."

Mr O'Neill said a no-deal Brexit was a "significant risk" which they had to prepare for it. He said it do a "lot of damage" to both the UK and Irish economies with Northern Ireland the hardest hit pointing to warnings from Stomont officials among others.

Asked about both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt intention to get a better deal from the EU, Mr O'Neill pointed out both men voted in favour of the withdrawal agreement and the EU has been consistent it would not renegotiate the deal.

"The backstop is the only thing which provides legal certainly that we will not see a hard border on the island of Ireland," he said.

“It was the British people in a referendum who narrowly decided on the principle of leaving the European Union.

“It was a British government that decided on the negotiating red lines of leaving the customs union and the single market. Which by definition made it difficult to actually find a solution to avoiding a hard border.

“And it was the British parliament that has declined to approve the agreement that was negotiated by the British Government with the European Union.

“So if you take all of those three circumstances together, it seems to be a rather odd conclusion that it’s the EU that’s to blame.”

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