Former UK prime minister Sir John Major said there is a case for asking the British government to set out the precise terms that would have to be met for it to call a Border poll in the North.
Speaking at the Irish embassy in Belgravia in London on Wednesday evening, he also said it would be “prudent” for the British and Irish governments to propose changes to the Belfast Agreement to prevent any one party in Northern Ireland from collapsing the Stormont Assembly.
Mr Major was at the embassy to give a speech on the Northern Ireland peace process as part of Trinity College Dublin’s Henry Grattan lecture series.
Interviewed onstage afterwards by Guardian journalist Rory Carroll, the former prime minister said it is a “credible demand” from republicans who want Britain to lay out the terms for a Border poll, which under the Belfast Agreement can be called at the discretion of the UK government. He said it should only happen after negotiations between the British and Irish governments.
He suggested, however, the prospect of proponents of a united Ireland winning a Border poll is “further away than you think” and it might be “unwise” for republicans to force one now, if they want to win it.
“I don’t think I would rush it at the moment,” he said, stressing that personally he wants the North to remain part of the UK.
In a reference to the current political impasse in the North where the Democratic Unionist Party is refusing to re-enter Stormont, he suggested the two governments should consider making “tweaks” to the Belfast Agreement and its implementing legislation.
The changes should aim “to protect the Executive and Assembly from being collapsed if one party fails to take up its responsibility”.
Mr Major said “democracy falls away” if any one party is allowed to hold up the implementation of devolved government in the North.
“Such an interregnum is harmful to Northern Ireland and needs to come to an end as swiftly as possible,” he said.
The former prime minister predicted the current impasse, which was sparked by the DUP’s opposition to post-Brexit trading arrangements with the European Union, “will be solved before September”, when the UK government is due to host an investment summit for the North.
“If the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive are not working [by then], there is a fair chance that many of the people won’t come to that conference and Northern Ireland will lose out,” he said, adding he believed this would help the various parties to focus on finding solutions.