The shadow Northern Secretary has said he would outline the criteria for a Border poll if it becomes likely the conditions set out in the Belfast Agreement would be met.
“If I become secretary of state and it is very clear those circumstances are emerging, I will set out in detail the criteria,” Peter Kyle told the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme. “I am not going to be a barrier if the circumstances emerge.”
However, Mr Kyle — who is the MP for Hove and Portslade — would not specify what these circumstances might be, and said they had been laid out in the Belfast Agreement.
According to the 1998 agreement, also known as the Good Friday agreement, the northern secretary shall call a Border poll “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.
The British government has not specified what this might mean in practice, despite repeated calls to set out the criteria which must be met if a Border poll is to be called.
Mr Kyle said that “if at any point it does appear likely, we will start to do what is set out in the treaty, which is organise a Border poll, but actually there is more to it than that. That is about a sustained majority in favour of a united Ireland.” He said this point had not been reached. “We’re not even in that circumstance yet.”
There were fresh calls for planning to begin for a unity referendum and for the UK government to set out the criteria for a Border poll following the publication of census results in Northern Ireland on Thursday, which showed Catholics now outnumber Protestants in the North for the first time since its creation.
Mr Kyle rejected this, saying said he did not think the question of a Border poll was impacted “by either the last election results which put Sinn Féin out on top or by the latest census results because it’s all spelt out there in the Good Friday agreement.
“The key thing is whether there is a majority for a united Ireland,” he said, adding that while there was a correlation between religious identity and the way people voted, “actually that critical aspect of when there is a clear majority is what is set out in the Good Friday agreement, that is a different thing altogether”.
Asked if he would support a fresh Assembly election if the North’s powersharing government is not restored by the end-of-October deadline, Mr Kyle backed the Northern Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, who has said he “probably” would call an election, as is required by law.
“Once we pass legislation and we set the rules for an election, then we really need to stick to those rules in all but extreme circumstances,” Mr Kyle said. “So yes, I really think we should.
“We have a small window of opportunity now — we have a new prime minister, a new secretary of state and we also have a new head of state.
“I think we’ve got a great opportunity to really seize the moment and move forward.”