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Mayor of Belfast: 'An Irish unity referendum is coming, and we must prepare for it'

Claire Hanna, SDLP MLA for South Belfast said calling for a poll now is ‘premature’.

The MacGill Summer School was told that if it comes down to getting a United Ireland over the line, Ireland will rejoin the Commonwealth.
The MacGill Summer School was told that if it comes down to getting a United Ireland over the line, Ireland will rejoin the Commonwealth.
Image: Shutterstock/Stephen Barnes

Updated Jul 23rd 2019, 9:37 PM

THE MAYOR OF Belfast has said the Irish government must lead the way in making plans and preparations for Irish unification. 

Speaking to the MacGill Summer School this evening, Sinn Fein’s John Finucane said the debate about Irish unity does not just belong to Sinn Féin, but to everyone on the island. 

He called on the Irish government to set up a unit within government to begin preparations for the possibility of Irish unity, highlighting that the Scottish government has done so.

The Belfast mayor also called for an Oireachtas committee on Irish unity to be established. He also called on the Taoiseach to “appoint an Minister of State with the dedicated and specific responsibility of developing strategies to advance Irish unity and coordinating the Government’s all-Ireland policies”.

Finucane said there is “no reason why not preparatory work cannot be done now” adding, “make no mistake this is happening”. 

“A unity referendum is coming, and we must prepare for it,” he said.

He said too many frame the discussion around Irish unity as “a distant aspiration” adding often people state that it is “never the right time to talk about it”. 

Speaking about the unionist community, he said many are looking at Brexit with the same trepidation as nationalists.  

He said “it is time to hear all voices in this debate”, adding that there is now a need to “persuade” people on the benefits of unification.

His comments come as another Northern Ireland politician said a border poll post-Brexit is premature. 

Speaking at the MacGill Summer School in Donegal, Claire Hanna, SDLP MLA for South Belfast said “calls now for a border poll are like removing the scaffolding before the structures are built”.

She added that a border poll “should be the last, and not first piece of the jigsaw”.

The summer school was also told by another speaker that if it comes down to getting a United Ireland over the line, Ireland will rejoin the Commonwealth.

Last weekend, Ireland’s Ambassador to the UK said a poll on a united Ireland would “degrade” attempts to resolve the ongoing impasse over Britain’s departure from the EU.

Adrian O’Neill told BBC Radio 4′s The Week in Westminster programme that the current priority for the Irish government was to restore the Northern Ireland Executive at Stormont.

There has been speculation that Britain leaving the European Union could eventually lead to the unification of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

A border poll

Last year, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said a no-deal Brexit would bring the timeline for a border poll on a united Ireland forward, while a number of public polls have also suggested some support for the idea should such a scenario occur.

However, asked whether he agreed with recent comments by Conservative MP David Liddington that pressure was mounting for a border poll because of Brexit, O’Neill said:

“The view of the Irish government is that now is not the time to be pressing for or campaigning for such a border poll.

This week, also reported that Fianna Fáil’s 12-point plan on a United Ireland is still being worked on, though it has been two and a half years since party leader Micheál Martin announced the document. 

Hanna said today that some advances between the North and South have been made, in areas such as health and energy, but she said more could be done in the areas of economic development, third level education and transport.

She said the Irish government cannot “risk crossing the wires” of Brexit and a United Ireland. 

“To put the foot hard on the pedal for reunification as a direct consequence of Brexit is to risk repeating the lasting, profound and mirror image mistake of the past, simply a rerun of the last century and of an unhappy minority trapped. Our modern, pluralist new Ireland will not be built on a narrow electoral win slipped through in a period of chaos,” she said. 

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She added that it took two decades of engagement to get to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, stating that any re-unification, even if a poll was passed, would not be smooth sailing.

“Any change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland isn’t going to be a 1997 Hong Kong type situation, where there was a defined date for a change of sovereignty and a neat ceremonial handing over of the flag,” she added. 

Denis Bradley, the former vice-chair of the Northern Ireland’s Policing Authority, told the audience today, that Ireland has now escaped the worst of Brexit, due to the EU stating that no trade deal would be negotiated until the Irish issue is resolved. 

He said a border poll is a “crude” method, as has been shown with the Brexit referendum. However, he said that unionists will not move on the issue, unless there this “crude instrument” is used.

Terrified of the conversation

An all-island forum on re-unification is probably needed sooner rather than later. Though the Irish government appears to be terrified of putting Brexit and unity together, Bradley said there is now no choice but to do so.

Bradley added it is “becoming annoying listening to half-baked theories that nationalist people had given up their unity aspirations and were now fully content within the new Northern Ireland or equally to hear the voice of dissident republicans continue the juvenile mantra that all would be well once the Brits had been forced out of Ireland”.

He said that nationalists “want to have the conversation” about unity, but added that unionism is “terrified” to even begin the debate. Who should lead that conversation? Bradley said Fianna Fáil are coming out as favourites to begin the discussion, but added that might be a question for Micheál Martin later today. 

The Fianna Fáil leader is due to address the summer school later this evening.

He added that nothing that unionism asks for will be refused in order to get a United Ireland over the line, stating that many politicians state that Ireland would never join the Commonwealth, but Bradley states that Ireland will compromise and join it.

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