Two DUP MPs have distanced themselves from their former leader Peter Robinson’s proposal for a generational border poll.
The former First Minister used a speech at Queen’s University to suggest that referenda at fixed points would make the constitutional question less disruptive to local politics.
He also said that he believed that a simple “majority of one” outcome would be a “recipe for chaos” across the island.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson maintained that the focus needed to be on the restoration of the power-sharing Executive to Stormont — and that the poll would be “divisive and unsettling” at a time when trust and reconciliation needed to be built upon.
He said: “Peter has made a thoughtful and realistic assessment of the current political situation, drawing on his years of leadership experience.
“As he rightly says, the priority right now is to get the Executive up and going and to have a period of political stability as we move into the post-Brexit era and redefine some of our relationships, including with our neighbours in the EU.
“Undoubtedly a border poll could clear the air on the constitutional question, and I believe it would result in a decisive vote in favour of the Union.
“Nevertheless, it would also be divisive and unsettling at a time when we need to build trust and promote reconciliation.
“Therefore, let us focus on restoring the Assembly and Executive so that we can take forward the legacy of Peter’s time as First Minister and together build a united community.”
Fellow DUP MP Sammy Wilson said he opposed any built-in arrangement for border polls, adding: “Obviously he (Mr Robinson) has got his own ideas, but it can be destabilising and we’ve seen how Sinn Fein have tried to use border poll arrangement with all of its safeguards in the Belfast Agreement in a way which is mischievous.”
He also disagreed with the idea that the staging of a referendum every generation would reduce tensions. “People would just work towards the border poll and would make sure all their politics was about getting the result they want. To me, the best way of taking the border out of politics is not to have it there as an issue,” he said.
“That makes the day to day running of the country workable and attractive to people.”
The Good Friday Agreement states that any poll would require a simple majority to pass.
Mr Robinson admitted that he had “pulled the pin from the grenade” in making his remarks, but his lecture focused on how stable power-sharing could be restored.
Meanwhile former UUP leader and party chairman Lord Reg Empey said he thought Mr Robinson had “lost the plot completely” after the lecture and subsequent interviews.
He said: “I don’t know where he’s coming from. But I really thought at the end of his interview that Peter had lost the plot completely.
“How any Unionist would want to fit himself into a Sinn Fein narrative.”
In Belfast yesterday the Taoiseach said a border poll held now would be “defeated and divisive”, and a “bad idea”.
Speaking on a visit to the Orange Order’s HQ in the city, Mr Varadkar said he didn’t think the conditions were right for a vote.
“It would cause people to break down once again along traditional lines,” he said.
“What we really need in Northern Ireland is to make the Good Friday Agreement work.”
Mr Varadkar said Mr Robinson had made “a sensible point” in suggesting such a decision should be once in a generation.
“I think no matter what happens in the future there’s going to have to be some form of power-sharing and co-operation here in Northern Ireland and we really need to get that right,” he said.
Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy said Mr Robinson’s suggestion of a vote every generation was against the Good Friday Agreement, which requires a referendum seven years after it is triggered.
“It’s been 45 years since the last referendum so, by any definition, a poll within the next five years is more than reasonable,” he said. “It’s no surprise that Peter Robinson or the DUP also want to postpone Irish unity by demanding more than a majority to decide the outcome of the unity referendum. Again, this is contrary to the Good Friday Agreement.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said it would be wrong to alter the principle of consent as set out in the Agreement.
“Peter Robinson’s comments suggest that somehow unionist votes count for more than nationalist votes,” he said. “That is ludicrous and untrue. I say to Mr Robinson: ‘Those days are long over and they are never, ever coming back’.”
Meanwhile, a survey conducted for the BBC probing national identity suggested a future border poll could be a close result, potentially decided by the ‘don’t knows’.
Some 45% of those surveyed said they would vote for Northern Ireland to stay in the UK, while 42% supported a united Ireland. Just under 13% said they were undecided or would not vote.
The survey also showed that the prospect of Brexit was impacting on the thinking of some people here.
More than a quarter (28%) said the UK’s decision to leave the EU made them more likely to vote for reunification.
The survey also found that fewer people in Northern Ireland described themselves as British than in any other UK region.