Government figures have criticised Sinn Féin’s call to set a date for an Irish unity referendum in a series of US newspapers ads as it seeks to capitalise on Irish-American support for a border poll.
Friends of Sinn Féin USA paid for half-page ads in the Washington Post and New York Times and full-page ads in Irish-American publications under the heading ‘A United Ireland - Let the people have their say’.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told RTÉ he had no objection to running ads in the US in support of Irish reunification as “it’s a legitimate aspiration, one that I share”.
However, he said Sinn Féin was “an obstacle to Irish unity”, noting the party’s hostile relationship to unionism and branding the party “sectarian” and “very anti-British”. He later corrected his claim that the party has no Protestant representatives, after Clare TD Violet-Anne Wynne noted that she is Protestant.
Former minister for foreign affairs Charlie Flanagan said calls to set a date for a border poll were “divisive and provocative”.
Mark Guilfoyle, president of Friends of Sinn Féin USA, said the group was “very gratified” to have five other Irish-American groups sign on to its advert.
“That is a testament to the fact that the debate on a unity referendum is no longer a whispered conversation in America,” he said, referring to the support given by Irish-American groups like the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
“It really is a democratic imperative and I think the central point of the ad is that it is high time for the Irish government to plan for and promote Irish unity.”
The timing of the publication was to coincide with St Patrick’s Day “when Irish affairs come into focus” in the US, he said, adding that support for Irish unity in the US was “palpable and truly bipartisan.”
He declined to say how much the advertising campaign had cost Friends of Sinn Féin USA because it was still fundraising and awaiting final bills.
The full details on the expenditure in the campaign would be reported in the group’s next biannual filing to the US Department of Justice as part of its legal requirements as a foreign agent of Sinn Féin in the US. Latest filings with the US government showed Friends of Sinn Féin raised $295,000 (€262,000) in the six-month period to April last year - the vast majority of which came from an annual fundraising dinner held each November.
Meanwhile, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and EU commissioner Marco Sefcovic have briefed more than a dozen members of Congress on the latest Brexit developments, and concerns about Britain’s move to delay implementation of a key part of the Northern Ireland protocol.
Speaking after the briefing, Mr Coveney said it was an opportunity to take stock of recent developments in Northern Ireland “and the UK’s unilateral move on implementation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland”.
Thanking the Friends of Ireland caucus for their engagement with the issue and commitment to the Belfast agreement, he said: “We have consistently said that we want the protocol to work for Northern Ireland and for the island as a whole in as smooth a manner as possible.
“Sustainable measures on issues around the Protocol are only possible with the UK working in cooperation with the EU.”