The government has played down reports that Theresa May fears a border poll would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.
Following a newspaper claim that the prime minister had clashed with Conservative colleague Jacob Rees-Mogg over the level of support for maintaining the Union post-Brexit, a spokesman for Mrs May ruled out a referendum on the issue.
Under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, an Irish unity poll can be called when the government believes a majority of the NI population desires a change in the status quo.
A report in The Times said the pair had a heated exchange after Mr Rees-Mogg suggested a poll would pose no threat to the Union. Mrs May is reported to have “slapped him down very hard,” telling him: “That’s not a risk I’m prepared to take.”
Mr Rees-Mogg’s intervention was said to have been prompted by the PM warning against any moves – such as border infrastructure – which might anger moderate nationalists in NI.
In response, Mrs May’s spokesman said that the government’s “position on this has not changed,” and that it “steadfastly supports the Belfast Agreement”.
He said: “It remains the Northern Ireland secretary’s view that a majority of the people ... continue to support the current political settlement and that the circumstances requiring a border poll are not satisfied.”
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill said that, if the reports are accurate, then the PM “is conceding that the Good Friday Agreement threshold for triggering a unity poll has been met but that she isn’t prepared to allow the people ... to exercise their democratic right”.
Mrs O’Neill said: “That is an appalling display of contempt for the democratic rights of Irish citizens. It is also a fundamental breach of the Good Friday Agreement which clearly provides for a referendum. Theresa May has no right to deny democratic entitlements to the people of Ireland, north and south.”
The party’s Northern Ireland leader added: “Sinn Fein has raised the need for a unity referendum with the British government on numerous occasions over recent years, particularly in the wake of the Brexit vote. On each occasion they have stated that they do not believe the threshold has been met but have repeatedly refused to clarify what criteria they use to reach this conclusion.
“The Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent legislation states that a poll shall be held ‘if at any time it appears likely’ to the British secretary of state that a majority in the north would vote to form part of a united Ireland.”
Quoting a number of government sources, The Times report claimed: “Jacob said, ‘If there was a border poll, I have no doubt we would win, as the UK did in Scotland [in the 2014 independence referendum].’
“Mrs May said, ‘I would not be as confident as you. That’s not a risk I’m prepared to take. We cannot be confident on the politics of that situation, on how it plays out’.”
Another Tory MP in the room is reported to have said: “She slapped him down very hard. Everyone thinks he knows what he’s on about but she got him on facts. She was absolutely firm and passionate about the Irish position. I got a sense she realises what really matters.”
Mr Rees-Mogg declined to comment on the reported exchanges but described the meeting as “courteous and respectful”.
The Belfast Agreement states the NI 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”.
Responding to the report, Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said he believed the Union is secure and destined to grow stronger.
“We strongly disagree that there is any prospect of a border poll bringing about a majority vote for a united Ireland,” he said.
“There is no evidence that such a poll would succeed. In September 2016 a poll conducted by BBC NI’s The View, found that if a border poll was to be held, 63% said they would vote for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK, while only 22% would support a United Ireland. Some 13% of those polled didn’t know how they would vote whilst another 2% would not participate in a border poll.”
Mr Swann added: “A border poll would only serve to bring political instability and inject further bitterness and division into political debate here.”
Colum Eastwood said the time was right for a conversation on a “new inclusive Ireland”.
The SDLP leader said: “We cannot and should not take any political eventuality for granted,” and added: “In light of Mrs May’s comments, I would encourage all segments of nationalism to engage in open and honest conversations with each other and with unionism to ensure when that day comes, it is not a day of celebration for one half of the community and a day of remorse for the other, but rather a step towards reconciliation together, where all communities feel at home in a new inclusive Ireland.”