Border poll: Peter Robinson says ‘battle for the union is on’

Sammy Wilson says ex-DUP chief wrong to urge unionists to prepare for North’s possible UK exit

Former Northern Ireland first minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire.

Former Northern Ireland first minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire.

 

Unionists who maintain that a vote on a united Ireland should not be discussed are talking “claptrap” as the “battle for the union is on”, former Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson has said.

Mr Robinson has been criticised since telling the MacGill Summer School last week that he did not think the North would vote to leave the UK in a Border poll but it was no reason not to prepare for the eventuality.

“I don’t expect my own house to burn down but I still insure it because it could happen,” he said.

The Belfast Agreement states that the Northern Ireland secretary can exercise the power to direct the holding of a Border poll “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.

Mr Robinson and DUP MP for East Antrim Sammy Wilson have clashed since, with Mr Wilson accusing his former party leader of giving encouragement to the republican cause by even countenancing the possibility of a vote.

While not mentioning Mr Wilson by name in a Belfast Telegraph opinion piece, Mr Robinson insisted the “battle for the union” was on, whether fellow unionists liked it or not.

“Not only are they advising us not to talk about a Border poll, but they don’t want us to even talk about the subject matter at the heart of such a poll,” he wrote.

‘Chloroformed’

“Do they not realise that the battle is raging? We live in a society divided by identity, so to some extent the union is always under fire. But surely, nobody could be so chloroformed that they don’t recognise that the opponents of the union are charging our lines like seldom before.”

Responding to Mr Robinson’s article, Mr Wilson described him as a “formidable advocate” for the union, but said on the issue of a poll he was “just plain wrong”.

“It is not enough to say that a referendum is coming, so prepare the terms in case we lose,” he said. “Churchill knew that the Nazis were coming after Britain when they defeated France in 1940 but he didn’t prepare terms for the event of a successful invasion, he rallied the people by telling them to prepare to fight on the beaches and in laneways and in the street and to never surrender.

“That’s a far better strategy and that is what I am hearing from unionists who I speak to and who are alarmed at the talk of an inevitable referendum and the possibility of losing it.”

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald was this week criticised over a U-turn on holding a Border poll. On Monday she said the question should be put to one side until the “dangers” posed by Brexit are mitigated but on Tuesday she said in the event of a hard Brexit next year, the British government would have to allow for the vote.