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Irish unity: Polarised response to May ‘comment’ on Border poll

DUP says staying in union is ‘clearly best’ for North but Sinn Féin calls for voters to have their say

Comments attributed to British prime minister Theresa May’s about a Border poll are an admission that a referendum on Irish unity should be called, Sinn Féin has said. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Pool/EPA..

Comments attributed to British prime minister Theresa May’s about a Border poll are an admission that it is time for a referendum on Irish unity, Sinn Féin has said.

The Times on Tuesday reported an exchange between Ms May and Tory back bencher Jacob Rees-Mogg at a party meeting.

A source was quoted as saying Mr Rees-Mogg told those at the meeting he was in no doubt Northern Ireland would vote to remain in the UK in the event of a Border poll.

According to the source, Ms May replied: “I would not be as confident as you. That’s not a risk I’m prepared to take. We cannot be confident on the politics of that situation, on how it plays out.”

The Belfast Agreement says the Northern secretary shall 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”.

Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said if the reports were accurate, Ms May was “conceding that the Good Friday Agreement threshold for triggering a unity poll has been met”.

Ms O’Neill also said it was “entirely unacceptable” that Ms May had reportedly indicated that she intends to actively prevent that from happening.

‘Clearly best’

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP said “this story is based on speculation” and the union is “clearly best for everyone living, working or raising a family in Northern Ireland”.

He said Sinn Féin routinely failed to make a convincing arguments about removing Northern Ireland from the union and that a Border poll would be “divisive and not helpful in building a shared society”.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said his party was “committed to delivering a new inclusive Ireland but recognises that there remains a body of work to be done to persuade unionism”.

Mr Eastwood also said Ms May’s comments reflect the changing constitutional landscape facing these islands in the wake of Brexit.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann said “the union is secure and will grow stronger”.

“I am absolutely confident that the case for the union would carry the day comfortably in any border poll,” he said.

‘Priority’

Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry said while his party respects everyone’s constitutional aspiration, “the priority today must be to agree a special deal for Northern Ireland to mitigate the risks from Brexit and to achieve the maximum cross-community support for such a pragmatic way forward”.

Green Party leader Steven Agnew said all parties should “be focused on getting our devolved institutions back up and running so that we can tackle the crises in health and education”.

People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said there is a “growing appetite” for a conversation about a Border poll and what a united Ireland could look like.

TUV leader Jim Allister said he saw no indications that “anything approaching the statutory test” was being met”.

“People know what side there bread is buttered being part of the world’s fifth largest economy rather than joining an EU dependent Irish republic,” he said.