Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, wants to see a referendum on Irish unity by as early as 2016.
In an interview with the Irish Examiner, the Sinn Fein heavyweight argues that the “sensible timing” of such a vote would be sometime during the next session of Northern Ireland’s Assembly, sometime after 2015.
McGuinness argues that the vote would be on the question of:
“Whether or not the people of the Six Counties wish to retain the link with what is described as the United Kingdom, or be part of a united Ireland.”
“I don’t see any reason whatsoever why that should not be considered”
McGuinness also believes Sinn Fein’s power-sharing partners, the DUP, will support such a move.
Last November, first minister Peter Robinson, leader of the Democratic Unionists, conceded that he may be the last Protestant first minister, with Northern Ireland’s in-built Protestant, unionist majority steadily whittling away through demographic change.
However he argued that the Irish Republic’s recent economic woes were “not appetising” for nationalist voters:
“I think the more stable our structure, the more peaceful Northern Ireland is, the more it works as part of the UK, then the more people will think, ‘Why on earth would we change?’”
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the decision whether to call a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status rests with the secretary of state.
“I think, in all probability, the people who have got the power to put that in place won’t even contemplate it this side of the next Assembly elections, which conceivably could be 2015 or 2016.”
Although 53 per cent of Northern Ireland’s population identified themselves as Protestant in the 2001 census, a recent study showed that when asked to state their religion, 54 per cent of boys and 55 per cent of girls in Northern Ireland described themselves as Catholic. Moreover, 49 per cent of Northern Irish students were Catholics, while only 35 per cent were Protestants.
Although the broad assumption remains that Catholics want a united Ireland, while Protestants prefer to remain part of the UK, McGuinness argues this view is now “too sectarian”.
As the British state already faces the real prospect of Scottish independence in 2014, its oldest and most persistent secessionist issue – Ireland – looks set to come back into focus once more.
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