The UK government has “abandoned” the principle of rigorous impartiality and is “undermining” the Belfast Agreement with its pro-union stance, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader has said.
Colum Eastwood said the language in the command paper, Safeguarding the Union, which paved the way for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)’s return to powersharing, was “sneering towards North-South” relations and was “storing up problems” for the future.
“The process between the British government and the DUP [to restore Stormont] ignored everybody else,” he said. “If this is the approach of the British government now, where they’ve abandoned rigorous impartiality, where they’ve abandoned the principle of full inclusiveness in talks processes and where they kind of privatise a process to one party and one tradition, I think that goes against the spirit of the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement.
“The British government need to remember their role in the peace process,” he said. “They talk about the Good Friday Agreement but I don’t think they understand it very well, and just kind of abandoning that approach that has served us so well for so long is dangerous.”
The SDLP leader has written to the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, outlining his concerns and calling on the British government to “recommit to working the North-South institutions and working in close co-operation with the Irish Government”.
He has also written to the northern secretary asking him to correct the record after Chris Heaton-Harris said in the House of Commons that any change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland “would absolutely depend on the consent of both communities at the time”.
The condition laid down in the Belfast Agreement stipulates no requirement for cross-community consent, only the consent of a majority in a vote held on both sides of the Border.
In the command paper, the UK government outlined its view that on the basis of recent polling it saw “no realistic prospect of a Border poll leading to a united Ireland” and following the restoration of powersharing “Northern Ireland’s future in the UK will be secure for decades to come and as such the conditions for a Border poll are unlikely to be objectively met”.
“The people of Ireland, North and South, get to decide the future of this place,” Mr Eastwood said, emphasising that “the rest of us, who aren’t represented by the DUP, need to be respected and represented, and the Irish Government’s role needs to be respected”.
He said if it became clear through polling or other mechanisms that a change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland could happen, then the UK government “has a responsibility under international law” to call a referendum.
A 10-year timetable for a Border poll put forward by Sinn Féin is “realistic”, Mr Eastwood said. “My view is we wouldn’t want a Border poll tomorrow, but that’s very different from saying that will go on in perpetuity, because I do think post-Brexit we are moving in that direction.
“Someday polling will become pretty clear we’re getting close to that position, and you would have to hope they [the UK government] won’t stand in the way at that point, and I think what we would see would be legal cases if they did try and block it, and I think they would be successful.”