Sinn Fein leader against Irish unity poll while Brexit impasse remains

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A poll on Irish unity should not be held while uncertainty around Brexit remains, the leader of Sinn Fein has warned.

Mary Lou McDonald said she disagreed with those who argued that a hard or chaotic Brexit should be the trigger for a referendum on unification.

The Sinn Fein president insisted that would be the wrong climate for a substantive debate on the constitutional issue.

“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.”

In an interview with the Press Association, Mrs McDonald said the border poll question should be put to one side until the “dangers” posed by Brexit are mitigated.

“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,” she said.

Mrs McDonald also said unionists who failed to countenance the possibility of a united Ireland in the future were burying their heads in the sand.

Mary Lou McDonald interview
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald during an interview (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Robinson’s party colleague Sammy Wilson was among a number of unionists to criticise the former first minister’s comments, accusing him of giving encouragement to the republican narrative.

Mrs McDonald said it was “common sense” to look at possible constitutional changes, even if you did not support them.

Reflecting on what accommodations might be made for unionists if a united Ireland was to come to pass, the Sinn Fein president also indicated she would be prepared to accept a different flag and national anthem.

The Convention Centre Dublin
Mary Lou McDonald acknowledge the possibility of a new Irish flag in the event of unity (Niall Carson/PA)

“Peter Robinson is a unionist clearly, and he will argue passionately for the maintenance of the union, as will others, and that’s fine, but it would be a case of really burying your head in the sand for unionism generally if they were not to raise their gaze and look to the future horizons and say if it were to happen, it doesn’t have to be your first option, but if that comes to pass what is it that we need as citizens, as a political tradition, as a cultural tradition, what are the things that we want to secure in a new Ireland?

“There are some that think if you just keep shouting ‘no’ loud enough that you can make change go away, you can be that boy with your finger in the dam trying to hold back social change – but that’s not how life works, it’s not how history works.”

Anti-Brexit posters on the northern side of the border between Newry in Northern Ireland and Dundalk in the Republic of Ireland (Niall Carson/PA)

Earlier on Monday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar restated his view that it was currently the wrong time for a border poll.

“I think it’s not helpful to be talking about a border poll in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“We are in a situation whereby there is huge uncertainty in Northern Ireland because people don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of Brexit but also the Northern Ireland parties haven’t been able to come together and form an executive.

“For me to start talking about a border poll in that context wouldn’t be helpful.”

Mrs McDonald said the party policy of having a poll within five years remained but she insisted the first priority had to be dealing with the out-workings of Brexit in a non-political way.

Reacting to her remarks, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood tweeted: “Really hard to keep up with SF’s position on a border poll. They’ve been calling for 1 every 5 minutes for the last 2 years now they want to see what Brexit will bring. Sensible change – we’ve been saying exactly that for 2 years.”

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