There is “no clear basis to suggest that a majority of people in Northern Ireland presently wish to separate from the United Kingdom”, the UK government has said.
The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) was responding to comments by the shadow northern secretary Peter Kyle, who said on Sunday he would outline the criteria for a Border poll if it became likely the conditions outlined 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,” Mr Kyle told the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme. “I am not going to be a barrier if the circumstances emerge.”
Speaking from the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, Mr Kyle declined to give any further detail as to what those circumstances might be but said that point had not been reached. “We’re not even in that circumstance yet,” he said.
In a statement to The Irish Times on Sunday night, a spokesman for the NIO said that “in accordance with the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement and the principle of consent, Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK for as long as its people wish for it to be. The overwhelming consensus is that Northern Ireland needs a strong Executive to deliver on the issues that really matter — health, jobs, the cost of living, education — and that is our full focus. There is no clear basis to suggest that a majority of people in Northern Ireland presently wish to separate from the United Kingdom.”
According to the 1998 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 UK 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.
On Sunday, Mr Kyle’s comments drew criticism from unionist politicians, who said they were “divisive” and “unhelpful”.
“Rather than engaging in Sinn Féin speak or divisive Border poll talk, the shadow NI secretary Peter Kyle should focus on removing the [Northern Ireland] protocol which has damaged east-west relations and utterly undermined devolution,” said DUP MP Gavin Robinson.
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said the priority should be the cost-of-living crisis, Northern Ireland protocol and creating political stability, and he had contacted the shadow Northern Secretary to express his concern.
“Regrettably Peter Kyle`s comments are a distraction from that and draw political focus away from those immediate challenges. They are unhelpful and ill-timed,” he said.
Last week there were further calls to begin planning for a unity referendum and for the UK government to set out the criteria for a Border poll following the publication of census results which showed Catholics now outnumber Protestants in the North for the first time since its creation.