There is no prospect of a border poll in Northern Ireland for the foreseeable future because the majority of people are happy to remain part of the UK, Secretary of State Karen Bradley has said.
Addressing the European Scrutiny Committee at Westminster, Mrs Bradley said she “absolutely, fundamentally” believed in the Union and that she hoped to see it strengthened.
In response to a question from SNP MP Douglas Chapman – who claimed that “commentators and opinion polls” are indicating that “a united Ireland has never been closer” – Mrs Bradley said: “I don’t believe that there is a majority of people in Northern Ireland who want to be anything other than part of the United Kingdom, and I want to make sure that we do the right thing for those citizens of the United Kingdom, and that we maintain that union and we strengthen that union – and give good reasons why the people of Northern Ireland would want to be part of the United Kingdom.”
Committee chairman Sir Bill Cash commented that some of the “confusion” around what additional infrastructure, if any, would be required in the border areas post-Brexit was being “politically stoked up to make the border question impossible to resolve”.
He added: “The words ‘physical infrastructure’ and ‘hard border’ are being unrealistically interpreted.”
Earlier this week, a national newspaper reported a Cabinet row after Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested there was nothing to fear from a border poll, prompting Prime Minister Theresa May to “slap him down very hard” with the retort: “That’s not a risk I’m prepared to take.”
Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann has described Sinn Fein’s latest calls for a border poll as nothing more than an attempt to distract from their “abdication of responsibility to the people on Northern Ireland”.
Mr Swann said: “The current noise coming from Sinn Fein over a referendum on Northern Ireland’s future is nothing more than a distraction. This latest campaign demonstrates that they place ideology ahead of the needs of ordinary people.
“It is totally laughable that they are pursuing a border poll at a time when they won’t even take their seats in the devolved institutions while our health service is at breaking point and people are languishing on waiting lists because no strategic decisions can be made. Is this a vision of what could be expected in a united Ireland?”
Mr Swann added: “Their accusations that others are attempting to subvert the Belfast Agreement shows that Sinn Fein are currently on another planet. They are only interested in the Belfast Agreement when they think it can be used as a tool to progress their own party political interests. They have spent the last 20 years skipping past the part on the principle of consent.
“If only they pursued providing Northern Ireland with effective and accountable governance with the fervour they do a border poll we wouldn’t be in the state of paralysis we find ourselves.”
Following a meeting with Mrs Bradley in London, Sinn Fein’s Elisha McCallion accused the government of being in “clear disarray” over Troubles’ legacy issues and the prospect of a border poll.
“We strongly challenged Karen Bradley on the British prime minister’s claim that the only people being investigated over conflict-related deaths are British armed forces.
“This was grossly insulting to victims and a blatantly untrue claim that has now been entirely discredited from a range of sources, including the former justice minister and the PSNI chief constable.”
Ms McCallion added: “We also took issue with the reported comments from Theresa May opposing a referendum on Irish unity because she fears she would lose it.
“That is an appalling display of contempt for the democratic rights of Irish citizens and today Karen Bradley again claimed that the threshold for a unity referendum has not been met.
“So she is saying one thing and Theresa May is saying another. This is just another example of the clear disarray within this Tory government.”