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Are we any closer to a border poll?

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams delivering a speech in Dublin in 2013 calling on the Irish and British governments to set a date for a border poll
Gareth McKeown

Following the landmark vote to leave the European Union last June Sinn Féin used the period of political instability to press the case for a border poll.

With almost 56 per cent in the north against Brexit the disparity prompted a renewed call for a vote on a united Ireland. While the proposal was ultimately rejected by both the British and Irish governments the issue was put on the table and now following a resurgence in the nationalist vote a border poll is once again back on the agenda.

The authority to call a border poll rests with Secretary of State James Brokenshire, who shall exercise the power "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".

Last June Theresa Villiers said this bar had not been met, but as political commentator Brian Feeney notes that is not an essential prerequisite.

"It doesn’t say he shall only call a border poll in these circumstances. The Secretary of State has the power to call a border poll at any time," he said.

Whether Mr Brokenshire does so is another matter entirely and it would be expected he will adopt the position of his predecessor.

As we have learnt with the Scottish independence vote of 2014 the road to a referendum is not travelled overnight. The 670 page government white paper 'Scotland's Future' is testament to that.

Sinn Féin are not in a position to produce such a document at present, but in raising the prospect of a border poll they are encouraging debate on issues that would form the basis of the paper.

What will my pension be? Will I have to pay a hundred Euro to go to A&E? How much will my children have to pay for university? Big issues and small steps towards Sinn Féin's ultimate goal.

When asked for the current party position on a border poll Sinn Féin said "Ireland would be better served by a single economy rather than two competing economies and that Irish people are disadvantaged by the duplication and disjointed nature of services North and South."

The lengthy statement ends: "It is vital that an open, inclusive and fully- informed discussion on the future of Ireland and involving everyone -begins now." In layman's terms - talk now, united Ireland later.

The Brexit negotiations are another key component of the argument for Irish unity and the Sinn Féin promise that a new united Ireland would include the right of people to remain within the EU, is one that could be significant given the Secretary of State's assertion there will be no special status for Northern Ireland.

"By 2021 after Britain has left Europe and the funding from Europe has stopped and Britain stops replacing it the question whether you’re better in a united Ireland or in an impoverished area outside the EU is going to be unanswerable. The damage to farming will be absolutely catastrophic," Mr Feeney warned

"I don’t think they will get it in the next year or two, but what they want to do is get it on the agenda and start discussing what it means and they want to get an Irish government interested in it, but time flies and two years from now Britain will be out of the EU and people will see what the effects are."

The other parties at Stormont in the most part do not believe that now is the right time for a border poll to take place, nor do they feel there is a credible threat to the established order.

In opposition the DUP has said a poll would have a "destabilising effect" and its focus was getting the Assembly back up and running. For their part the UUP said it was confident the union was secure.

"Whilst we do not fear a Border poll, we do not believe one is necessary either," MLA Robin Swann said

"We see no reason why we should leave the sixth largest economy on the planet, or break our long-standing ties of kinship with Great Britain."

Alliance has said a border poll serves no purpose other than to "polarise" the community, while the Green Party has said “It’s not the right time to consider a border poll".The only Independent unionist at Stormont Claire Sugden said any talk of a border poll was "premature".

It may not happen in the immediate future, but if last week's Assembly election result is anything to go by Sinn Féín can successfully mobilise the nationalist and republican vote. If we see the predicted "catastrophic" damage to the farming community post Brexit it could be just the rallying call required for a vote on Irish unity.

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