Unionists dismiss Sinn Fein claim Irish unity is ‘within grasp’

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald (centre) and vice president Michelle O'Neill (right) at the party's European and local election launch in Swords, Co Dublin
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald (centre) and vice president Michelle O'Neill (right) at the party's European and local election launch in Swords, Co Dublin

Claims by Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill that Irish unity is within the grasp of the party have been rubbished by unionists.

Speaking yesterday at the launch of the party’s Irish local election campaign held in Roganstown, Co Dublin, Ms O’Neill predicted there will be referendum on Irish unity “within a short number of years”.

Asserting that Brexit had forced many people to change their views on unity, Ms O’Neill said many in the population were no longer apathetic about the prospects of a united Ireland.

“A new conversation and public discourse is under way about Ireland’s strategic interests post-Brexit and our constitutional future,” she said.

“People of all shades of opinion can see that the Good Friday Agreement provides a peaceful and democratic path to Irish unity and with it a pathway back into the EU.

“The political landscape is changing. Change is in the air. Over the past two elections in the north the unionist majority has gone.

“The notion of a perpetual unionist majority – the very basis of partition – is gone.

“Brexit has now also completely transformed the context. What Brexit means – deal or no deal – is that a united Ireland is no longer a long-term aim.

“A referendum on Irish unity is a very real prospect within the next short number of years.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said republicans who subscribed to Ms O’Neill’s school of thought on this matter were in for “a rude awakening”.

The North Antrim MLA told the News Letter: “Ms O’Neill’s comments are founded on the nonsensical idea that unionists who voted Remain will suddenly become fellow travellers with those who marched behind a racist banner in New York calling for people from their heritage to ‘get out of Ireland’.

“If republicans believe that people in Northern Ireland are likely to vote to give up their free NHS to pay €50 to visit a doctor, surrender their £12,500 tax free personal allowance, lose the £10 billion annual subventions from Westminster and join a state with a higher national debt per capita than Greece they are in for a rude awakening.”

DUP MLA Jim Wells said that Sinn Fein supporters may be having the conversation about the prospect of a united Ireland, but added: “There is not a single unionist talking about it.

“There were certainly unionists who voted to Remain in the referendum back in 2016, but there is no doubt whatsoever they would revert to being unionists in the event of a border poll.”