Sir Keir Starmer said he does not believe a border poll on a united Ireland is in sight.
In Londonderry as part of his three-day visit to Northern Ireland, the Labour leader told the Belfast Telegraph that any talk of a poll on the future of the island of Ireland is some way off, with health, education and the economy of more concern to people.
“There’s always discussion of a border poll,” he said.
“A border poll is provided under the Good Friday Agreement with a carefully calibrated approach which should be respected.
“In the end it will be up to what the people of the island of Ireland think that matters, but I don’t think a border poll is in sight.
“I think priorities are health, education and the economy.”
In Northern Ireland, as tensions continue over the Protocol, Sir Keir warned that little could be done to address it without trust between political leaders being re-established, particularly between parties in Northern Ireland and the Prime Minister.
“Before we get to the practicalities of how we make the Protocol work, the missing ingredient at the minute is trust,” he said.
“I’ve been really struck in the three days I’ve been here that across the board, the trust in the Prime Minister has been burnt through.
“For decades, there’s been a sense that the British Prime Minister has to be an honest broker. That’s gone.
“That has to be re-established first.
“If I was Prime Minister, trust would be number one on my agenda.”
Sir Keir has been in talks with all political leaders in Northern Ireland during his visit and said he has been struck by the sense of betrayal felt, particularly by the DUP, who had propped up the Conservative government under former Prime Minister Theresa May, only to be “mis-sold” Brexit by Boris Johnson.
“I don’t want to speak for the DUP, but I do think that betrayal is deeply felt,” he said.
“The Prime Minister knew what he was negotiating. He personally negotiated it and then he mis-sold it. He wasn’t straight about the consequences of the Protocol.
“Now he’s pretending that fixing it isn’t really his responsibility.
“He may think he’s fooling the people of Northern Ireland, but the people of Northern Ireland are not fools.
“I don’t think there will be a fanfare welcome to a DUP conference again in a hurry,” he added.
Sir Keir will be back in London before the Eleventh Night bonfires, but he said he has told Northern Ireland politicians they must show real leadership to over the next week.
“I know one thing from my time here is that you don’t fly over from London and tell leaders what they should be doing.
“Every leader of every political party, every community, has a duty to de-escalate and make sure we can get through the next week in a peaceful way.
“The political landscape in Northern Ireland is fragile right now. There are lots of moving parts and that adds to the sense of insecurity and discomfort that is felt across Northern Ireland.
“That is when you require leadership. That is when you require trust. That’s when you need your honest broker. All three are missing from this Prime Minister.
"But we must not always talk about Northern Ireland in the negative.
“Northern Ireland has been a positive where I’ve seen so many individuals, community leaders, communities themselves coming together. I was at Forge Integrated Primary School on Thursday and there are amazing things going for it. People don’t want to feel discomforted or fragile, they want leadership to unleash that positivity. There’s a huge amount to be positive about, but it needs strong leadership from the PM and that is distinctly lacking.”
Among those positives, Sir Keir and Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Louise Haigh walked across the Peace Bridge alongside Sara Canning, partner of murdered journalist Lyra McKee and heard about the long campaign for justice for Lyra during a meeting at the Guildhall.
The group discussed Lyra’s commitment to diversity and equality, her legacy and the huge work still to do to deliver on the promise of peace for a younger generation.
“Lyra McKee was the very best of Northern Ireland,” he said. “She dreamt of a future of equality and reconciliation.
“Sara has fought a determined campaign for justice. Her determination to build on Lyra’s legacy, and to build a lasting peace, is humbling and demands all our support.
“I was honoured to cross the Peace Bridge, a symbol of reconciliation between two communities, with Sara.”
During his visit Sir Keir - a former Director of Public Prosecutions in England - also met a number of victims at the Wave Trauma Centre in north Belfast and said plans by the UK Government to introduce a form of amnesty for all Troubles-era offences were wrong.
“Any discussion about legacy has to start with the victims,” he said. “Promises have been made, promises haven’t been kept and I think that’s where the conversation has to start.
“We have to find a way forward but they very strongly feel that you can’t sit in London and draw a line, it has to start here, with them, conversations about how we move forward.
“I don’t agree with it (an amnesty), I don’t think that it is the right plan and I think any discussion about legacy has to start here in Northern Ireland, sitting down with victims and those most affected, and I would urge the Prime Minister to take that approach rather than the one he is taking.”
Despite opponents accusing Boris Johnson of mishandling the Covid pandemic and mishandling Brexit, Sir Keir’s Labour Party has struggled to make any inroads to the Conservative lead in the polls. Sir Keir, though, senses that could be about to change.
“We’ve lived through the most extraordinary year and a half,” he said.
“In a crisis, in a pandemic, people naturally pull towards their government. You can see that across the United Kingdom, you can see that across Europe.
“The vaccine roll-out, which has been the work of the NHS, has been successful and that sense that people have that they need their government to succeed because their health and their livelihoods depend on it has been very real. We’re now coming to the end of that.”
And he feels his party’s by-election win in Batley and Spen last week was a sign of things to come.
“It shows we know how to win against the odds, that we can win when we pull together and as we go into the summer, I think this is now is an opportunity for us to make very strong and bold arguments about what happens after the pandemic and the kind of country we want to build.
“We can harness the spirit of the pandemic, which was a spirit of communities coming together, and begin to forge that into the better future we all want.”
And finally, European Championship Final ticket in his back pocket, Sir Keir boldly predicted a 2-0 win for England over Italy in Sunday final.
“And I make no apology for singing Sweet Caroline if that happens,” he said.
“It’s a great anthem and should be played every time England win. I hope to be singing it loud and proud about half past nine on Sunday night.”