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Q+A: Here's where the parties stand on a united Ireland and holding a border poll

The question is more immediate since Brexit, so what are the parties saying?

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WITH THE GENERAL election only two days away, TheJournal.ie has been asking each political party for their positions on a variety of issues affecting people across Ireland. 

So far, we’ve published Q&A pieces on housing, insurance, cycling, childcare and agriculture

Each article teases out parties’ positions by asking them a number of specific questions.

For this article we asked parties about their stance on one of the most fundamental issues in the State. Specifically, what constitutes the nation and whether Irish people should vote on reunification.

There’s been increased debate around the issue of a united Ireland ever since the Brexit vote in 2016, a poll which saw Northern Ireland vote to remain in the EU.

The subsequent Brexit negotiations saw the border become the single biggest stumbling block to progress and the eventual agreement led to customs arrangements in Northern Ireland being treated differently to the rest of the UK.

In December, Northern Ireland elected more nationalist MPs than unionist MPs for the first time, raising questions about whether changing demographics and voter sentiment were moving unification closer than ever before.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, it is acknowledged that a united Ireland can be brought about if voters both north and south “exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given”.

The decision to hold a border poll is ultimately one to be taken by the UK’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

The agreement states that the secretary is to hold such a poll if they deem it likely a majority of people in Northern Ireland would vote for a united Ireland.

So given that context, we’ve asked parties running in the general election whether they are in favour of a united Ireland and if/when a border poll should take place.

The responses below are word-for-word what were given by the parties with the exception of the answers from the Social Democrats and Aontú, who did not respond but have manifesto policies on the issue. 

Do you aspire to the democratic unification of Ireland

Fine Gael: The party’s full official title is “Fine Gael – The United Ireland Party”. So, yes based on the principle of consent and a majority, north and south, being in favour. 

Fianna Fáil: Yes. A United Ireland is a founding goal of our party. We believe it should be achieved through consensus.

Sinn Féin: Yes.

Labour: Labour aspires to the unification of all the people on the island of Ireland, first and foremost, as the logical and necessary first step towards political unity. The best thing we can do to secure that now is to ensure the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are fully operational. 

People Before Profit: Yes we do.

Green Party: Yes.

The Social Democrats (From the party’s manifesto): We believe that a United Ireland, achieved by consent, has the real potential to benefit the people of the entire island economically, politically and culturally. We will therefore work towards achieving this in a spirit of mutual respect of all peoples who share this island and based on a foundation of Social Democratic principles.

Aontú (The party’s website outlines the following policy): Aontú seeks the independence of the Irish people north and south, east and west. We believe in self-determination; that decisions made as close to the people that they affect, are better decisions. Irish people can influence those decisions and they can hold the decision makers to account. When decisions are made in London, Brussels and Berlin they are not made in Ireland’s interest.

Irish Freedom Party: Yes we aspire to a democratic United Ireland.  We are an all-Ireland party who wants an Ireland ruled by the Irish people not by London or Brussels.

The National Party: The National Party supports the unification of Ireland in one sovereign and independent republic.

Do you support the holding of a border poll in the Republic of Ireland over the lifetime of the upcoming government

Fine Gael: An Taoiseach said during the seven-way leaders’ debate that he believes in a United Ireland but it should only be put to the people when we believe the poll would pass both North and South. Calls for a border poll at this time, which are not properly thought through, are only likely to exacerbate division and uncertainty.

Fianna Fáil: No. A border poll at this point would be divisive rather than conciliatory.

Sinn Féin: Yes.

Labour: No. It is clear that any border poll held in the next five years would be highly divisive in Northern Ireland at a time when Brexit has already increased tensions across the nationalist-unionist divide.

People Before Profit: We are for a border poll – held on both sides of the border.

Green Party: One thing we have learned from Brexit is that we should not rush into decisions, particularly through referenda, that have not been sufficiently prepared for or had sufficient public engagement on. Therefore we would only be happy to hold a border poll if sufficient public debate, engagement of all communities, and a robust economic assessment of the impact of reunification has been completed and this would be difficult to progress in the lifetime of this government.

Aontú (The party’s website outlines the following policy): A referendum on Irish reunification is now the only reasonable next step and is necessary to allow the north to move forward economically and socially. Aontú will support calls for this referendum and will actively campaign for a Yes to Unity vote. 

Irish Freedom Party: Our preference is to have a period of consultation and preparation with all of the stakeholders on the island. Brexit is a factor too and it will take a few years to see the full effect of that on the island. 

The National Party: We do not believe Ireland’s national unity is beholden to the temporary whim of an electorate in the form of a border poll. We support a negotiated settlement between the south and the north to achieve sovereignty and independence.

What are the circumstances, if any, that the holding of a border poll in the Republic of Ireland would be appropriate

Fine Gael: An Taoiseach has said, he believes in a United Ireland but it should only be put to the people when we believe the poll would pass both North and South.

Fianna Fáil: We will establish within the Department of an Taoiseach a unit to lead a formal study and cross-community consultation on a Green Paper to outline how the Irish government should approach the handling of any unity referendum should circumstances arise where it can be called. 

Sinn Féin: Sinn Féin wants to see a referendum on Irish unity within the next five years.

Labour: Any referendum in Ireland should be a vote to agree the reunification of Ireland if the majority in Northern Ireland had already voted in favour of this.

