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Sinn Féin's Michelle O’Neill Liam McBurney/PA
Assembly Elections

People are not waking up thinking about Irish unity, says Sinn Féin's Michelle O’Neill

The Sinn Fein Stormont leader said the day would come when people voted on reunification but she said her present focus was the cost-of-living crisis.

PEOPLE IN NORTHERN Ireland are currently not waking up thinking about Irish unity, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill has said.

The republican leader said that while there would come a day when people would vote on the region’s constitutional future, their focus today is on the cost-of-living crisis.

O’Neill was reacting to the latest opinion poll on Irish unity, which indicated that fewer than one in three would vote for unification if asked tomorrow.

The comments from Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader at a pre-election business event in Belfast also came amid claims from the DUP that her party is fixated with pushing for a unity referendum, and was failing to prioritise those struggling to pay their bills.

Addressing the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce’s Five Leaders, Five Days event, O’Neill also challenged the DUP to turn up on “day one” after May’s Assembly election, to form a new powersharing executive.

She was referring to the DUP’s insistence it will not re-enter an administration before changes are made to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The DUP collapsed the Executive in February when it withdrew its first minister Paul Givan in protest at the contentious post-Brexit Irish sea trading arrangements.

The Institute of Irish Studies-University of Liverpool/Irish News opinion poll published on Tuesday found that 30% would vote for a united Ireland if a referendum was held tomorrow, with 45.3% voting against it and the remainder either not expressing a preference or saying they do not know.

“I think it’s an interesting poll,” O’Neill told business representatives at the gathering in the Europa Hotel.

“It’s one in a long line of polls. I looked very briefly at the figures this morning but I don’t think people woke up this morning thinking about that.

“I think people woke up this morning thinking about the cost-of-living crisis. I think people woke up this morning around the pressure they feel right now.

“So, I’m focused on the cost-of-living crisis, I’m focused now on what I will do in health, I’m focused on what I’m going to do in the Executive on the other side of the election. I’m focused on what I will do with the economy brief. I’m focused on all of these things.

“Yes, there will come a day whenever we will vote on the constitutional question and I will bring my politics to that.”

O’Neill said there was no contradiction in Sinn Fein working within the political institutions in Northern Ireland and also pursing the goal of Irish unity.

“But my focus today is very much on the cost-of-living crisis and getting to the other side of this election, and then trying to form an executive and working with the other parties,” she added.

Asked if that meant unity was not a current priority, O’Neill replied: “We’re not one-dimensional in life. Obviously, that’s who I am – I’m a republican.

“There won’t be any secret that I want to see unity in the country, but I am focused for today on the cost-of-living crisis.”

On the protocol issue, and the barriers it has created on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, O’Neill acknowledged there was a need to “refine” its implementation.

embedded266213047 DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson forced the Executive to collapse due to the Protocol PA PA

However, she said another aspect of the protocol – the unfettered access it offers local businesses to sell with the UK market and the EU single market, should be used as “key selling point” to attract more foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland.

“So, while we refine implementation of the protocol, let us make the most of the huge opportunities offered by our unique access to both the EU and British markets,” she said.

Much of her speech focused on what approach Sinn Fein would take to economic development in Northern Ireland if it assumes the Department for the Economy portfolio post-election.

However, O’Neill declined to be drawn when asked to confirm whether her party would make economy its first choice when it came to the allocation of ministries.

On the prospects of a new executive being formed on the other side of May’s poll, the Mid Ulster MLA made a pointed reference to the DUP’s “Five Point Plan” election campaign as she stressed the need for parties to get back to work.

“I think it’s intolerable that we don’t have an executive and it’s not sustainable to say that there may not be an executive,” she told business leaders.

“I mean, this is the democratic process, we’re all fighting the election, we all contest it, we say what we want to do and we ask the public to support us, there’s no point in having five point plans, or six point plans or seven point plans if you don’t intend to be in government to deliver them.

“I’ll be there. I’ll turn up with our team, I’ll be there on day one, I’ll work with others. I want to agree a programme for government.

“We’ve a period of six weeks directly after the election in which to form the executive that actually can go on for four periods of six weeks, so conceivably 24 weeks.

“That should not be the case, we need to be in government on day one.”

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