The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party has said nobody from his party will ever engage in any political conversations about a united Ireland.
Giving the commitment never to discuss the matter in any formal way, Steve Aiken branded the debate on unification as “destabilising”.
DUP leader Arlene Foster also rejected the suggestion, insisting time talking about the constitutional question diverted attention from urgent bread-and-butter issues in the region.
The leaders were responding to remarks by Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who said she would be willing to be involved in discussions about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future and urged unionists to similarly participate.
I can assure you that nobody from the Ulster Unionist Party is going to be involved in any conversation about a united Ireland - not now, not everSteve Aiken
Mrs Long, in an interview with the Irish News ahead of her weekend party conference, said the conversations would be taking place whether unionists were involved or not, so they should set aside misgivings and take part.
Mr Aiken and Mrs Foster, who both held talks with Secretary of State Brandon Lewis at Stormont House on Friday, were asked for their response to Mrs Long’s comments.
“I can assure you that nobody from the Ulster Unionist Party is going to be involved in any conversation about a united Ireland – not now, not ever,” said Mr Aiken.
When it was suggested that liberal members of the party, such as Mike Nesbitt, might have a different view, Mr Aiken replied: “That is what the Ulster Unionist Party says and I, as leader of the Ulster Unionist party, make it very clear. Shall I say it again? The Ulster Unionist Party will not be involved in any conversation about a united Ireland. Not now, not ever.
“This is just destabilising, this is not something that should be discussed at the moment – there are many more important things for Northern Ireland than trying to raise the issues of a united Ireland.”
Mrs Foster said she raised with Mr Lewis the need to highlight the “practical and tangible benefits” of the Union.
“Time spent talking about a united Ireland is not time spent dealing with the things that we need to deal with which is around health, which is around education, the things that matter most to people.
“And being part of the United Kingdom strengthens us here in Northern Ireland to deal with all of those issues. My project – not the project, I accept, of others – but my project is about strengthening the Union.”
Mrs Foster said she was focused on celebrating Northern Ireland’s centenary in 2021.
“Those are the things I am focusing on and I hope that other unionists are as well,” she said.