People Before Profit: The circumstances are appropriate at the moment.

Green Party: A border poll in the Republic should come at the same time as a poll is conducted north of the border. It should only be carried out when there is a likelihood of it passing.

Irish Freedom Party: When it is clear and obvious that a majority of people on the island desire a United Ireland and a sufficient level of consultation has taken place.

The National Party: We do not believe a border poll is a viable vehicle to practically achieve unity and independence.

Should a border poll in the Republic take place in tandem with one in Northern Ireland or after

Fine Gael: Any holding of a border poll, either North or South, would be inappropriate at this time as specified above. As such, any determination as to whether the polls should be held simultaneously or otherwise is, similarly, inappropriate as it would only exacerbate division and uncertainty. 

Fianna Fáil: This sequencing should be considered as part of overall preparations for a United Ireland.

Sinn Féin: That should be discussed by a Citizens’ Assembly.

Labour: The Belfast Good Friday Agreement sets out that a border poll should be held in Northern Ireland to confirm a situation where the majority of people is in favour of reunification of Ireland. Any referendum in Ireland should follow this, unless a wide range of political parties in Northern Ireland ask the Irish government to hold a simultaneous poll. 

People Before Profit: In our view, a similar poll should be held on same day in the 26 counties. 

Green Party: It should be conducted at the same time.

Irish Freedom Party: We should await the outcome of the vote in the north.

The National Party: See above. The Good Friday Agreement is not a permanent settlement. From a nationalist-republican perspective, the GFA can only be judged by its utility in moving us further towards a United Ireland. It has failed to achieve this, and the National Party staunchly opposes blind faith in the institutions and mechanisms of the GFA.

Should the Irish government be actively preparing for the potential of a united Ireland

Fine Gael: The Irish Government should be focused on actively supporting the Good Friday Agreement and the restored institutions. Fine Gael’s  vision aligns with the Good Friday Agreement aspiration of ‘equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity’ and fully equal rights for same-sex couples and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTI+) people across the island. 

Fianna Fáil: We will establish within the Department of an Taoiseach a unit to lead a formal study and cross-community consultation on a Green Paper to outline how the Irish government should approach the handling of any unity referendum should circumstances arise where it can be called.

Sinn Féin:  Yes it should. The Irish Government has a duty and obligation to make preparations for Irish unity. In Government, Sinn Féin will:

  • Establish a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Irish Unity. Establish an all-island representative
  • Citizens’ Assembly or appropriate forum to discuss and plan for Irish Unity.
  • Publish a White Paper on Irish Unity.
  • Secure a referendum, north and south, on Irish Unity.

Labour: Labour leader Brendan Howlin has for a number of years called for an inclusive, non-sectarian public conversation on the future of Ireland, modelled on the New Ireland Forum of the 1980s, including discussion of a potential unitary Irish state while open to other political views including British Unionist perspectives.

People Before Profit: It should. Within such a forum People Before Profit will be promoting the case for a socialist United Ireland rather than extending the current 26 county tax haven. 

Green Party: Yes.

Aontú (The party’s website outlines the following policy): Given that the opinions of Irish people north and south are changing significantly in support of Irish unity and given the demographic change, it is foolish and irresponsible for the governments in Dublin and London not to start to plan for the unity of the Irish people. We need to see the ongoing, planned and increasing devolution of far more powers from London to Ireland, to allow a managed transition to unification. The North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association must be developed to provide deeper and more regular parliamentary support to the work of the North/South Ministerial Council

Irish Freedom Party: Yes, because it is a realistic possibility and any government would be wise to maximise its preparation.

The National Party: The government must immediately end its partitionist mindset and adopt a 32-county approach to questions of policy, while also respecting the temporary political realities of the island. Practically, only a nationalist government can set about laying the foundations for the creation of a united and sovereign republic.

Do you have a view on what the political structure of a united Ireland would be

Fine Gael: It is far too early to start making pronouncements and decisions on political structure. It would be divisive and counterproductive to the goal of a United Ireland.

Fianna Fáil: This should be considered as part of overall discussions and considerations.

Sinn Féin: That should be discussed by a Citizens’ Assembly.

Labour: It is too soon for any party to set down a fixed vision of appropriate institutions for political unity across Ireland. The whole point of having a broad, inclusive dialogue with all communities is to tease out some of these issues, not to prejudge the outcome of such dialogue.

People Before Profit: We do. There should be a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution for a 32 county Ireland. Beforehand there should be citizens assemblies held all over the country to have a democratic input into the making of this constitution. At such assemblies we will advocate new political structures which extend democracy by giving electors a right to re-call deputies who break their manifestos.

Green Party: The continuation of the Stormont Assembly is likely to be retained in any United Ireland. While the Green Party has not set out any specific set of constitutional reforms, using provincial assemblies as a model for regional government under a new remit is something this which could be considered under the principle of subsidiarity and strengthening democracy.

Irish Freedom Party: There would need to be a huge consultation process regarding the political structure. Our preference would be a federal Ireland with a bill of rights for all.

The National Party: The National Party would be open to considering political structural options such as a unitary or a federal state as part of prospective negotiations between north and south. However, the fundamental Irish nationalist demand of national independence and sovereignty for the entire island in one political entity must first be satisfied.

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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