SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has moved to quash talk of a border poll in the wake of last week’s EU Referendum result – but has warned about the depth of Irish nationalist anger at what has happened.
After Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU but the UK as a whole voted to leave, Sinn Fein has repeatedly called for a referendum on a united Ireland – something which Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, the only person with the power to call such a poll, immediately dismissed.
Speaking during an emergency Stormont debate about last week’s dramatic decision by the British people, Mr Eastwood put distance between his party and Sinn Fein on the issue. There was a surprisingly low turnout during the debate, with the chamber barely half full for much of the three-hour period.
Mr Eastwood represents the majority nationalist border constituency of Foyle – one of the most pro-EU parts of the UK in last week’s referendum, but where the turnout was a poor 57 per cent.
He told fellow MLAs: “Let me just deal with the point that the Secretary of State made about the principle of consent and the Good Friday Agreement. I do not think that this is the right time for a border poll, because I believe that we should have a border poll that we can actually win. Our duty today...is to deal with the issues that face us right now.
“The Secretary of State has got it wrong: just because people on the nationalist side say that they agree with the principle of consent and the Good Friday Agreement, that does not mean that they give consent to our position within the United Kingdom. We will continue to democratically work towards changing that.”
Mr Eastwood added that “everybody in here who calls themselves a democrat should recognise that people here in the north of Ireland voted for our position within the European Union to remain the same. People in Scotland did that as well.”
Mr Eastwood said that people in his constituency had told him that they are “devastated, scared and extremely worried about what comes next”.
TUV leader Jim Allister put it to the SDLP leader: “I do not know what the question was on the ballot paper that he used, but on the ballot paper that I used the question was clear: do I want the United Kingdom to leave or to stay? The question was never ‘Do you want Northern Ireland to stay?’.
“The only autonomous answer is the answer that came from the entirety of the people of the United Kingdom. Is he going to accept that, or is he not?”
To uproar from the DUP benches, Mr Eastwood responded: “‘No’ is the answer.”
Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness chose not to speak during the three-hour debate, choosing instead to agree a joint statement with First Minister Arlene Foster which she delivered.
In it, she said that they would both “act to represent the best interest of Northern Ireland” and added: “Until such times as any new arrangements are negotiated and take effect, we want to make it clear that business continues as usual and the flow of goods and services and normal travel arrangements remain in place.”
Although Mr McGuinness chose not to speak in the chamber, he did host a press conference after the debate and released a statement in which he said: “What is clear is that the people of the north voted to remain in the EU.
“As political leaders, we have to work together to give effect to the democratically expressed decision of the people to remain in the EU and to put the needs of all our people and economy across Ireland to the fore.”
Other Sinn Fein speakers did, however, speak. Conor Murphy said that there is anger from many people who see themselves as being taken out of the EU “by people living on a neighbouring island”.
And party colleague John O’Dowd said that it is no longer accurate to refer to the ‘United Kingdom’, because “no matter how you look at this group of islands, they are divided like they have never been divided before”.
He said that Thursday’s result was “the biggest single social and economic shock to hit the island of Ireland since partition”.
However, in what he said there were hints of what may be Sinn Fein moving to manage the expectations of its supporters.
Mr O’Dowd stressed that “the Executive’s hands are somewhat tied on this” because it would have to wait for the Conservatives to appoint a new Prime Minister in September, leaving “the Executive and the First and Deputy First Minister somewhat constrained in what they can do”.