Sinn Féin accuse DUP of arrogance after Arlene Foster says there will be no border poll in her lifetime
Arlene Foster was last night accused of "running scared" from the debate around a border poll after the DUP leader claimed she does not expect to see a referendum on a united Ireland in her lifetime.
The 46-year-old former first minister dismissed renewed talk of a border poll, which has gained increased currency since the Brexit vote and Sinn Féin's recent resurgence at the polls.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, the secretary of state can call a unity referendum "if at any time it appears likely" that a majority in the north would support leaving the UK.
The agreement does not specify the basis of the secretary of state's decision though it is widely assumed it could be triggered by an election result or census that indicated significant support for Irish unity.
During an interview yesterday morning with BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mrs Foster was asked if she was confident there would not be a border poll in her lifetime.
She replied: "I'm very confident about that.
"One of the difficulties with Brexit is the fact that people are superimposing Brexit on another issue, which of course in Scotland is independence and in Northern Ireland is a united Ireland.
"There are many unionists who voted to remain within the European Union, but if they were asked the question around staying in the United Kingdom or going into a united Ireland, they would very firmly say that they wanted to stay in the United Kingdom, for all of the reasons I have spoken about – it won't happen."
The DUP leader said the forthcoming Westminster elections were an opportunity to "send a very clear message" about the north's place in the UK.
But Sinn Féin's Chris Hazzard said Mrs Foster was "running scared of public opinion on an Irish unity referendum".
He claimed her remarks again highlighted the DUP’s "arrogance and contempt for the democratic process".
The South Down Westminster candidate and MLA said a recent opinion poll by Lucid Talk showed that a majority of people in the north were in favour of holding a referendum on Irish unity.
"The Tory government’s attempt to drag us out of the EU against the democratic wishes of the majority of people in the north has put the debate on Irish unity front and centre in the political agenda," he said.
"The Good Friday Agreement contains provision for a referendum on Irish unity and that cannot be swept aside by Arlene Foster or anyone else."
Mr Hazzard said it was not in the DUP’s gift to determine when a border poll happened.
"Her comments are another example of the arrogance of the DUP," he said.
"Sinn Féin has called for a referendum on unity to be held within the next five years and we are building support for that."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood told The Irish News that the comments were "based on wishful thinking rather than any political foresight".
He said the Brexit vote had transformed the constitutional landscape in Ireland and Britain and that a recent acknowledgement that the north could automatically rejoin the EU in the event of Irish reunification had created an "unprecedented" opportunity.
"The job of Irish nationalism now is to put in the hard yards to make sure we win a border poll. We have to persuade our friends and neighbours that their interests are best served in a united Ireland," he said.
"A unity referendum is no longer the preserve of Irish nationalism alone, it also belongs to European internationalism – a unity referendum is our opportunity to unite this island within the European Union."
Last month, European agreed measures that would enable the north to automatically rejoin the EU in the event of a united Ireland.
In April, British Brexit Secretary David Davis gave a similar undertaking.