A poll which shows paltry support for a united Ireland presents a clear challenge for nationalism, the SDLP leader has said.
But Sinn Fein has insisted that there should still be a border poll and has hailed a result that 25% of people would vote for a united Ireland if a border poll was held immediately.
Excluding the ‘don’t knows’ and those who wouldn’t vote, the Ipsos MORI poll for BBC programme The View projects that 74% of voters would vote for the Union, with just under 25% of people voting for a united Ireland.
The poll also found limited appetite for the holding of a border poll. When ‘don’t knows’ are excluded, 61% of people are opposed to holding a plebiscite on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that the research presented a challenge to nationalism to build “a detailed and credible plan” for Irish unity.
Although Mr Eastwood stressed that his party “continues to believe that Irish unity is the biggest and the best idea around”, and argued that after the EU referendum result “the case for the reunification of this island within Europe has never been stronger”, he did not attempt to claim that the poll numbers were good for those who aspire to a united Ireland.
The Foyle MLA said: “We cannot pretend that this is an overnight realisation for many. The results of the BBC Ipsos MORI poll set out the clear challenge for nationalism.
“We now need to put in the hard yards to develop a credible and detailed path to Irish unity. Only a comprehensive national debate with detailed proposals can move the discussion beyond the predetermined and into the practical.
“Scottish independence activists compiled a 670-page document outlining the road to independent nationhood. That saw support from independence rise from 28% in 2013 to 45% in 2014.”
But the Province’s leading nationalist party, Sinn Fein, did not concede that the poll result was bad for those who want to see the border removed.
Sinn Féin chairman Declan Kearney responded to the numbers by calling for “a wide-ranging debate on what a united Ireland would look like”.
The South Antrim MLA said: “This poll is significant because it shows that a quarter of the people of the North support a united Ireland before the debate has even begun.
“I believe this underestimates the true level of support given the current vote of Sinn Fein and the SDLP.”
He added: “The parties in the south in favour of unity should join the debate on the shape of a new Ireland and how we bring it about.
“The Brexit decision is a watershed for the entire island; all the old certainties have been swept away. Let’s begin the debate about the future.”
Speaking as she opened a new constituency office in Magherafelt for Mid Ulster MLA Keith Buchanan, DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster said that the Province is now in a “settled” period.
“Northern Ireland has enjoyed one of its most settled summer periods for many years,” Mrs Foster said.
“Having travelled extensively across Northern Ireland over these last months I am very optimistic about the future and, more importantly, I detect a growing confidence from people as they look to the future. The constitutional question is settled and Northern Ireland continues to be a strong constituent part of the United Kingdom. Now is the time to build for the future and to deliver for the people who have elected us to serve.”
Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kennedy was similarly dismissive of Sinn Fein’s repeated demand for a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future.
He said: “Sinn Féin cite the 1998 Belfast Agreement as the means for a border poll, but the legislation is clear – the Secretary of State can only call a 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.’
“This BBC survey confirms it appears very unlikely a majority want change. There is no need for the distraction of a border poll and we need to focus on more pressing issues.”
The Assembly will return on Monday after its summer recess. Aside from ministerial questions, the only two substantive items of business on the order paper for Monday are private members’ motions, one of which is on stalking and the other on the Housing Selection Scheme.