Northern Ireland

Mike Nesbitt says Sinn Féin ‘want Northern Ireland to work’ in bid to win border poll

Sinn Fein Party leader Mary Lou McDonald and vice president Michelle O’Neill will attend the talks at Hillsborough Castle (Niall Carson/PA)
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and vice president Michelle O’Neill. PICTURE: NIALL CARSON

Former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has claimed a pending border poll has prompted a shift in Sinn Féin’s assessment of Northern Ireland as a “failed state”.

The Strangford MLA believes republicans who previously portrayed the region as inherently dysfunctional now recognise the need to make the region work to ensure it is an “attractive proposition” for the southern electorate in the event of a referendum on constitutional change.

He contrasts the attitude of the Sinn Féin “pragmatists” with the “damage” he argues the DUP’s boycott of the institutions is doing to the cause of unionism.

Speaking to The Irish News, Mr Nesbitt said there had been a long-standing assumption, especially among unionists, that republicans did not want Northern Ireland to succeed economically or socially because it would undermine arguments for a united Ireland. It has been widely speculated that Sinn Féin will choose the economy ministry in a restored executive, a portfolio held solely by the DUP since devolution was established.

Ulster Unionist Party MLA Mike Nesbitt
former Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt. PICTUER: LIAM MCCBURNEY

“It’s well documented that the Sinn Féin assessment of Northern Ireland has traditionally been that it is a failed ungovernable statelet and that has led unionists, quite naturally, to believe they have no interest in making it work,” he said.

“It suits Sinn Fein’s long term strategic vision to see Northern Ireland fail because the alternative as they see it is constitutional change.”

However, the one-time UTV anchorman said he “sensed things were beginning to change” and he cited a potential referendum on Irish unity, including a concurrent vote in the south under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, as the reason for a shift in republican thinking.

“It’s based on the fact that they sense a border poll is now within reach – I’m not going to be specific about the timing – I think they see it as inevitable now at some point,” he said.

“The first rule of marketing is make what you’re selling easy to buy, so it is not an attractive proposition to ask people voting in Dublin, Galway or Limerick to adopt a failed ungovernable statelet – logic dictates you must therefore make adopting Northern Ireland an attractive proposition.”

Mr Nesbitt surmised that it was Sinn Féin’s aim to ensure the north’s public services were seen as attractive to southerners rather than a potential burden.

“Do you want them to say ‘I’m going to have to pay additional taxes to fix the National Health Service in the north’ or do they say ‘Oh my goodness that health service is brilliant and I’d like it replicated down here at no cost to me?’” he said.

The former UUP leader said the strategical shift by republicans would be the latest example of instances where Sinn Féin has “shown an ability to switch dramatically”. He cited the party’s reversal of its anti-EU policy and an “acceptance of the unionist veto” as past examples of how policy had shifted.

“If it is happening it is not a bad thing because I believe we need to make Northern Ireland work,” he said.

“My constitutional preference is obviously different from Sinn Féin’s but I believe that the pro-union argument is the stronger one, so I don’t feel threatened if this is the new thinking – and if it means that the health service, education system and the other public services are improved for the benefit of all then that is to be welcomed.”

Mr Nesbitt acknowledged this apparent “win-win” situation was paradoxical given both sides would be “pulling in the same direction”.

“Those whose think processes are black and white – or orange and green – can find paradoxes quite challenging,” he said.

He added that he believes the DUP’s near-two year boycott of the devolved institutions is “hurting Northern Ireland”.

“That damage is measured by hospital waiting lists, it’s measured by waiting lists for children getting special educational needs assessment, the state of the roads, etc – all the all the normal measurements that are part of daily political discourse.”

Sinn Féin has been approached for comment.