Border poll ‘should not be now’, Harris tells debate in Belfast

Minister for Health takes part in NI ‘Leaders’ Debate’

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald told those present at the Leaders’ Debate in Belfast that she wanted a border poll ‘to happen as soon as’. File photograph:  PA  Wire

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald told those present at the Leaders’ Debate in Belfast that she wanted a border poll ‘to happen as soon as’. File photograph: PA Wire

 

Brexit is not a time to further divide the people of Northern Ireland with a Border poll, Minister for Health Simon Harris has said at a debate in west Belfast.

On Tuesday evening at the Féile an Phobail ‘Leaders’ Debate,’ Mr Harris said a border poll should “should not be now”.

He also said we should be “learning from the Brexit referendum”.

“Brexit is not a time to further divide the people of Northern Ireland,” Mr Harris said.

Chaired by BBC journalist Mark Carruthers in St Mary’s University College, panellists at the debate were Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald TD; SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MLA; UUP leader Robin Swann MLA; Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry MLA. Mr Harris also participated along Fianna Fáil TD and Brexit spokeswoman Lisa Chambers and DUP MLA Simon Hamilton.

They discussed a range of topics including restoring Stormont, equality issues, Irish unity and Brexit in front of an audience of around 400 people.

Mr Harris repeated the Government promise that Northern people “will never be left behind again”, and that the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement would be protected in all its parts.

He said the Government wants the Stormont Assembly established and highlighted the focus on the equality agenda in the North.

On a Border poll, Ms McDonald said she wants it to be won “well”.

She urged unionism to “find its voice in that discussion” and that Irish unity “needs to be seen as an opportunity”.

“I want it to happen as soon as,” she said.

Unity

Ms Chambers said Brexit, and developing and maintaining peace and prosperity for all citizens, should be “everyone’s top priority”.

“We are not ready for that poll yet,” she said.

She spoke of wanting Irish unity, protecting the Good Friday Agreement and people needing to know the practicalities of a New Ireland.

“People need to know what they are voting for,” she said.

Mr Eastwood said if people keep calling for a Border poll but do not work out how it can be won “we are in serious trouble”.

Unsurprisingly the unionists on the panels did not think a Border poll should be called.

Mr Hamilton said a Border poll would be “destabilising” and “isn’t going to help the wounds of society or move toward a genuine shared future”.

He referenced the supposed u-turn Ms McDonald made last week on when a Border poll should be called, suggesting she had changed her mind on it after “Northern command got hold of you”.

Ms McDonald rejected the idea she was controlled by “hard men” in West Belfast.

“Where are you? I’d like to meet you,” she said to the audience.

On criticism of her saying “Tiocfaidh ár lá” in an ardfheis speech she said this did not “carry menace”.

“It is my firm belief that our day will come,” she said.

Mr Hamilton said rather than just saying it “Sinn Féin has to demonstrate that British unity is respected”.

Irish language rights

The panel also spoke of their belief that Stormont can be restored, but there was no consensus on when this can happen.

“We would go back up to Stormont in the morning,” Mr Hamilton said.

He added: “Bring the issues to the floor of the Assembly.”

The event chair highlighted there was a deal on the table in February around Irish language rights and other issues but Mr Hamilton said it was not “fair and balanced”.

He said “significant but not sufficient progress” had been made.

Mr Farry said the deal had been “balanced and achieved”.

Ms McDonald rejected the DUP idea Sinn Féin was holding up restoration of Stormont.

She said the idea to “go back in, cross our fingers and hope for the best” meant there would be no Irish language act or same sex marriage. She said the February deal was “sufficient to move forward”.

“We have been more than reasonable,” she said.

“We did in fact come to an accommodation but for whatever reason the DUP could not bring that over the line.”

She said people want “real power sharing” and there would be no diminution of the February deal.

“The DUP need to understand it is not Sinn Féin holding out. These are issues of rights.”

Ms McDonald also referenced the 50,000 people on the streets of Belfast for the Pride parade at the weekend, where civil marriage equality for the LGBT was called for, again.

“This is 2018 folks, not the 1600s, and the DUP need to join us - and that is how to get the institutions up and running.”