Belfast Telegraph

McDonald U-turn over border poll prompts derision from unionists

By Suzanne Breen

Unionists have accused Mary Lou McDonald of a major political U-turn on her initial suggestion that a border poll shouldn't be held during Brexit uncertainty.

The Sinn Fein president yesterday insisted her party wanted a referendum “as soon as possible” and the “chaos of the Tory Brexit” should not delay a vote on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status.

But less than 24 hours earlier Ms McDonald had 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.

UUP MLA Steve Aiken said: “It is clear that Mary Lou McDonald, and indeed her party, are all over the place when it comes to when they want a border poll and why. The Sinn Fein president has performed a sharp handbrake turn on the comments she made on Monday.

“She initially stated that a poll on Irish unity should not be held while uncertainty around Brexit remains, yet by Tuesday morning the Sinn Fein Press office published a completely contradictory statement, where she was quoted as saying that she wants a referendum as soon as possible.”

Mr Aiken said Sinn Fein didn’t have plans for a border poll nor a case to make. “Rather than be distracted by this, they would be better concentrating their efforts on getting devolution restored and addressing the chronic pressures on our health service, schools and other sectors,” he added.

DUP leader Arlene Foster also noted that Sinn Fein had changed its stance overnight.

“Whilst there have been plenty of republican soundbites about a border poll, one interview exposed that Sinn Fein has no answers to basic questions about a united Ireland, such as what happens to our free-at-point-of-need health system,” she said.

“Indeed, within 24 hours of that interview, the Sinn Fein leadership is rowing back from their ‘not yet’ position. As tempting as calling Sinn Fein’s bluff might be, the principle of consent is in place and should be respected.

“Few dispute there is a clear majority in favour of staying within the United Kingdom, but it would be foolish to think that families across the country are itching for a destabilising border poll.”

The DUP leader said people here were more interested in seeing power-sharing restored than participating in a referendum on reunification.

“The people I speak with want a functioning government today, where decisions about public sector pay as well as roads, schools and hospitals are made,” she said.

“Sinn Fein is the only party blocking that. I have no objection to extolling the merits of the Union. I have done so and will continue to do so.

“Unionism needs to be open and welcoming. Ultimately, if people are comfortable living, working and raising their families in a Northern Ireland within the UK, they will be less inclined to ever vote to leave it.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said contradictions in Sinn Fein’s position weren’t new. “They claim to support peace while continuing to justify the IRA’s terrorist campaign,” he said.

“This is just more of the same practice and is a recognition that their pipe dream of Irish unity is getting no closer.”

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said: “Brexit poses a massive threat to the cohesion of Northern Ireland and the shared society underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.

“While Alliance respects everyone’s constitutional aspiration, the priority today must be to agree a special deal for Northern Ireland to mitigate the risks from Brexit and to achieve the maximum cross-community support for such a pragmatic way forward.”

What Sinn Fein president said in Belfast on Monday

The obvious thing would be to say ‘well, have the border poll and remove the border, if the border is the problem, simply take it away’ — and there is a certain logic to that.

I am very, very conscious that you can’t come at this issue in that simplistic way.

It’s very important when we come to addressing the issue of partition we do it in the best possible climate and we do it in a way that maximises consent.

It is not my preferred option or our preferred option that we deal with the issue of Irish unity in a climate that is unsteady or unstable or chaotic, in other words in the context of a crash Brexit or a very hard Brexit.

I would prefer, it is my strong preference, that we have sequencing that firstly delivers a level of economic and social certainty, in as much we can be certain, and stability and from that base we then continue the conversation about Irish unity.”

... and outside Leinster House yesterday

The very nature of Brexit and the blatant disregard shown to Ireland by the Tory government underscores the imperative for Irish Unity. It emphasises the need for the people, north and south, to have their say on the constitutional question and the future of this island.

A decision to exit the European Union was endorsed in England and Wales. It was rejected by the people of the North of Ireland and yet, it is to be imposed on them as though they didn’t vote at all. This again highlights the democratic deficit of the union and the utter failure of partition. Clearly, the chaos and prospect of a crash Tory Brexit, and the very real difficulties this will create in the lives of ordinary people, does not provide the best environment for a referendum on Irish Unity.

We want to have that campaign in an atmosphere of calm, respect and in a climate conducive to constructive debate and not in the shadow of Tory game-playing. However, and I have already put this to Theresa May, if the Tories continue to pursue a negotiation stance that can only led to a crash Brexit, the British Government will have to put the question on Irish Unity to the people in a referendum.

Irish Unity makes sense. It has always made sense. Brexit is simply the latest political mess to underline that fact. The appetite for the Unity debate is growing every day. Sinn Fein wants to see a referendum as soon as possible. We want to build maximum consensus for unity and win that referendum.”

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