Fine Gael TD says Government should establish Irish unity committee

Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill demands clarity on criteria for calling poll on unification

The Government should establish an Oireachtas committee on Irish unity to prepare for a possible Border poll, Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond told an Ireland’s Future event at Westminster on Wednesday evening.

He told the event, at which representatives of Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance also spoke, that a poll could conceivably be held in the next decade.

"Brexit has fundamentally changed the tone of debate when it comes to Irish unity and the fact that this British government has chosen to pursue the hardest possible form of Brexit has put in stark context the divisions that exist across these islands," Mr Richmond said.

“It is now very conceivable that a British secretary of state for Northern Ireland could call a Border poll on Irish unity within the next decade. It is therefore the Irish Government’s duty to ensure that we are as best prepared as possible to meet the challenge of such a Referendum.”

Separately, Sinn Féin’s Northern leader Michelle O’Neill said the public should be given clarity on the criteria for calling a poll on Irish unification.

The party’s vice president said there was a need to fill in what she called the “grey” area of the Belfast Agreement on the circumstances for holding a referendum on constitutional change.

Triggered

Under the terms of the 1998 agreement, a vote should be triggered if the Northern secretary believes that it appears likely that a majority would back constitutional change.

There is very little additional information in the public domain as to what evidence the Northern secretary is obliged to rely on to inform this decision.

Speaking to reporters in Belfast on Wednesday, Ms O’Neill said: “There is a need for clarity, we should always have clarity.

“We should know what are circumstances in which a unity referendum will be called. I think that would be really important for the public to understand what we’re working towards.”

Meanwhile, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern warned there was a two-month opportunity for the EU and UK to engage in intense negotiations to resolve their dispute over the protocol.

Mr Ahern said there was a risk that, if issues were not resolved before summer and ahead of the British political party conferences in autumn, tensions between London and Brussels could escalate to initial retaliatory measures and a possible EU-UK trade war.

“If there isn’t real engagement on the real hard detail to crack these nuts before the summer, then you could well potentially be into a trade war,” he said. – Additional reporting PA