SECRETARY of State Theresa Villiers has rejected calls for a border poll after a surprise DUP intervention gave momentum to a Sinn Fein campaign for a constitutional referendum which attracted limited attention when it was launched by Gerry Adams at the weekend.
This morning senior DUP figure Arlene Foster told BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show that her party may “call [Sinn Fein’s] bluff” and support a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future.
The comments led to immediate support from UKIP’s David McNarry and a welcome from Sinn Fein. However, the Ulster Unionist Party, TUV and Conservatives distanced themselves from the call, which they said was unwise and would lead to instability.
Mrs Foster told the radio programme: “Sinn Fein are trying to cause instability in Northern Ireland.
“If we have the border poll then that instability goes away and, in actual fact, what we have is a very clear validation of the Union and that’s something we’re looking at at the moment.
“So I’m saying to Mitchel McLaughlin and I’m saying to him very clearly, ‘We may just call your bluff on this one Mitchel, and be very careful what you wish for’.”
Mr McLaughlin said the change in the DUP’s stance was “refreshing”. The DUP had previously denounced a border poll as “a waste of money” and just four days ago First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson took a markedly different line on the issue, describing calls for a border poll as “nonsensical”.
In 2004, the DUP also took a markedly different stance, claiming that political relationships could be transformed if the Government guaranteed that there would be no border poll for 30 years.
DUP MP Nigel Dodds, now the party’s deputy leader, said then: “In order to create the best context to make progress, we believe that there should be an agreement between the parties backed by legislation which would prevent a border poll for the next 30 years.
In 2000 the UUP under David Trimble had called for a border poll to confirm Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, a position which the party has now changed.
However, despite yesterday’s interview by Mrs Foster causing surprise, there is no indication that she is acting without Mr Robinson’s authority and the DUP press office later released a statement from the Enterprise Minister which echoed many of her words.
The statement said: “If such a destabilising and polarising message continues to be pushed then we may call their bluff. We may put an end to this foolish talk once and for all.”
However, it stressed that “the DUP is having this discussion but has not reached a conclusion on the matter”.
But the NIO moved to end speculation that the DUP’s new stance could lead to a border poll.
When contacted by the News Letter, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said: “The provisions for calling a border poll are set out in the Belfast Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
“Given the state of opinion in Northern Ireland, which is clearly expressed in election results and opinion polls, the Government has no present plans to call such a poll.
“We believe that political attention is really better focused elsewhere. It is crucial that political leaders here concentrate on working together on pressing economic and social issues, including the rebalancing of the Northern Ireland economy and building a genuinely shared society, rather than being diverted into divisive constitutional debates.”
The TUV leader Jim Allister said that irrespective of whether the DUP would support a referendum on the border, the legal position under the terms of the Belfast Agreement was that the Secretary of State could only call such a poll if she believed that it may result in a united Ireland.
Mr Allister quoted Schedule 1 (2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 which says that the Secretary of State “shall exercise the power [to call a border poll] if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.
Mr Allister said that this meant that a border poll could only be called if there appeared to be a majority in support of a united Ireland.
However, Schedule 1 (1) of the Act gives the Secretary of State the discretion to hold a poll — which could be for the purposes of confirming overwhelming support for Northern Ireland’s position within the UK — on any date, and makes no reference to what the outcome of the poll might be.
Mr Allister said that calling a border poll was “a recipe for constitutional instability”.
Former UUP leader Tom Elliott dismissed Sinn Fein`s call for a border poll as “just another divisive, political stunt”.
The Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA said: “Sinn Fein`s call for a border poll is nonsense, designed to destabilise the current political arrangements.
“Northern Ireland`s constitutional position was settled in 1998 with the Belfast Agreement.
“The Ulster Unionist Party has nothing to fear from a border poll, but Sinn Fein should move on and stop wasting time and money. It also exposes the hypocrisy of Sinn Fein`s position; on one hand calling for a shared future and on the other demanding a divisive border poll.”
Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle said: “Raising the prospect of a border poll is inflammatory and reckless in the current climate.
“Sinn Fein should not proceed with this campaign but rather should reassure the community of their commitment to buildings a united community and shared future in Northern Ireland. This is not going to happen while Sinn Fein are using the language of a border poll.
“There is no possibility of it taking place or having the outcome they desire at this stage.”
UKIP MLA David McNarry said that Sinn Fein’s “loony tune” calls for a border referendum “reflects their underlying desperation” but agreed with Mrs Foster that there was merit in calling such a poll: “Such is Sinn Fein’s vanity that unionists should not fear a referendum. In fact, it would do the Union a great favour, settling this matter for away beyond the foreseeable future.”
Northern Ireland Conservative spokeswoman Lesley Macaulay said that the DUP was “very unwise” to consider supporting a border poll and said that it “would be an appalling time to play on people’s insecurities, concentrate on constitutional matters rather than everyday issues and conduct an expensive, divisive campaign”.
Interviewed on BBC Radio Ulster’s Inside Politics programme on Friday, Mr Robinson said of the calls for a border poll: “I think I’ve already articulated the ‘why not [have the poll]’ and that is because it is divisive.
“Only 25 per cent in the Census regarded themselves as being Irish, opinion polls have shown that less than 10 per cent of the people would want to have a united Ireland now, so why would we go to the expenditure and upheaval of having a border poll? It’s a nonsensical idea.”