Mary Lou McDonald expects vote on Irish unity ‘this decade’

Ms McDonald’s comments echo earlier remarks from Michelle O’Neill, who said we are entering a ‘decade of opportunity’

A referendum on Irish unity can be expected “in this decade” and the Government needs to “clear the democratic space” to allow a national “conversation” on unification, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald has said.

Speaking on RTÉ radio’s This Week programme on Sunday she said the issue was “live”, the “conversation” was “under way” and the opportunities that reunification would bring were “immense”. Her comments echo similar remarks made by new First Minister Michelle O’Neill in an interview with Sky News on Sunday morning.

The Sinn Féin vice-president became the first nationalist to assume the post of First Minister during a historic sitting of the Stormont Assembly on Saturday, which has returned following two years of political deadlock. Ms O’Neill also said she expects a vote on Irish unity to take place in the next decade, describing it as a “decade of opportunity”.

Ms McDonald said the restoration of powersharing in Stormont was a “matter of great relief”, because “the bread and butter, the day-to-day issues have to be tackled”.


She continued: “I sensed yesterday ... a great sense of purpose by everyone who showed up to make all of this work.”

The appointment of Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill as Northern Ireland First Minister was “hugely, historically significant” particularly as “the Northern state was specifically engineered to ensure someone like Michelle O’Neill would never, ever darken the office of First Minister ... such is the level of change and progress that has come to past.

“For me, it is a matter of great joy for nationalists and republicans for people who grew up in a very, very discriminatory environment .. For society more generally it’s a statement of equality that no office, including the highest office in the land, is beyond the reach of anyone. I think that’s wonderful.

“As to the Irish unity question, the conversation is now under way ... This question is live ... preparation for Constitutional transition and change needs to be under way and it needs to be led by the Government in Dublin.”

There would be “no singular event” that would bring Irish unity, bar a referendum as provided for in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Asked when she envisaged a referendum, she said: “In this decade ... This is a decade of opportunity. I think the opportunities afforded to this island in reunification are immense. They could not be overstated.

“But we are going to have to manage the process. I think responsible leadership, responsible political leadership would be at that now. I think the [Irish] Government’s Shared Island unit is a useful device ... but it’s not enough. We now need active planning and the Government in Dublin needs to clear the democratic space for this inclusive conversation to happen. I think people will be amazed and surprised by the level of common cause and common ground that exists.”

Ms McDonald said it should not surprise anyone that the Democratic Unionist Party has emphasised the strength of the union with Great Britain this weekend.

“The provisions for the union or the ending of the union are contained in the Good Friday Agreement and the 1998 Act, and that is in not changed by any deal between DUP and the British Government. That remains the rule book and what it means, and this is probably the great genius of Good Friday Agreement, is that on the one hand we work together constructively and energetically to face the here-and-now issues in our economy, the health service, in housing.

“But equally those of an Irish unity perspective and those of a unionist perspective can articulate, advocate and work for those positions. But the rule book is and remains the Good Friday Agreement in which this question will be adjudicated by means of referendums and a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one either maintains the union or brings that situation to an end.”

The issues of the tricolour and the Irish national anthem, she continued, were not top of unionists’ agenda when Irish unity was raised, she said.

“The single biggest issue that unionists in particular raise with me is not about flags and emblems or identity, important as they are, it’s actually around the health services. That’s the single, consistently big issue. And increasingly around pensions and where that might sit.

“When I talk about common ground, let’s start from the place where we have most agreement which is: we want decent, accessible health services, we want an economy, an economic model and prosperity that can fund decent public services, we want quality jobs and above all else we want the best opportunities and future for our young people and our children.”

Pressed on whether nationalists would have to show willingness to compromise on flags and a national anthem she said: “Yes, but we come to the table firstly as republicans. We all have to accept our starting points. People will bring their views. We have to be prepared to talk about everything ... That’s the great beauty of democratic dialogue.”

Speaking on Sky News earlier on Sunday, Northern Ireland’s new First Minister Michelle O’Neill has said she expects a vote on Irish unity to take place in the next decade.

Gillian Keegan, the UK secretary for education, said she did not want to speculate on the comments by Ms O’Neill, who described it as the “decade of opportunity”.

Ms O’Neill said change could “benefit us all” in Northern Ireland.

“I believe also equally that we can do two things at once; we can have powersharing, we can make it stable, we can work together every day in terms of public services while we also pursue our equally legitimate aspirations.”

Asked if this meant there would be a unity referendum in the next decade, Ms O’Neill said: “Yes. I believe we are in a decade of opportunity and there are so many things that are changing.

“All the old norms, the nature of this estate, the fact that a nationalist/republican was never supposed to be First Minister.

“This all speaks to that change.”

Ms Keegan told the programme it was “fantastic” to see Stormont back up and running.

Asked about the unity comments, she said: “I don’t want to speculate on that.”

Under the Belfast Agreement, the power to call a Border poll rests with the Northern Ireland Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris.

Meanwhile, the SDLP has suspended the Laois GAA football manager Justin McNulty after he left a sitting of the Northern Assembly “without permission” to attend a GAA match.

Mr McNulty, who was elected as an Assembly member for Newry and Armagh in May 2022, was at Stormont for the restoration of the North’s political institutions on Saturday, but left before his party colleague Matthew O’Toole was appointed as leader of the Opposition.

Instead, he drove to Wexford and was on the sidelines for the county’s Division Four match against Laois at 6pm.

An SDLP spokesman confirmed it suspended the whip from Mr McNulty on Saturday evening.

“All SDLP MLAs were informed by the party’s chief whip that attendance at today’s sitting was mandatory for the duration of the Assembly proceedings.

“This was a historic day that saw the restoration of devolved Government, the election of the first nationalist First Minister and Leader of the Opposition. People rightly expect their elected representatives to be there for work,” the spokesman said.

“We expected all members of our team to be there to support their colleagues.

“Accordingly, as Mr McNulty was not in his place, did not seek the permission for his absence and breached the direct instruction of the whip, the SDLP chief whip has suspended the whip with immediate effect.”

– Additional reporting: PA

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Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times