A senior member of the Democratic Unionist Party has sought to call Sinn Fein’s bluff by suggesting a poll on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future could prove to be the best thing for the union.
Amidst Sinn Fein’s call for a border poll, the DUP enterprise minister, Arlene Foster, has told the Stephen Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster that, following discussions held with first minister Peter Robinson, she believed a referendum could prove to be the best thing to consolidate Northern Ireland’s position with the union.
Declaring it would end the “instability” being caused by Sinn Fein she explained:
“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’.”
In welcoming the decision, Sinn Fein MLA Mitchel McLaughlin argued Foster’s remarks:
“…should now create the space for and provoke clear, radical and open debate in regards to the social, economic and political benefits of a united Ireland.”
The sentiments, however, are not shared by the governments in both Westminster and Dublin.
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the decision over whether to call a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status rests with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Within this context, the current incumbent, Theresa Villiers, has made clear her objections to holding a vote.
In concluding it would be too much of a distraction, a spokesman for the minister explained:
“Given the state of opinion in Northern Ireland, which is clearly expressed in election results and opinion polls, the government has no present plans to call such a poll.
“We believe that political attention is really better focused elsewhere. It is crucial that political leaders here concentrate on working together on pressing economic and social issues, including the rebalancing of the NI economy and building a genuinely shared society, rather than being diverted into divisive constitutional debates.”
The sentiments are shared by Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny who, when questioned by Gerry Adams in the Dail, argued now is not the right time to carry out a border poll.
Writing on his blog, BBC Northern Ireland’s political editor Mark Devenport writes that, whilst support for a poll is not yet official DUP policy, many within the party feel it could serve to unite unionists around a common cause.
Noting such a vote would not be without its risks for the party, he concludes:
“The four-day turn around in DUP thinking remains puzzling. The fact they haven’t made a decision emphasises that holding a border poll wouldn’t be without its risks.
“But a border poll might boost voter registration in unionist areas – a concern raised at recent unionist forum meetings. It might also unite unionism around a campaign, rather than having different shades of unionism and loyalism at loggerheads over the union flag.
“Both flag poles and border polls are about national identity, but some unionists might find a referendum easier to handle than the running battles of recent weeks.”