Coveney says ‘mature debate’ needed on constitutional settlement for Ireland

Tánaiste cautions against immediate Border poll against backdrop of Brexit and efforts to restore Stormont assembly

Simon Coveney: he said a Border poll in the immediate future would lead to “fear and anxiety and stress”

Simon Coveney: he said a Border poll in the immediate future would lead to “fear and anxiety and stress”


Tánaiste Simon Coveney says he would like to take on the challenge of leading “discussions that need to be had” about the future constitutional settlement across the island of Ireland after the next election.

However, he cautioned against immediate moves towards a Border poll on a united Ireland as advocated by Sinn Féin.

The Cork South Central TD said a poll in the immediate future, against a backdrop of Brexit and efforts to restore the Stormont assembly and executive, would lead to “fear and anxiety and stress”.

“But there’s no question that Ireland has to have a mature debate as an island, North and South, about what the future holds, and how we can reassure communities in the context of that future, both nationalist and unionist, and, of course, the increasing number who don’t categorise themselves as either,” he said in an interview with The Irish Times.

“We need to try to design ways in which we can do that in a way that unionism is comfortable with, as well as nationalism.

“I don’t shy away from that discussion. But I think trying to do that the same time as closing out the first phase of Brexit negotiations and trying to get devolved government functioning again, it’s too heavy a lift, and I think it’ll alienate if we try to do too much too quickly.”

He also said we need to try to find a way of creating some steady government in Northern Ireland, rebuild relationships, and then try to have the discussions that need to be had.

Outstanding issues

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald has said outstanding issues blocking the restoration of the North’s power-sharing assembly “can be resolved”.

In a new year’s message Ms McDonald said the choice was “agreement or elections”, but the “current situation cannot continue”.

Political talks aimed at restoring the North’s devolved government at Stormont are due to resume on Thursday. They broke up without agreement before Christmas, with both the Northern Secretary Julian Smith and Mr Coveney blaming the DUP for the failure to do a deal before the holiday.

Northern Ireland is approaching the third anniversary, in January 2020, of the collapse of the assembly following a scandal over a botched renewable heating scheme.

The outstanding issues are said by all parties to be “on the margins”, and relate to matters such as an Irish language Act, the sustainability of any reformed Stormont, and reform of the petition of concern – a vetoing system that allows parties which have 30 signatures to block motions even if these motions have majority support.

If the parties are unable to reach agreement by January 13th the Northern Secretary has said he must call fresh assembly elections.

Full role

DUP MP Gregory Campbell said that “for our part, we will play our full role in securing ministerial-led government in Northern Ireland”.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the parties must be prepared to “compromise”. Later this week, he said, “after months of talking about partnership and compromise in TV debates and newspaper articles, political leaders have the opportunity to show that it wasn’t just talk”.

“With less than two weeks to secure a resolution, all parties must be prepared to stretch themselves in the substantial common interests of all our communities.”

Ms McDonald also called on the British government to set out its criteria for a referendum on the future constitutional position of the North.

In a new year message Mr Campbell said the general election results had been “seized upon by some in declaring that for the first time there are more nationalist MPs than unionist MPs elected”.

“This disguises the more fundamental point that while some Irish republicans go into a frenzy about demographic change bringing with it the so-called ‘inevitability’ of a united Ireland, they have avoided actual election results which show nothing like that outcome.

“Support for those parties that advocate a united Ireland is less now than it was when I was elected in 2001. The much-vaunted ‘demographic change’ that republicans repeat ad nauseam has worsened their chances, not improved them.”