Sinn Fein president changes border poll policy ... then does a quick U-turn

After appearing to subtly but fundamentally change its policy over reuniting Ireland, new Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald has done a rapid U-turn.

Wednesday, 1st August 2018, 12:35 pm
Updated Sunday, 2nd September 2018, 2:52 am
Mary Lou McDonalds comments represented a fundamental shift for republicanism  but the policy was short-lived

In an interview with the Press Association on Monday, Ms McDonald said that a referendum on Irish unity should not be held while uncertainty around Brexit remains.

The Dublin TD said the border poll question should be put to one side until the “dangers” posed by Brexit are mitigated, adding that it was her “strong preference” that “we have sequencing that firstly delivers a level of economic and social certainty, in as much we can be certain, and stability and from that base we then continue the conversation about Irish unity”.

That represented a remarkable change in stance for the leader of Irish republicanism, because it implicitly accepted ongoing British rule of Northern Ireland until some unspecified period after Brexit, rather than demanding an immediate border poll, as has been long-standing Sinn Fein policy after the IRA ended its violent attempt to force a united Ireland.

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Since the EU referendum a long list of senior Sinn Fein figures had called for an urgent border poll.

The comments were seized upon by Sinn Fein’s rivals, with SDLP leader Colum Eastwood saying that Sinn Fein had been calling for a border poll “every five minutes for the last two years” but “now they want to see what Brexit will bring”.

On Tuesday morning Ms McDonald issued a statement which reversed the party’s position to what it had been prior to Monday, stating that her party “wants to see a referendum as soon as possible”.

She vowed that “the chaos of the Tory Brexit will not delay a referendum on Irish unity” that “the very nature of Brexit and the blatant disregard shown to Ireland by the Tory government underscores the imperative for Irish unity. It emphasises the need for the people, north and south, to have their say on the constitutional question and the future of this island.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that “now is not the time for a border poll”, adding that “we need to get power-sharing up and running first”.

DUP leader Arlene Foster – who just a few years ago flirted with the idea of holding a snap border poll to clarify the matter – said: “As tempting as calling Sinn Fein’s bluff might be, the principle of consent is in place and should be respected.”

She added that most of the public who she met were less keen to see a border poll than they were to see a functioning government “where decisions about public sector pay as well as roads, schools and hospitals are made”.

She said that although “there is a clear majority in favour of staying within the United Kingdom”, a border poll would be “destabilising”.

UUP chief whip Steve Aiken said that “Mary Lou McDonald and indeed her party are all over the place when it comes to when they want a border poll and why”.

He said that Sinn Fein “would be better concentrating their efforts on getting devolution restored and addressing the chronic pressures on our health service, schools and other sectors”.

Meanwhile, fresh talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein are likely to be held in October, the taoiseach has said.

Speaking to reporters in Dublin, MrVaradkar said: “We would intend in the autumn some time trying again to get the parties in Northern Ireland together.

“I think the absence of any clarity around Brexit makes that very difficult but if we can have that in October, I think there is an opportunity certainly before the end of the year to get the Assembly and Executive up and running.”

The talks will be the first attempt to persuade the DUP and Sinn Fein to return to Stormont since the DUP walked away from an emerging deal in February amid disquiet both within the party and from grassroots unionism over what the party leadership was considering.

October is also likely to see senior DUP figures appearing at the RHI Inquiry.