Northern Ireland

Nationalists say constitutional change conversation ‘unstoppable’ as Taoiseach plays down border poll prospects

Taoiseach Simon Harris has said a unity referendum isn’t his priority

Taoiseach Simon Harris also commended the women who spoke out
Taoiseach Simon Harris. PICTURE: GRAINNE NI AODHA/PA (Grainne Ni Aodha/PA)

Sinn Féin MP Chris Hazzard has insisted there is a “growing and unstoppable conversation” about constitutional change after both the Irish and British governments played down the prospects of a border poll.

Taoiseach Simon Harris said the question of a referendum on Irish unity is not a priority and does not “arise currently”.

He said it was more important for the new British administration to work with Dublin in supporting Stormont’s power-sharing institutions.

In the aftermath of Thursday’s election which saw Sinn Féin become the north’s biggest party at Westminster, party president Mary Lou McDonald urged new Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer to “embrace the right of Irish self-determination and constitutional change toward Irish reunification”.

The Labour leader has previously stated that the issue of a united Ireland is not on his horizon, while Secretary of State Hilary Benn said on Sunday that he believed the prospect of a vote on Irish unity is “off into the distance”.

The taoiseach told Sky News his priority wasn’t on a referendum but that he would focus “on delivery”.

Former taoiseach Leo Varadkar confirmed on Tuesday that he would not contest the next general election
Leo Varadkar spoke at last month's Ireland's Future event. PICTURE: BRIAN LAWLESS/PA

Asked if the prospect of a unity referendum had moved further away following Labour’s election win, he said: “I just don’t think it arises currently.”

However, he insisted campaigning for Irish unity was a “legitimate constitutional aspiration” and his party is called “Fine Gael, the united Ireland Party”.

“That’s my legitimate constitutional aspiration for the future of this island,” he said.

“It doesn’t arise today, though.”

Mr Hazzard, who was re-elected in South Down on Thursday, said a conversation about the future and constitutional change was “taking place right now about”.

“In the context of the growing prospect of an Irish unity poll, there is an urgent duty on the Irish government to ensure mature and informed discussion and proper preparation for constitutional change through the establishment of a citizens assembly,” he said.

Ireland’s Future secretary Niall Murphy said there was broad recognition of the “urgent need to prepare and plan for the increasing likelihood of a unity referendum”.

Citing former taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s remarks at the civic nationalist group’s SSE Arena event last month, he said the constitutional conversation was “now a mainstream discussion across these islands”.

“Ireland’s Future has set out clearly in our recent Ireland 2030 publication that the timeline between now and a border poll being called is relatively short,” he said.

“The tipping point is coming around the year 2030 so there is a decision to be made, as a society and a government, do we plan and prepare in an honest and sincere way or do we procrastinate and then face a scenario like Brexit where people vote on an issue where they have not been fully informed of the facts and the various scenarios.”