Taoiseach pushes back against calls in US for referendum on Irish unity

Martin stressed importance of reconciliation ahead of meeting Biden on Wednesday

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has stressed the importance of reconciliation as he pushed back against recent calls in the United States for a referendum on Irish unity.

Speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington ahead of his meeting with President Joe Biden on Wednesday, Mr Martin highlighted the work of the Government's Shared Island initiative, noting the need to achieve reconciliation in the North.

He said that the discussions that took place around Irish unity immediately after Brexit were “a mistake.”

“I think it is divisive and puts people back into trenches too early. My view is that I want to develop a shared dialogue, irrespective of one’s constitutional preferences.”

Though no mention of Sinn Féin was made during the discussion, audience questions at the event focused heavily on the question of Irish unity. It follows a high-profile ad campaign by Friends of Ireland Sinn Féin last week calling for the Irish and British governments to set a date for a border poll.

Mr Martin said that the objective of the Shared Ireland initiative was to build "consensus" and "unity of purpose, noting that the Irish government wanted to work with the Northern Ireland assembly and the British government "to face the problems we face together on the island."

He said he was very taken by the late Seamus Mallon’s approach, noting how the SDLP leader talked about living alongside neighbours from the Protestant Unionist tradition whose family had been there for four hundred years, leading him to remark: “it’s about time we learned to share this patch of ground.”

“I think we have a bit of distance to go before we achieve that,” said Mr Martin.

On the recent moves by Britain to postpone action on the Northern Irish protocol, prompting legal action from Brussels, Mr Martin said the moves exacerbated "uncertainty and instability; two things Northern Ireland can well do without."

“Unilateral action to disapply or not to implement aspects of the Protocol does nothing but corrode trust, the only basis on which sustainable long-term solutions can be found,” he said.

He also called for Britain, Ireland, and the European Union to work constructively with the US administration, noting that all have shared values and perspectives.

Trade deal

While noting that Britain is entitled to sign a trade deal with the United States, “obviously we want the UK to work with the European Union to safeguard and to underpin the Withdrawal Agreement and Brexit trade agreement that has been arrived at with the European Union – particularly in terms of its application to the island of Ireland and to Northern Ireland as well,” he said.

Speaking later at the launch of a new book on the Kennedy legacy, organised by the Kennedy Institute in Massachusetts and the Kennedy Summer School, Mr Martin said that he was ultimately optimistic about the Brexit situation. But he warned: “unilateralism will not work. It erodes trust.”

Among the participants at the event were Congressman Richard Neal, former ambassador and incoming head of USAid Samantha Power and former congressman Joe Kennedy III.

Mr Neal, the co-chair of the Friends of Ireland caucus, again reiterated his warning that a future UK-US trade deal was dependent on adhering to the Belfast Agreement. Noting the recent "series of changes that have been arbitrarily embraced by the UK," as regards the implementation of the Brexit deal, he said: "We continue to monitor that activity. I must tell you the fortitude with which we've approached this is going to remain."

On Monday the White House reiterated President Biden’s support for the Good Friday Agreement in light of the recent tensions between Brussels and London over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.

Asked about the news that the EU had launched legal action against the UK over Brexit, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said:

“We continue to encourage both the European Union and the UK government to prioritize pragmatic solutions to safeguard and advance the hard won peace in Northern Ireland.”

“President Biden has been unequivocal in his support for the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. This agreement has been the bedrock of peace, stability and prosperity for all the people of Northern Ireland,” she added. “We also welcome cooperation between our British and Irish counterparts on the Northern Irish protocol.”

The recent Brexit developments are likely to feature during Wednesday's meeting between the Taoiseach and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, amid renewed focus in Washington on Brexit's destabilising impact on Northern Ireland.

The US Senate is expected to unveil as early as today a resolution underlining support for the Belfast Agreement.

Britain has argued that the move to delay the introduction of checks was needed to keep goods on shelves in Northern Ireland. However, the EU is now preparing legal action against the UK for breaking the terms of the Brexit agreement, which required the checks to be introduced by April 1st.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent