Villiers: Conditions for border poll not even close to being met

Theresa Villiers said a border poll would distract from the challenges Stormont faces
Theresa Villiers said a border poll would distract from the challenges Stormont faces

The Secretary of State has dismissed Sinn Fein’s demand for a border poll, saying that the conditions for calling such a referendum are not even close to being met.

Sinn Fein’s manifesto for last week’s Assembly election pledged that the party would “build support for island-wide referendums on Irish unity within the lifetime of the next Assembly to deliver an agreed Ireland”.

But the election saw an alarming decline in the nationalist vote, with the nationalist parties losing seats.

Three years ago the then Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said that the DUP would consider supporting the calling of a border poll in order to call Sinn Fein’s bluff.

Mrs Foster, who is now DUP leader and First Minister, said at the time: “Sinn Fein are trying to cause instability in Northern Ireland.

“If we have the border poll then that instability goes away and, in actual fact, what we have is a very clear validation of the Union and that’s something we’re looking at at the moment.

“So I’m saying to Mitchel McLaughlin and I’m saying to him very clearly, ‘we may just call your bluff on this one Mitchel, and be very careful what you wish for’.”

However, within days the then DUP leader Peter Robinson emerged to play down talk of such a DUP change of stance and since then the party has opposed Sinn Fein attempts to call a referendum on the Province’s future.

In an interview with the News Letter, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said: “I don’t see that there’s any need for a border poll.

“Obviously, the [Belfast] Agreement set out the circumstances where a border poll would be mandatory – ie where the UK Government has reason to believe that there would be support for a united Ireland.

“None of the polls indicate that – nothing like that. I think that a border poll would be unjustified, but also would distract from all the other important challenges that the Executive has and will no doubt be focusing on in relation to things like schools and hospitals, but also the kind of issues that we’ve been discussing before: paramilitarism and trying to get the Stormont House bodies on legacy established.”

The agreement is not prescriptive as to what criteria the Government should take into account when deciding on the issue. When asked whether she would take an overall majority for nationalism at Stormont as an indication of support for a united Ireland, or if opinion polls would be the main criteria, Ms Villiers said: “We’d look to take into account various circumstances and all the relevant facts.

“But I think there is nothing to indicate that there would be a majority for a united Ireland so it’s clear that the criteria which require a border poll are not met and are not close to being met.”