Taoiseach criticises Sinn Féin’s ‘over-focus’ on Border poll

Taoiseach seeks ‘practical’ co-operation and intends to ‘rejuvenate’ North-South relations

  Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he would take a ‘pragmatic’ approach and seek to promote ‘practical’ co-operation between North and South. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he would take a ‘pragmatic’ approach and seek to promote ‘practical’ co-operation between North and South. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

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Taoiseach Micheál Martin is to travel to Northern Ireland on Thursday to meet First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, as the new Government sets out to “rejuvenate” North-South relations, officials said.

Mr Martin told The Irish Times he would take a “pragmatic” approach and seek to promote “practical” co-operation between North and South and would not be pushing the British government for a Border poll.

He said there were “two different philosophies and two approaches at work – one is just have a Border poll and get a majority, but mine is much more rooted in the Good Friday Agreement ... a consensus approach”.

Earlier, answering his first series of questions as Taoiseach in the Dáil, he told Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald: “I do not believe that precipitating or organising a referendum immediately is the way to go. That was the Sinn Féin position since Brexit happened, although it has come back a bit from that.

‘Consensus approach’

“The over-focus on the Border poll was too divisive and too partisan and ran counter to what Sinn Féin wanted to achieve. That is my view. I favour a different approach. For example, I favour a stronger North-South dimension now.”

He said Ms McDonald wanted to adopt “a more territorial, majoritarian approach whereas I prefer to develop a more consensus approach”.

In exchanges which made clear the divide between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin on the issue, Ms McDonald said Brexit and coronavirus had “reshaped how people think and talk about reunification”.

“Both of these crises have shown very dramatically the danger and jeopardy of the Border on our island. No longer is Irish unity discussed only in aspirational terms, it is now increasingly regarded as a common sense approach and essential to the prosperity of all of our people.

“I say that because growing our green economy requires an all-Ireland approach. Protecting and building public health services and protecting public health itself requires an all-Ireland approach, as does strengthening our agricultural sector and defending rural Ireland. All of these things must be all-Ireland in nature,” she said.

Ms McDonald was critical that the new “Shared Island” unit which has been set up in the Department of the Taoiseach will not be tasked with promoting constitutional change.

“Will he establish an Oireachtas joint committee on Irish unity?” she asked. “Will he convene an all-island representative Citizens’ Assembly, or such an appropriate forum, to discuss and plan for constitutional change? Will he initiate the process for a referendum and get clarity on what the thresholds for triggering such a referendum might be?”

Reconciliation

Mr Martin said the Sinn Féin leader “has adopted a certain partisan approach to this issue”.

“The agenda for the future on this island is how we engineer and develop an accommodation where we can all live in peace, harmony and reconciliation on the island and not to, at the outset, try to dictate to one tradition or one group what the solution is going to be, which seems to be the agenda the deputy is pursuing,” he said.

Mr Martin has already spoken to Ms Foster and Ms O’Neill by phone, and officials have been working on setting up the meeting with the Stormont administration since he became Taoiseach more than a week ago. He told The Irish Times that he expected to discuss shared priorities on combatting the virus, including the potential use of the HSE’s coronavirus tracing app, some joint infrastructure projects, Brexit and other issues. He will also meet the leaders of the North’s other parties.

Officials will also seek to arrange an autumn meeting of the North-South ministerial council, one of the bodies set up under the Belfast Agreement, the first since 2016.