Lord Empey: Enda Kenny is foolish to mimic SF on border poll

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and French President Francois Hollande (right) at Government Buildings in Dublin on Thursday. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and French President Francois Hollande (right) at Government Buildings in Dublin on Thursday. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has been sending conflicting signals about the next steps that should be taken.

Firstly, he said that the UK should not rush to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (that begins the formal process of a country leaving the EU) and now he is calling for this to happen quickly.

When Sinn Fein issued calls for a border poll in the aftermath of the vote, Enda Kenny was indicating that this would not happen. Now Mr Kenny is saying it should be on the agenda in any Brexit talks. No it should not.

This lack of consistency is most worrying and there is simply no legal basis for a border poll to be held. The legislation is clear - there would have to be reason to believe that the people of Northern Ireland have changed their minds on the Union. No such evidence exists. On the contrary, the results of the last three tests of public opinion, in 2014, 2015 and 2016 all point to an increased share of the vote and seats for pro Union candidates.

The Government will of course be highly influenced by Northern Ireland’s representation in Westminster. Before 2015 there were equal numbers of unionists and non-unionists at 9 seats each. Now there are 11 unionists and 7 nationalists.

Many commentators have misinterpreted the result of the EU Referendum, as it applied in Northern Ireland. It is true that there was a majority in favour of remaining in the EU. However, that majority included a significant number of people who support the Union with Great Britain. There is no conflict in supporting membership of both the UK and the EU.

But now that the referendum is over, those unionists who supported the Remain campaign accept that they lost the vote, which was a UK wide referendum, and that the matter is now decided. The UK is leaving the EU.

I know of no unionist who thinks their support for the EU would take precedence over their support for Northern Ireland remaining the UK. The parallel with the Scottish result is misleading and wrong.

I can think of no poll that could be more divisive in current circumstances than a border poll. There is no need for one, no legal basis for one, and successive Secretaries of State have ruled it out. In any event, even if a Secretary of State was foolish enough to call one, such a decision would inevitably be challenged in the courts.

Enda Kenny and his colleagues would be better employed in working with HMG and the European Institutions on securing the best deal that can be obtained in the interests of all the people on these islands, so that our trade and other links can be maximised. Foolish and dangerous talk that meekly mimics Sinn Fein serves no good purpose.

• Lord Empey is a former Ulster Unionist leader